Seventy games into the season and there is still no favorite for the Central Division.
The Dallas Stars and the St. Louis Blues share the lead in the division at 91 points with identical records (41-20-9), while the Chicago Blackhawks follow closely with 88 points (41-22-6, through 69 games). Luckily for the hockey-fandom, the top three teams in the Western Conference squared-up throughout the week.
On Wednesday, the St. Louis Blues hosted the Chicago Blackhawks in a highly energized, postseason-atmosphere that needed extra time (the five minutes of 3-on-3 and six rounds of shoutout) for St. Louis to hold off Chicago. That highly entertaining game kicks-off the Central Division madness for the week.
First there was Chicago…
The Stars hosted the Blackhawks for the final time this season (one game left in Chicago) on Friday. The Stars’ leading scorer of late, Jason Spezza, lit the lamp in the first period on the power-play on a wrist shot from the point that Blackhawks’ goaltender Corey Crawford never saw. That was only scoring action in the first. The second period was much different. First, Antoine Roussel beat Crawford in-tight just over a minute into the period. About four minutes later, Tyler Seguin scored to bust out of the marginal slump he was in. Five minutes later, Jamie Benn scored on the power-play to bust his own slump. You check-in halfway through the period and the Stars have a 4-0 lead and Chicago is playing with a different goaltender (Scott Darling finished the remainder of the game after Crawford was benched in the second period). The Blackhawks worked to get back in it but never closed the gap, 5-2 was the final.
Just like that, the Blackhawks lost two crucial Central Division games and fell to third in the division and conference.
Then there was St. Louis…
A quick turnaround for the Stars as they hosted the Blues a day later on Saturday. This was the final regular season matchup between them and both teams played accordingly. The Blues took two early leads (1-0 and 2-1) that the Stars quickly countered. Midway through the second, the Blues widened their lead, 4-2, to give them a relatively comfortable lead heading into the third period. Jason Spezza’s goal (28) early in the period gave the Stars a spark that shifted the momentum back to the home team. Blues’ goaltender, Jake Allen, was making superb saves to keep their one goal lead in place. Finally, the Stars broke through Allen and the Blues on a deflection-goal on the power-play by Jamie Benn making it the third time, second consecutive, that the Stars-Blues needed extra time.
In overtime, Blues’ defenseman, Alex Pietrangelo, shot a quick wrist shot that Stars’ goaltender Antti Niemi got a piece of but could not completely stop. Therefore giving the Blues the extra point in the 5-4 win and the tie for first in the conference/division.
The Stars did well to pick up three out of four points against their divisional rivals. The team’s defense is still running thin with Jason Demers being the latest injured (shoulder injury in the 4-3 loss against the Canadiens on Tuesday) and John Klingberg, Jordie Benn and forward Patrick Sharp still out with their injuries from last week. Meanwhile, young prospects from Texas Stars (AHL) like Brett Ritchie, Radek Faksa and Stephen Johns are filling in and are contributing productive ice-time.
The Stars finish up the homes-stand with three more at the AAC before hitting the road for three straight.
Upcoming Weekly Schedule – All Times Central
3/15 vs Los Angeles 7:30 pm
3/17 vs Tampa Bay 7:30 pm
3/19 vs New York 7:00 pm