Game Time: 7:00PM
TV/Radio: CSN, WGN-AM 720
This Love: Defending Big D
What six months ago looked to be just another game along the home stretch of the schedule between the Stars and Hawks figures tonight to be anything but. The Stars are fighting for their playoff lives in the newly configured Western Conference, while thousands of sweaty adult men clad in red anxiously await their first glimpse of a taut, 19-year old Scandanavian boy in a Hawks uniform.
The Stars come into tonight a point back of Phoenix for second wild card (aka the eighth spot) in the West with a game in hand after Dallas won vs. Winnipeg last night and Phoenix was dropped at MSG by the Blueshirts, with goalie Mike Smith needing to be carried off the ice with a presumed catastrophic injury. Of course news today is that Smith only has a strain and will miss a couple weeks, which figures. But even in that window the Stars have an opportunity to gain some ground starting tonight.
Lindy Ruff has predictably turned this outfit into mid-aughts Sabres redux, with arguably better top end talent in Tyler Seguin and Olympian Jamie Benn than he ever had there. Both are 1-2 in every Stars scoring category, with Party Boy Tyler pacing things at 32 goals and 42 assists, with Benn not far off at 30 and 39 himself. But they’re getting contributions from up and down the lineup as well, with the Ginger Ninja ably filling in the second center role with his face-first brand of hockey, Erik Cole has proven to not be totally useless and deteriorated at his age, and rookie Valeri Nichushkin contributing while growing into his massive frame. And in the bottom six, Ryan Garbutt, Antoine Roussel, and Vern Fiddler more than meet the irritant quota. The Stars are currently 11th with a 50.8% Corsi share, and per 60 minutes put 30 shots on goal at even strength. The problem is they’ve been giving up 29.
That’s not to say there aren’t some fine components on the Stars’ blue line. Brenden Dillon looks to be a solid second pairing guy for years to come, and Alex Goligoski has seemingly rediscovered his offensive instincts, even if he’ll never be worth giving up James Neal for. The Stars are also high on Kevin Connauton’s offensive potential, as well as the gigantic Jamie Oleksiak, who has seen but a cup of coffee to this point. And Trevor Daley is still doing whatever Trevor Daley does.
This leaves a lot of the responsibility to Kari Lehtonen, who has been reliably solid when he’s upright, which has always been the caveat. Lehtonen played last night against Winnipeg holding the Jets to one goal, and last week returned from a concussion, so it’s iffy on whether it will be him tonight or the recently acquired Tim Thomas. With points at a premium, Tea Party Timmy’s .884 since joining the Stars has been, well, less than stellar. With no official word due to a lack of a morning skate for the Stars, the safer bet would be Lehtonen.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, it’s time for The Plan All Along v2.0. Though to be fair to the Hawks’ braintrust, a lot more of the groundwork for Timbo Tigersharken has been laid than ever was for Marcus Kruger’s hasty placement in the lineup. Joel Quenneville has been effusive in his praise of Baby Finnish Jesus dating all the way back to camp in August and September, and that his clearance to come to Chicago was announced a good 15 minutes before Kane’s injury shows that they were planning on having him come here even if Kane were healthy. Regardless of circumstances, he’s here now, and he’ll get a chance to help.
By the looks of things from practice, he’ll do so between Ben Smith and Brandon Saad, which while not the worst situation for him to be in, it’s not the best. Smith and Saad are ravenous forecheckers, which takes some of the onus of that off of the light in the ass Tango Tempurpedic. But that can lead to plenty of running around and some crossed up defensive assignments, which is why between Hossa and Sharp might have been a little bit of a softer landing for kid. But this is Joel Quenneville after all, so all of this might get thrown into a woodchipper two shifts in anyway. The only hope is that he gets a look on the second power play unit running the half wall, and relieving Kris Versteeg of whatever it was he was doing there.
On the back end Michal Rozsival remains out, so Sheldon Brookbank will once again be out there to get beaten to a spot by a forechecker and needlessly fight someone on the other side. Corey Crawford, who probably wants that Gabriel Bourque shot back from the other night, predictably gets the cage.
These are two teams still with plenty left to play for, and actual Frenchman Antoine Roussel did his best to try to make this an actual rivalry the last time the Stars were here with a fantastic heel turn after scoring the deciding goal in a game the Hawks snowed the Stars in otherwise (sound familiar?). Lindy Ruff will have his charges trade chances with the best of them, regardless of circumstance, so there will be plenty of ice to maneuver through. Those conditions are likely why tonight was chosen to unveil Trumbo Togalinen as opposed to the rigid Predators, and hopefully he’ll make the most of that space. Let’s go Hawks.
If you’re not going to tonight’s game, you can pick up the PDF of our gamenight program right here. And if you are going, buy a hard copy. We’re at the four corners of the UC.