To return to playoffs, Dallas Stars must survive Blackhawks, schedule

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars. Blackhawks-Stars stream coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After pushing the Lightning to Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, many wondered if the Stars would be contenders once again in 2020-21. Heading into an important two-game set against the Blackhawks, the question instead revolves around whether or not the Stars can even make the playoffs.

More strange things can happen during this odd 2020-21 NHL season. Possibly more than any other NHL team, the Stars realize how much COVID-19 can disrupt things.

As it stands, the two biggest opponents the Dallas Stars face in returning to the playoffs are 1) these Blackhawks and 2) their brutal schedule.

Fourth Central playoff spot likely to come down to Blackhawks or Stars

Again, things can change, as even the least-disrupted teams haven’t played half of their 56 games this season. Considering their histories, some might expect the Panthers to fall out of the Central’s top three, or even four. And it’s foolish to ever totally count out John Tortorella and the scrappy Blue Jackets.

(The Predators aren’t that far removed from having much higher expectations, either.)

Playing the percentages, though, just about every projection model puts the Stars and Blackhawks in a dead heat for the final Central Division playoff spot.

Squinting at the standings won’t make this easy to see, mind you, but the Stars hope to catch the Blackhawks and others by cashing in their games-in-hand.

[COVERAGE OF BLACKHAWKS-STARS BEGINS AT 8:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Central Division standings

1. Lightning: 17-4-2, 36 points in 23 games played (17 ROW)
2. Hurricanes: 17-6-1, 35 P in 24 GP (13 ROW)
3. Panthers: 15-5-4, 34 P in 24 GP (14 ROW)
4. Blackhawks: 13-8-5, 31 P in 26 GP (11 ROW)


5. Blue Jackets: 10-11-5, 25 P in 26 GP (9 ROW)
6. Predators: 11-14-0, 22 P in 25 GP (9 ROW)
7. Stars: 7-8-5, 19 P in 20 GP (7 ROW)
8. Red Wings: 7-16-3, 17 P in 26 GP (7 ROW)

As you can see, the Blackhawks hold a standings point (31) advantage of 12 over the Stars (19). Remarkably, that’s the maximum number of points the Stars can generate in their six games in hand.

If a race for a playoff spot truly comes down to Stars or Blackhawks, then their head-to-head games naturally carry incredible importance.

Take a look at the Blackhawks’ and Stars’ head-to-head schedule, including two overtime Chicago wins to start things off.

Feb. 7: 2-1 OT Chicago win
Feb. 9: 2-1 OT Chicago win


March 9: at Dallas
March 11: at Dallas

April 6: at Chicago
April 8: at Chicago

May 9: at Chicago
May 10: at Chicago

Rest won’t be an ally for Dallas

Really, it’s tough to blame the Stars and their fans for dreaming of the best-case scenario. Ideally, the Stars take advantage of those games in hand against the Blackhawks, and others in the running for Central Division playoff spots.

But actually pulling that off doesn’t just entail outplaying the Blackhawks. It also means surviving an absolutely brutal schedule.

For the rest of this season, Dallas has one night off — or less — between games. Things look bad even if you just look at their back-to-back sets:

March 13, 14: at Blue Jackets
March 20, 21: at Red Wings, vs. Predators
March 27, 28: two home games vs. Panthers
April 3, 4: two road games at Hurricanes
April 10, 11: home vs. Panthers, at Predators
April 19, 20: two home games vs. Red Wings
April 26, 27: two home games vs. Hurricanes
May 9, 10: two road games at Blackhawks

Sheesh.

[Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

Earlier this month, The Athletic’s Saad Yousuf spoke with medical professionals about the Stars schedule (sub. required). The overriding message? “That’s excessive.”

“Even the best athletes in the world need rest and recovery”” Dr. Brian Schulz, a team physician for the Ducks, said. “There’s not a lot of time for that when you’re playing pretty much every other day.”

Tough schedule for everyone, especially veterans and workhorses

Such a schedule won’t be kind to any member of the Stars, even prime-age players like Miro Heiskanen (21 years old) and Roope Hintz (24). But it’s especially troubling for their veteran players.

So far this season, 36-year-old forward Joe Pavelski‘s been a fantastic story. He comfortably leads the Stars in scoring with 23 points in 20 games.

During this stretch, the Stars might be playing with fire if they’re asking Pavelski to keep up his average of 20 minutes per night.

Frankly, even Heiskanen might get burnt out at this pace, considering his 24:11 TOI average.

There are even some potential road bumps stemming from possibly getting Tyler Seguin (29) and/or Ben Bishop (34) back in late March or early April. Bishop’s rough playoff return provides painful evidence of how much a goalie can get exposed if they’re rusty and maybe rushing back from an injury. The pace to this Stars schedule doesn’t exactly allow much cushion for players to round back into shape.

At least Stars coach Rick Bowness is saying all the right things about trying to manage needing to win vs. not wanting to overextend players.

“You can’t be throwing it all out there like, ‘OK, we got to win this no matter what,’ because that’ll come back to bite you the next game or a couple of games down the road,” Bowness said.

Granted, Bowness also strangely refused to play Anton Khudobin in the Stars’ last back-to-back set, instead leaning on Jake Oettinger in both games. If the Stars are going to survive — if not thrive — during this tough schedule, that might mean putting petty squabbles like whatever’s going on between Khudobin and Bowness aside.

Ultimately, they’re going to need to stick together — and maybe enjoy some good luck — to make up all of this ground. Of course, getting the better of the Blackhawks would also be huge for the Stars’ playoff hopes, too.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.