The Dallas Stars can afford to lose tonight in San Jose. They can afford to come home empty handed. They can.
If, on the other hand, the plausibility of those two outcomes resulting concurrently as the week unfolds seems to Glen Gulutzan and his bunch unlikely, then this game tonight against the Sharks is for all of the proverbial marbles. Every single last one.
A regulation or overtime loss would be best but the shootout would do. The two points are the important part now, and they have to battle yet another big, physical team capable of shutting opponents down (like Los Angeles, like St. Louis), not to mention a crowd at The Tank that would love for nothing more than to end the Stars season in this, the final Pacific Division battle at HP Pavilion.
The good news is that the Stars have had good fortune, despite being largely out-possessed, against San Jose this year in winning the first three games between the two teams. The bad news is that it's very difficult to sweep a division opponent in the National Hockey League, especially in this one. Dallas hasn't swept the Sharks since Marty Turco's record-setting season of 2002-2003.
San Jose enters with the 4th, 5th and 6th seeds still in play for their destiny this spring, two points behind the Los Angeles Kings for home ice advantage and with more than one reason to push hard tonight.
Dallas' exploits on NBC Sports Network this year have included losses at Nashville and Chicago as well as a win in Colorado. The game should be available on FSSW+ locally.
"We've been battling hard for a while here and that point is going to come in handy for us," Gulutzan said in Los Angeles. "We'll take it. That was a tough, hard-fought game. I liked our compete level. We still control our destiny with the teams we have left to play."
That they do, but they've lost three of four and even in a couple of the wins toward the end of the five-game streak, particularly against these Sharks at the AAC, the Stars were not exactly dictating play. Far from it.
With so much of the "skill" departed in Morrow, Ryder, Roy and Jagr, the forward lineup is heavy to say the least. At their best Dallas has received important contributions from the Eakin and Fiddler line, with a sprinkling from the "fourth line" on occasion.
Whether the depth contributions continue or not, they'll need their big guns to chip in with more regularity. Even though they'll be the focus of every defensive game plan from here on out owing to the singular, concentrated nature of the Stars unbalanced attack, they need to lead the way in the production department.
Benn leads the team with 32 points in 38 games. He has five points in his last four outings. Asking more would seem unreasonable, but the Stars need an alpha-male presence out there, and he's been held scoreless in 6 of the 10 games since the trade deadline.
Loui Eriksson did finally get one in Los Angeles, but he needs to start finishing with regularity. Either Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson assert themselves this week, combining to draw penalties and puncture goaltenders, or the Stars' playoff chances go down the drain.
Antoine Roussel's status for this one is unknown after leaving the ice following an apparently late hit from Dustin Brown to his head.
Trevor Daley has been battling an upper-body injury and could be questionable for this one, but the nature of it suggests that he must make an attempt.
Kari Lehtonen will be in net, and must be the Stars' best player.
Columbus beat these same Sharks 4-3 Sunday night, keeping the Sharks from clinching a playoff seed, completing a three-game season sweep over them in the process, and more importantly, really poking the bear, assuring what the Stars gets tonight is a focused, angry team that's been "coached" a little harder this week.
From the Mercury News, here are some rather poignant comments from Sharks head coach Todd McLellan...
"I don't think we brought a lot of energy to the game, I don't think we managed the puck very well and the game very well - didn't win a lot of faceoffs early, extended shifts, got a little bit selfish, turned pucks over in some bad areas.
"We had plenty of offense. Offense was not the problem one bit tonight, not one bit. It was the defensive part and the puck-management, game management."
"I go game first. I wasn't concerned about getting a point and putting an ‘x' by our names. I was concerned about our game," McLellan said. "It's our game that will get us there or won't get us there. Forget about the clinch part. Don't even ask me when you come to the next game because we'll be in the same scenario."
"At this time of the year, teams are playing and getting ready to prepare for playoff hockey. There will be a team out there that figures it out and commits to playing this way from this point forward that's going to have a pretty good run." [Mercury News]
So the Blue Jackets have really affected this night profoundly and in more ways than one.
Survive the first tied, is the order of the night. Stay out of the penalty box would be another good one. San Jose has scored a power play goal in five of their last six games (5 of 14) and is just lethal on it right now.
Watch out for Brent Burns again, but the entire lineup is stacked and presents matchup problems for the Stars throughout.
Possible line combos: