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Stars score early and often, close in on first-place Blackhawks

Joel Quenneville stuck around a little longer in his postgame press conference on Thursday night after the Blackhawks faceplanted in a 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars. But he wasn’t much happier. And this time, he had only his players to blame for a loss.

“That was a statement loss,” Quenneville said. “It was a terrible, brutal, brutal first period. … It was like we had Ringette sticks tonight — no blade on our sticks.”

The Hawks were a week removed from a statement victory in Dallas, a 5-1 shellacking that appeared to put the Stars back in their place as a contender to the Hawks’ throne. Stars coach Lindy Ruff said his team was “embarrassed” by that effort and wanted to do something about it. They did, chasing Corey Crawford with a four-goal first period — including a hat trick by low-scoring Patrick Eaves — to move within one point of the first-place Hawks, who have opened their four-game road trip with two straight demoralizing losses. Dallas has three games in hand, too.

“We expected that they were going to come out hard, given the fact that they had a rough game and didn’t play their best against us, last time we were in their building,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “I guess we just weren’t prepared to respond to that.”

The Hawks outshot the Stars 21-2 in the third period, getting goals by Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane to end the team’s scoreless streak at more than 123 minutes and at least make a game of it. But Dallas finished off a huge penalty kill midway through the third, then finished off the victory.

It’s no coincidence that the Hawks have looked punchless without Artemi Panarin, who missed his second straight game with an illness. His absence has a ripple effect throughout the lineup, with Richard Panik — one of the few Hawks who showed any sign of life in the first two periods — getting a turn on the usually prolific second line. Quenneville put Kane on Toews’ line in the third, but it was too little, too late.

“I think anytime you’re missing one of your top players, it’s going to have an effect on everyone,” Kane said. “Hopefully, he gets better soon.”

The lifeless effort dampened an otherwise upbeat atmosphere, as Patrick Sharp made his return to the United Center. Sharp had been back already, but it was a preseason game, and, honestly, nobody cares about preseason games. He had faced his old teammates twice already during the regular season, but that was in Dallas, surrounded by friendly green-clad fans and somebody else’s banners, so it wasn’t quite the same. This was different. This was the big one. And it was his 800th career game, no less.

During the morning skate, Sharp couldn’t help but look up at the rafters, where that 2015 Stanley Cup champions banner hung. It was the first time he’d seen it. Well, the first time he’d seen it in person.

“Yeah, I saw it,” Sharp said. “I watched that whole ceremony the first game of the season. Got me pretty pumped up to play; wish I was part of it. But you look up at the banners and it’s something to be proud of, and I certainly am of my time here in Chicago.”

Sharp said it’ll always be a little weird to come back to Chicago, where he spent the bulk of his career, where he won three championships, where he became an all-time fan favorite. And when he got a lengthy video tribute — set to Pearl Jam, of course — he was visibly struggling to hold his emotions in check, letting out a lengthy sigh and waving his right hand to the standing fans, a bittersweet half-smile on his face.

“I have a lot of good memories, a lot of good feelings,” he said before the game. “Looking forward to playing the game.”

Ah, yes, the game — two big points at stake between the top two teams in the Western Conference. Dallas. The Stars showed up for it. The Hawks arrived far too late.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus