October 07, 2014

An already dramatic Central Division race is about to get a little more exciting.

Sole possession of first place will be on the line when the Dallas Stars host the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night, though the winner may not be able to stake that claim for long.

A mere one point separates the Western Conference's top three teams entering this marquee matchup, with charging St. Louis gaining ground following Wednesday's 3-2 shootout win over the Blackhawks. The Stars will host the Blues on Saturday night.

Both Chicago (41-21-6) and Dallas (40-20-8) have allowed the Blues to close the gap with uneven recent results. The Blackhawks are 3-3-1 over a seven-game stretch while the Stars were dealt an eighth loss in 11 with Tuesday's 4-3 overtime defeat at struggling Montreal.

"Tough game on the road and I think it is good to get a point, but we've got to find a way to win that game," center Jason Spezza told the Stars' official website. "Whether it is in overtime or the couple chances we had in the third, that is a game we should be winning."

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, couldn't protect a 1-0 lead after two periods against St. Louis, though they still managed to earn an important point when Artemi Panarin tied it with 1:17 left and goaltender Corey Crawford pulled for an extra skater.

''We're disappointed we gave up the lead,'' coach Joel Quenneville said. ''And then you score with the goalie out you've got to be pretty happy on the road."

The Blues scored both their late goals on the power play, further exposing Chicago's primary recent weakness. The Blackhawks have killed just 61.1 percent of short-handed chances in 12 games since Feb. 9, the NHL's lowest mark over that span.

A defensive decline can also explain Dallas' drop-off, as it's surrendered a league-high 40 goals over 10 contests since Feb. 18. Already without defensemen John Klingberg and Jordie Benn due to lower-body injuries, the Stars had their backline further thinned when Jason Demers suffered a potentially long-term shoulder injury Tuesday.

Dallas also is dealing with slumps from its top two forwards. Tyler Seguin is a minus-seven over a season-high five-game streak without a point and Jamie Benn hasn't scored in a season-high seven straight.

Spezza has been producing of late, recording a goal in four straight and tallying seven in his last eight, and the Stars may have ex-Blackhawk Patrick Sharp (lower body) back from a three-game absence.

Chicago's Marian Hossa, sidelined nine games with a lower leg injury, also may play after returning to practice on Tuesday.

Crawford has allowed two goals or less in five consecutive starts and had 36 saves in a 5-1 win at Dallas on Feb. 6. He was removed after one period in a 4-2 home loss to the Stars five days later, though, with Patrick Eaves registering a hat trick during a four-goal opening frame.

The Stars won the teams' initial 2015-16 meeting 4-0 behind Antti Niemi's 20 saves. The former Blackhawk hasn't played since March 1, however, and has a 4.68 goals-against average over his last five starts.

Kari Lehtonen has worked Dallas' last three games, stopping 41 of 44 shots in wins over New Jersey and Ottawa prior to Tuesday's 24-save effort. He had a season-high 44 saves in the Feb. 11 win in Chicago.

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