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Dallas Stars Look To Widen Playoff Race Gap Tonight Against Florida Panthers

The Stars can take a three point edge in the playoff race with two points against the Florida Panthers on the second night of a back-to-back.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Remember back at the beginning of the season, when the Dallas Stars front office had spent all summer pitching just how different this season was going to be? Then in that very first game of the Lindy Ruff era, the team went out and laid a giant egg against the Florida Panthers, two points lost they would love to have on the ledger right about now.

Now, 70-something games later, the Stars finally have their change to get some measure of revenge and take a much tighter grip on the eighth and final playoff spot. The Stars wrap up the first half of their four-games-in-five-days sprint with a 4 p.m. central time game against the Panthers in Florida. Two points here would put them three points up on the Phoenix Coyotes with the same number of games remaining and a head-to-head matchup remaining.

The Coyotes are idle until a Tuesday game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

You can catch the game on TXA-21 in the Metroplex or on the NHL Network if you live in the Great White North. This is the last TXA-21 game of the season.

There are a lot of questions for the Stars heading into the game, not the least of which is which goalie will start tonight. Kari Lehtonen had another solid outing Saturday in the team's 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning but does not have great career numbers against Florida.

Tim Thomas, on the other hand, has some sparkling numbers against his former team and played well in relief in the loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, but he has also struggled his last few starts. Ruff said the team would make a decision on the starter some time Saturday night.

Another question is the status of Antoine Roussel, who returned to Saturday's game and scored a goal after being taken out by a fairly brutal check to the head from Radko Gudas that resulted in a match penalty. Roussel passed his concussion testing after getting up very slowly and eventually returned to score a goal, but his coach thought he still looked off.

"I give him credit for playing, but for the most part I didn’t like his game after that. He’s a tough nut, he passed his test and he’s going to play, but I don’t think he was his normal self," Ruff said.

Roussel will be reevaluated today. If he can't go, Chris Mueller is the likely candidate to make yet another trip back to the Stars after being sent down before Saturday's game. He probably know every flight attendant in the United States by this point.

The Panthers have been struggling this season, and even when they play relatively well, as they did in Friday's 2-1 loss to the Calgary Flames, they struggle to pick up wins. They are on a five-game losing streak at the moment, with Vincent Trocheck scoring the only goal in their most recent loss.

The most surprising thing about Friday's loss was probably the lone Panthers goal came on the power play, which is a league-worst 10.4 percent and lurking around the worst in NHL history. They are also the only team in the league without a 40-point scorer - leaders Nick Bjugstad, Brian Campbell and Scottie Upshall each have 35.

Roberto Luongo is back from his concussion, but Brad Boyes missed last game with a sore back. Jonathan Huberdeau has been cleared for contact but is questionable for today's game.

Florida is 29th in the league, still well ahead of Buffalo but now behind the Edmonton Oilers, and has lost eight of its last nine games. If the Stars have designs on the playoffs, and Saturday's effort definitely showed it is on their minds, this is a game that could make all the difference.

Essentially, this could theoretically be the difference between making the final meeting with the Phoenix Coyotes a winner-take-all affair or the Stars being able to wrap up a spot before then. And with memories of 2011 still fresh in many fans' minds, I'm sure we'd all feel a little better with the latter.