The Dallas Stars went to Chicago thinking positive thoughts about keeping alive their faint postseason hopes.
Instead, the challenge is to keep their focus on their final two games, set for Sunday and Monday against the Blackhawks, knowing those hopes are gone.
The Stars had staved off playoff elimination in the Central Division on Friday night with a strong 5-2 win over Tampa Bay to pull within two points of the fourth-place Nashville Predators.
However, the Predators’ 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday locked up the fourth-place berth in the Central. Nashville has a four-point lead on Dallas and holds the tiebreaker by virtue of more regulation wins, so even wins in their last two games can’t get the Stars (22-18-14, 58 points) into the postseason.
Dallas coach Rick Bowness’ group has not played its best hockey down the stretch but delivered Friday when it won for the first time in six games (1-3-2), starting with a 5-1 home loss against Carolina on April 27.
“It’s been difficult all the way through,” Bowness said recently of staying alive for a postseason push. “We keep preaching that if we battle hard, we give ourselves a chance to win every night. … We’re very positive here and we’re going to keep pushing the positive.”
Dallas’ win on Friday served as a bounce-back game for veteran Joe Pavelski, whom Bowness criticized for taking a bad penalty in overtime in a 5-4 loss to Florida on May 3.
Pavelski tallied twice in Tampa — once on a breakaway after leaving the penalty box and another from the doorstep.
A seventh-round draft pick in 2003, the 36-year-old Wisconsin native notched his third four-point match of the season and produced a plus-5 performance against the Lightning.
“Obviously, we had to be desperate tonight,” said Pavelski, who took a puck to the left ear in the first period and needed nine stitches of repair. “We did a lot of good things.”
The Stars are 2-2-2 against the Blackhawks (23-25-6, 52 points) this season.
In a season that started with turmoil with the eventual season-long absence of captain Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks will end 2021 in sixth place, but the club is coming off the momentum of Thursday’s 2-1 overtime win over the Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C.
Despite the absence of its captain, goaltending that ranks in the lower half of the league, a host of injuries and a ton of youth, Chicago can find some solace in the reemergence of right winger Alex DeBrincat.
After two outstanding seasons of 28 and 41 goals to start his NHL career, the 5-foot-7 DeBrincat slipped to 18 goals and 27 assists last season, ending the pandemic-interrupted campaign with a minus-10 showing.
However, DeBrincat, 23, has produced 23 assists and a team-best 29 markers in 50 games this season, including a wrister from the slot to beat the Hurricanes in overtime.
“He’s had a great year,” said Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton, whose squad is 4-2-0 against Dallas. “He’s already got a lot of experience and had a lot of success. His game continues to evolve. That’s a big positive for us when we look at how we’re going to get back to being a top team.”
Forward Brett Connolly and defenseman Duncan Keith are out with concussions and likely won’t play against Dallas.
Chicago announced this week that budding center Kirby Dach will miss the remainder of the season after having post-operative discomfort following Dec. 28’s surgery on his fractured right wrist.
–Field Level Media