With points in five of their last six games the Dallas Stars are keeping pace in the West, just two out out fourth place, but just four out of 13th. It's that close, and the good work that they've done in the last two weeks could be undone at any moment with a wrong turn.
The Phoenix Coyotes will look for just such a turn tonight, able to pass the Stars in the standings with a regulation win at Jobing.com Arena.
Dallas played an uneven game in Los Angeles Thursday night, out-scoring the Kings 5-2 though being out-shot and out-possessed through extended segments of all three periods. The return of Kari Lehtonen to the Dallas net has seen them allow just three total goals in their last two games - a dramatic improvement over the 33 goals they had allowed in 8 games prior.
Entering this one Dave Tippett's bunch has dropped three of five, including two straight to the Ducks and Blues.
This is a matchup of offensive juggernauts right now. It really is. The Stars are averaging 3.6 goals per game over their last 10, and the Coyotes are just behind, scoring 3.3 in the same stretch, so the traditional 2-1 OT game played between these teams could be eschewed in favor of a proverbial shootout.
This is the fourth and final meeting between these two teams this season, and likely the last as an official "Pacific Division" battle.
The puck drops tonight just after 7:00pm CST on Fox Sports Southwest.
Dallas has enjoyed some continuity in its forward combinations in recent weeks, but that could change tonight.
The Stars announced Friday morning that Matt Fraser had been re-called from the Texas Stars. Francis Wathier was already with the team for forward depth, and Brenden Morrow did not play in the final 8:22 against Los Angeles Thursday. Mike Heika reported he could have a slight groin tweak, and speculated that Fraser could jump into his spot.
So we'll look for something like this:
Fraser and Reilly Smith are both left-handed shots that like to play on the right side, so we'll see how that ends up working on the same line.
Philip Larsen was ready to go on Thursday but wasn't used, so we'll see if they switch it up tonight or roll with what mostly worked in Los Angeles.
Kari Lehtonen has not started a game in Phoenix since February 18th, 2012 - over a calendar year ago. He lost that one 2-1 in overtime, and the start before that at Jobing.com he injured his groin six minutes in.
After surrendering six to the St. Louis Blues the Coyotes know they have to get back to their brand of defensive hockey.
"We are a team that when we play our game, we can control possession of the puck and limit our opponent's chances," Shane Doan said following the loss. "When we don't play our game, we give up easy ones and we have to get better at that, or it is going to be a long second half of the season."
In the last seven days Phoenix experienced the same scheduling anomaly awaiting Dallas the first week of April: Play the Anaheim Ducks three times in a row. The Coyotes succeeded, taking four of a possible six points out of those meetings, and how the Stars handle the same challenge will go a long way toward making or missing the playoffs.
Phoenix has allowed 29 goals in their last 8 games (3.63 against per) and has only one 60-minute win in that span dating back to February 18th. The other two wins were shootouts.
The Coyotes are averaging less than 13,000 fans per home game this year, and have already played 14 of their 24 home dates at Jobing.com Arena, tonight being number 15. 14 of their final 23 games will be on the road.
Radim Vrbata has missed nearly three weeks now with an unspecified lower-body injury, but his return is nearing and could be tonight. He has 15 goals among 34 points against Dallas in 41 career games.