Photo: Getty Images

The bad news for the Dallas Stars is, they come in to the 2011-12 season with most hockey pundits expecting them to miss the playoffs, ranking in 11th place or lower when April rolls around. The worse news is, they have a rookie coach, their leading scorer flew the coop in the off-season, and they may be moving to Medicine Hat at any moment.

That unfamiliar face behind the bench is Glen Gulutzan, coaching his first NHL team in his first NHL game. Both his playing and coaching careers topped out at the minor league level — until tonight. Star center Brad Richards decided to follow dozens of overpaid and underperforming hockey players to the white-hot Klieg lights of the New York Rangers’ dressing room. And the ownership situation is still very much up in the air — leaving the question open as to whether new ownership will want to take the team someplace where the most prevalent religion is not NASCAR.

And let’s not forget, this is the Dallas Stars team that handed their playoff berth to the Blackhawks on the final day of last season, with a hog-smoking performance against the nearly-impotent Minnesota Wild. That Cubs-worthy choke sent the Stars to an early tee time for the third straight season, and contributed significantly to the dismissal of former head coach Marc Crawford.

Not exactly a good time to be a Dallas Star.

That’s who the Blackhawks will be facing as they take the ice for a home-and-home series beginning tonight at American Airlines Center and continuing Saturday at the UC. It’s difficult to predict what the Stars’ playing style will be like this season, though word is that we will see a defense-focused team in the black and green this year.

Three people we won’t see in the black and green, at least not on Friday, are defensemen Adam Pardy and Niklas Grossman, and former Blackhawks winger and fan favorite Adam Burish. All are out with injuries (though Burish is officially a game-time decision, and is more likely to play on Saturday in Chicago). But another former Blackhawk, grinding utility forward Jake Dowell, will be centering the fourth line for Big D through the weekend. Captain Brenden Morrow leads the charge for the Stars, and we’ll be facing Kari Lehtonen in goal.

Chicago went 1 – 3 against Dallas last season, but the key piece of that puzzle is now out of the picture: the Stars had their former goaltender Marty Turco manning the nets for the Blackhawks, and they played him like a red-headed step-violin. With Corey Crawford as our #1, the likelihood of that recurring is very slim.

So how are the Blackhawks looking coming into this weekend’s series? A little banged up. The pre-season was not kind to the Men of Four Feathers, sidelining Viktor Stalberg, Dave Bolland and Ben Smith for this weekend’s tilts. This has necessitated the recall of Brandon Pirri from Rockford, who had a strong performance in camp and arguably earned himself a spot on the roster. He will start in Dave Bolland’s spot centering the 3rd line between Michael Frolik and Bryan Bickell.

But not all the news is bad. Patrick Kane has recovered nicely from off-season wrist surgery and will start the game centering the 2nd line. Also, Patrick Sh—

WHAT?!?!?

Yes, if you missed the pre-season shenannigans this year, Patrick Kane has moved (for the time being at least) to center between Andrew Brunette and Marian Hossa. This was, apparently, GM Stan Bowman’s idea, and achieved enough success during pre-season that Coach Joel Quenneville is going to start the season that way. Time will tell if this is going to last, or whether Kane’s production will suffer as a result. But for now, look for number 88 to be taking draws for the ‘Hawks on Friday night.

So: after all the hullaballoo about Patrick Sharp filling the slot at center, where will he start the season now that he’s been cleared to play following his recent appendectomy? He will be the right wing on the first line, next to Jonathan Toews and across from the other tremendous surprise of the pre-season.

18-year-old rookie Brandon Saad’s stock dropped precipitously during his last Junior season, falling out of the top-20 skaters in the draft rankings and eventually out of the first round of the draft. He very plainly came to camp looking to prove his detractors wrong. During his six straight pre-season performances Saad showed the Blackhawks organ-eye-zation enough to prompt them to rest him during the seventh game, so that he had fresh legs for his first game in the Indian Head sweater tonight.

Newly signed to a three-year entry-level contract, he will begin his NHL career on a line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. Will Saad stay past the 9 games that are allowed while still being able to return him to his Junior team? If the kid performs as well during these first three weeks as he did during pre-season, he’ll make it very hard for the team to send him packing.

In the meantime, get your thinking caps on and come up with a decent nickname for the lad. “Saader” is pathetic.

Game time both Friday and Saturday is 7:30pm: TV coverage for both will be on Comcast SportsNet; broadcast radio is (and always shall be) WGN AM-720; and on Friday at least you Sirius subscribers will find the game on channel 213; for XM subscribers it’s channel 214.

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