The Western race continues: Blackhawks vs Dallas showdown in Big D

The Chicago Blackhawks rode a winning streak into Florida last week, where they started out their first game against the Panthers the way that has been bemoaned all year: inconsistent and sloppy. The Panthers grabbed a 3-0 lead coming out of the first, and while the Blackhawks came back out for the final 40 and absolutely dominated the rest of the game, Tomas Vokoun was on his game, and won that one for his team, 3-2.

Against the Lightning the following evening, the Hawks brought more game to Tampa Bay than they'd brought to Sunrise. They showed a lot more energy and the game was exciting against a fast-paced EC team that likes to play a style similar to Chicago's - fast, puck-possessing, plenty of passing. Martin St. Louis may be underappreciated as a player, overshadowed by his linemate, Steven Stamkos, but he was tops in this game with 1 goal, 1 assist, and the game-winning (and only SO) goal scored via spinorama in the shootout.

From there, it was up to Washington for the game of the week versus the Capitals - an exciting and well-matched game won by the Caps in OT.

Last night, after the Canucks clinched both their division and a playoff berth, the analysts on NHL pointed to the December 3rd Canucks vs Blackhawks game as the turning point for Vancouver, stating it was the game that the team "exorcised their demons" against the team that's knocked them out of the playoffs for the past two years. The teams went 2-2 this season, including the November game where Chicago routed Vancouver at home 7-1, and an early-season Chicago win via shootout at home. The Canucks won the December game despite being outshot 32-18, and being limited to only 5 SOG in both the second and third periods.

It's likely that Monday's game against the Sharks was the turning point for Chicago. Goalie Antti Niemi has played against them this year the same way he played for them last year: stoning them with 3 losses in their first 3 games. Coming off that 3-game losing streak, but at least 2 points to show for it, the Blackhawks beat San Jose on Monday 6-3 in one of their best games this year, routing Niemi from the goal just 7:25 into the second period after lightning him up with 3 goals in 4:11, and winning the game 6-3.

Analysts are looking at tonight as a pivotal game for both Chicago and Dallas. The teams are separated by just 2 points in the standings; if Chicago lost, the teams would be equal for records (38-25-8) as both fight to keep a position in the top 8 of the hotly contested Western Conference.

The Stars lead the series so far, 2-1, but in their most recent matchup, February 11th in Dallas, it was a very tight game, won 4-3 in the shootout. Dallas also took out three Blackhawks players in the course of the game - Fernando Pisani (concussion), Viktor Stalberg (shoulder), and Ryan Johnson (concussion). Yet despite being down an entire line worth of players, the Blackhawks hung in and came away with a point. Expect tonight's game to be gritty and physical.

Here's the important part from the Blackhawks' standpoint: their top players have been on a roll since the All-Star Game. Even when they haven't won the games, the top line of Toews-Kane-Sharp is consistently producing, and Marian Hossa - at full health and apparently back to form - earning 15 points in 11 games. The Hawks might have left a lot of points on the table early in the season, but it's the core players who are really making this team hot right now.