The Dallas Stars have promised fans time and again that this year is different, from the coach to the uniforms to the captain to, they hope, a spot in the playoffs once more.
If the team wants to make good on that last promise, tonight is as good a place as any to start. The Stars have as much of a window of opportunity as they've had any of the last five seasons, a window that's been open in past years that they've failed to take advantage of.
They got a nice little assist from the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, who tied their game with the Phoenix Coyotes in the final minute before winning in the shootout, which means the Stars are now only one point behind Phoenix with two games in hand and a head-to-head matchup remaining. It's not quite as good a scenario as the Stars had headed into Thursday's loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, but it's not as bad as it could have been either.
In the Stars way tonight is the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that gave them all sorts of problems the first time around in a game Tampa won 4-2. The biggest difference in either team since that game is the Lightning have gotten Steven Stamkos and his howitzer of a shot back from injured reserve with a broken tibia and lost Martin St. Louis to a trade.
The moves haven't slowed the Lightning's roll at all. The Lightning are officially in the playoffs but came out flat in their first game since flinching, falling unceremoniously to the Calgary Flames. It's not like there's nothing left to play for - home ice in their fairly inevitable series against the Montreal Canadiens is still very much up for grabs - so it will be very curious to see how Tampa responds.
Goalie Ben Bishop was the story of the game the first time the two teams met, all 6-foot-7 of him, and he's a good candidate to play today with the Lightning having a two day break in their schedule in its aftermath. Lindy Ruff isn't saying which goalie he will counter with for the Stars, though you'd probably place good money on Kari Lehtonen today and then Tim Thomas against the Florida Panthers on Sunday.
The Stars and Lightning are a very even match on paper, with the same average offense (2.86 goals per game) with the Lightning having a slightly better defense and significantly more dangerous power play but the Stars having a slightly better penalty kill. From those numbers, at least, it's a pretty classic coin flip type of game.
If Dallas wants to make a strong push for the playoffs, they'll need to make sure their odds are a little better than 50-50 in this one.