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Among The Contenders: Blackhawks Visit Dallas

I wish there was more time to celebrate these wins. After handing the San Jose Sharks their jock straps and a bus ticket on Monday night, it would have been great to sit back and savor the moment a little longer than just two days. But alas, there’s business to attend to, and tonight that business is in Dallas.

The Western Conference standings are still as tight as a Catholic school cheerleader: only 8 points separate the 4th-place LA Kings and the 11th-place Minnesota Wild, with give-or-take 12 games to go. Mashed in among the contenders somewhere in the middle are the Blackhawks and the Stars in 6th and 7th, two points apart. A win for Dallas puts them in a tie for 6th with the Hawks; a win for Chicago would put them in sole possession of 4th place again — except both Los Angeles and Phoenix have cake-walk games against Edmonton and St. Louis respectively. So we’ll keep pace, but little else.

This is a four-point, must-win game for both clubs, and you can bet it’s going to be full-blast from the opening face-off. Expect a high-speed, hard-hitting, stretch-passing whirlwind of a game.

This is a bit of a grudge match for the Blackhawks as well. Last time we visited Big D we jumped out to a 3-goal lead by the end of the 1st period, only to stand around contemplating the symbolism in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for the final two periods and lose 4 – 3 in a shootout. Credit Marty Turco with the OTL, though his defense admittedly hung his ass out to dry for 40 minutes, and the Stars had his number when it came time for the pissing contest at the end.

Dallas is fresh off a loss to those same San Jose Sharks, who took their frustration out on the Stars on Tuesday after losing to the Blackhawks on Monday. Dallas is 4-2-2 in their last 8, and were on the unpleasant end of another in what seems like an endless string of head-shot concussion controversies. Troublemaker forward Steve Ott was elbowed in the face by the subsequently-suspended Dany Heatley. The upshot to all of the requisite hue and cry is that Ott will be in the lineup tonight. From the video review it appeared that Ott was terribly shaken by the incident when it happened. Well, that little faker…

But forward Loui Eriksson is a question mark, having received a less-publicized but apparently more punishing hit in the same game. They are using they same kind of language they usually use when they do not want to say ‘concussion,’ so that’s likely the problem. Eriksson is the second-leading scorer on the Stars, so that’s a much bigger loss. To help fill the hole Dallas has recalled Brandon Segal from the minors. The other notable absence from the Stars’ lineup is former Blackhawk Adam Burish, who is out with a broken foot. Big chicken always seems to get injured right before the Chicago games. Hmm…

It is a depleted squad on the Blackhawks side as well, as we are still without the services of defenseman Brian Campbell (foot/ankle) and Dave Bolland (Capgras Delusion). During the San Jose game newcomer Michael Frolik was moved to the pivot between Marian Hossa and Troy Brouwer to cover Bolly’s spot; and newer newcomer Chris Campoli is assuming Campbell’s role nicely on both special teams. Lovable pylon John Scott saw his playing time skyrocket to 7:44 as blue line back-fill.

Much ado has been made about Corey Crawford’s minutes, as our own Jeff Bartl demonstrated that Crow’s performance is not just down, it’s down substantially. In what appeared to be something of a direct response, ESPN analyst/reporter Jesse Rogers published a blog/interview saying, in essence, “Not to worry.”

Well, we are worrying, and there is reason to worry. Crawford’s numbers in his last 5 games are below middle-of-the-pack for NHL goaltending. That is no way to head into a crucial playoff run. The lad needs a break: whether he thinks so or not, whether history shows he can handle it or not, whether the coaching staff thinks so or not. Bartl is right, end of discussion.

Make no mistake, every one of the 4th through 8th slots in the conference will be decided on the last weekend of the regular season. We don’t want to be the ones saying, “We told you so” when we have to pull Crawford 5 minutes into the first period in the last game against Detroit, and that loss drops us out of playoff contention. That will kill the kid’s confidence, and will put him in the position of being the scapegoat for players, fans and media as the Blackhawks clean out their lockers in early April.

The time to rest him is now. Right now. Before things get ugly, before the home-and-home series against Detroit. Because at that point, an off-night can mean the end of the season.

That having been said, Corey Crawford will start in goal for the Blackhawks tonight.

7:30pm puck drop in Dallas this evening. Comcast SportsNet has the TV coverage; broadcast radio is WGN AM-720 as usual; and XM subscribers can find the game on channel 237.

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