The Chicago Blackhawks are hot right now, but back-to-back games against the Dallas Stars pose a challenge
I’m not one for statement games in hockey. It’s possible to make a statement in any game, so that idea generally rings hollow to me. However, the Chicago Blackhawks do have a chance to prove something to themselves and their opponents this weekend.
The Blackhawks will take on the Dallas Stars in a home-and-home tonight and Sunday. While the Stars aren’t off to the hottest of starts at 4-4-2, they’re coming off a 6-2 thumping of the St. Louis Blues on Thursday.
You might remember the Stars as the team that led the Western Conference in points last season (109) and led the league in goals scored (267). You might also remember the Stars as a team that, more often than not, buried the Blackhawks last season.
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Despite Dallas holding a pretty mediocre goaltending tandem, the Stars continually found ways to upend Chicago in the 2015-16 season. A 4-0 whitewashing in late December was followed by a 5-1 Chicago win in early February. But the Stars reeled off 4-2, 5-2 and 6-2 wins to close the season series.
Two seasons are never the same
Now, let’s not mistake last season for this season. Just because the Blackhawks had trouble with the Stars last season doesn’t mean they will again this year. Chicago ousted Minnesota in three consecutive postseason before getting decked by the Wild last regular season. Hockey’s a very fickle game.
The Stars still have their goaltending issues with Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen splitting time in the crease. But the team appeared to upgrade in the offseason otherwise, adding the likes of Jiri Hudler and Dan Hamhuis to the mix.
That hasn’t led to consistent winning early for Dallas, though. Not like there’s any reason to panic through 10 games, but it’s not what the Stars were expecting early.
So why do I describe this back-to-back as a proving ground for the Blackhawks when the Stars aren’t currently in the often-dominant form they showed last season?
Dallas’ strengths are still apparent
While we can talk for hours about how Dallas’ goaltending situation is going to hold it back from any serious success, there are some really strong pieces in other places. And they play exactly into the areas that tripped Chicago up last season.
A speedy corps of forwards. A group of defensemen who had no problem jumping up on the play. Multiple lines that could produce points. These are issues the 2015-16 Blackhawks struggled mightily with, and it’s part of the reason why Dallas continually thumped Chicago.
The Blackhawks seem early on this season to have found answers to those last-season woes, though. But the team really hasn’t had a major test to prove that yet. All the young guys were just settling in, and many of the veterans were coming off a World Cup of Hockey appearance, when the Blackhawks were quickly faced with tests from St. Louis and Nashville (twice) to start the year.
Things are more stable now, as evidenced by four consecutive wins and the Blackhawks sitting in a tie for the Western Conference lead. And that’s why this matchup with Dallas is a proving ground.
If the Blackhawks really have made the moves to push them back toward the top of the NHL heap, games against teams like Dallas will help confirm that. Of course, teams look far different in November than they do in April and beyond, but if the Blackhawks are able to turn in back-to-back strong performances against the Stars, it would be a huge boost of confidence for a team that got pantsed by the up-and-coming southerners last season.
These are far from the two most important games of the regular season, but they will give us a good idea of where the Blackhawks really stand in a slow-starting Central Division early on.