Bill Meltzer: Stars Gameday: 10/9/14 vs. CHI

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In a season that begins with heightened expectations following a playoff appearance and several notable offseason additions, the Dallas Stars will drop the puck on the 2014-15 campaign on Thursday night. The powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks will provide the opposition.

Game time at the American Airlines Center in Dallas is 7:30 p.m. CDT. The game will be televised locally on Fox Sports Southwest.

This is the first of five meetings between the Central Division clubs. The Stars and Blackhawks will meet again in Chicago on Nov. 16, Jan. 5 and Jan. 18. The season series will conclude with a match in Dallas on March 21. Last season, the Stars went 1-3-1 in their season series with Chicago.

This year, many pundits are predicting the Stars not only to make the Western Conference playoffs but possibly to win a round or two come next spring. In order to do that, the club will need to shore up what is still a somewhat suspect team defense. Offensively, the club is loaded. The Stars also boast one of the NHL’s most underrated starting goaltenders in Kari Lehtonen.

In the offseason, the Stars made a big splash on July 1 when they traded with Ottawa for veteran center Jason Spezza and signed former Edmonton and Ottawa winger Ales Hemsky. Coupled with a dynamic top line anchored by team captain Jamie Benn and burgeoning scoring star Tyler Seguin, Dallas may have one the best top-six rotations in the NHL. Additionally, the team is very strong down the middle as it is now able to slot Cody Eakin in his more natural third-line role.

At Wednesday’s practice in Frisco, second-year right winger Valeri Nichushkin returned to the top line with Benn and Seguin. Nichushkin was slowed in the preseason by a lower-body injury and then suffered a bout with the flu. He has practiced each of the last three days. While still not up to full speed, the Russian forward has reportedly shown signs of regaining his form.

Apart from the Spezza and Hemsky acquisitions, the Stars upgraded some of the supporting cast. The club also signed veteran forward Patrick Eaves and backup goaltender Anders Lindbäck. Dallas subsquently re-signed veteran checking forward Vernon Fiddler.

During the preseason, the Stars were without then-unsigned restricted free agents Eakin and Brenden Dillon. Both were eventually signed, although Dillon was not able to appear in the preseason.

Dillon has been an emerging young leader on the Stars’ blueline as a shutdown defenseman and the most physical player on the defense corps. While there is plenty of mobility on the Dallas blueline (Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski especially), the unit remains somewhat undersized on the whole and lacks physicality. This could change in the relatively near future as young players such as Patrik Nemeth (a younger, healthier clone of former Stars defenseman Nicklas Grossmann) and former first-round pick Jamie Oleksiak gain NHL experience.

On the Dallas injury front, veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar (ankle) is out to start the season. Veteran center Rich Peverley (heart condition) was placed on the injured non-roster list.

For Chicago, every recent season has been one marked by high expectations. Stanley Cup champions in 2009-10 and the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the Blackhawks remain a strong contender for the championship entering this season.

Last season, the Blackhawks lost to eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in seven thrilling games in the Western Conference Finals. Many consider the series to be one of the best the NHL has seen in the modern era.

Chicago’s star-studded lineup remains stacked from top to bottom, despite salary cap issues that recently forced the team to trade young offensive-minded defenseman Nick Leddy to the New York Islanders. Led by the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Chicago can roll over any team that is not prepared to play a high-tempo and virtually mistake-free game.

During the offseason, former Stars top line center Brad Richards signed with Chicago as a free agent after being bought out of his contract by the New York Rangers (for whom he left Dallas). Richards is no longer a first-line caliber player but he doesn’t have to be in Chicago. He will slot in as the Hawks’ third line center. Richards did not practice on Wednesday in order to be with his wife for the birth of a baby son.

On the Chicago injury front, veteran forward Kris Versteeg (lower body) and defenseman Michal Rozsival (upper body) are unavailable for the opener.

PROJECTED LINEUPS (subject to change)

STARS

14 Jamie Benn – 91 Tyler Seguin – 43 Valeri Nichushkin

18 Patrick Eaves – 90 Jason Spezza – 83 Ales Hemsky

21 Antoine Roussel – 20 Cody Eakin – 16 Ryan Garbutt

10 Shawn Horcoff – 38 Vernon Fiddler – 22 Colton Sceviour or 72 Erik Cole

33 Alex Goligoski – 6 Trevor Daley

4 Brenden Dillon – 24 Jordie Benn

37 Patrik Nemeth – 23 Kevin Connauton

32 Kari Lehtonen

[29 Anders Lindbäck]

Scratches: Sergei Gonchar (ankle), Erik Cole or Colton Sceviour (healthy), Jamie Oleksiak (healthy).

BLACKHAWKS

10 Patrick Sharp – 19 Jonathan Toews – 81 Marian Hossa

20 Brandon Saad – 65 Andres Shaw – 88 Patrick Kane

29 Bryan Bickell – 91 Brad Richards – 28 Ben Smith

13 Dan Carcillo – 18 Marcus Kruger – 11 Jeremy Morin

2 Duncan Keith – 7 Brent Seabrook

4 Niklas Hjalmarsson – 57 Trevor van Riemsdyk

5 David Rundblad – 27 Johnny Oduya

50 Corey Crawford

[31 Antti Raanta]

Scratches: Kris Versteeg (lower body), Michal Rozsival (upper body), Kyle Cumiskey (upper body), Brandon Mashinter (IR, lower body).

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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