The Dallas Stars end a disappointing five-game home stand tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In spite of a 1-2-1 record, the Stars still find themselves comfortably ensconced in the fourth slot in the Central Division, with a four-point lead over the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes for the first Wild Card spot.
A regulation win prior to heading out on a four-game western Canada road trip would do wonders for the roster’s confidence, and could relieve a bit of pressure for a team whose fans still have nightmares about last season’s mid-March collapse. A collapse that, incidentally, started last March 11 with a 3-1 loss to the Penguins.
With eight games remaining in the regular season, Dallas has only three against teams that are currently inside the playoff bubble. Those three matchups are their next three games, including one against likely first-round opponent Winnipeg.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There isn’t an opponent in the first round unless the Stars can score some goals and pull out some wins. The next three games are the type that make playoff teams. One game at a time, one period at a time, and one shift at a time, the next week will determine whether Dallas is ready for the postseason.
The Penguins have hit a bit of a scoring drought the last few games, putting up five regulation goals in their last four games. Three of those games went to overtime and a 1-1-2 record has kept the points accumulating. Pulling out loser points is something that has, for the most part, escaped the Stars this year, but a regulation loss is about the only thing that hurts the team’s playoff odds.
At the moment, the Penguins are missing a few of their bigger name players. On defense, Olli Maatta is out with a separated shoulder until early April. On offense, Evgeni Malkin is week-to-week after taking a hard cross-check to the ribs last Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
In net, Matt Murray has been handling the bulk of the starts. At a .918 save percentage and 2.76 goals allowed per game, his numbers are just below the elite mark. Backup goaltender Casey DeSmith has a similar stat line, including a 5-1 win against the Stars in Pittsburgh last November.
For Dallas, head coach Jim Montgomery indicated that there may be some shuffling within the forward lines after the loss to Colorado. Secondary scoring has once again dried up, but the big guns have kept themselves on the scoresheet. Roope Hintz has developed some consistency, but Dallas needs a few other forwards to step up and grab playing time.
Saturday morning, the Stars recalled Justin Dowling from the Texas Stars as their second non-emergency callup. Per Sean Shapiro and based on the morning skate, it looks like Jason Spezza and Brett Ritchie will be healthy scratches for Dallas this evening.
Dallas Stars Lineup
Mattias Janmark - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov
Jamie Benn - Jason Dickinson - Roope Hintz
Andrew Cogliano - Radek Faksa - Blake Comeau
Valeri Nichushkin - Justin Dowling - Joel L’Esperance
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen - Roman Polak
Taylor Fedun - Ben Lovejoy
Pittsburgh Penguins Lineup
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Jared McCann - Teddy Blueger - Phil Kessel
Dominik Simon - Nick Bjugstad - Patric Hornqvist
Adam Johnson - Matt Cullen - Garrett Wilson
Brian Dumoulin - Kris Letang
Jack Johnson - Justin Schultz
Marcus Pettersson - Erik Gudbranson
Keys to the Game
- Get a lead, preferably in the first period. Pittsburgh jumped Dallas for three first period goals in November. The Stars have exited the first period with a lead twice in March, and both times they scored four goals on the way to comfortable victories.
- Control the crease. The Penguins get to the net better than most teams, whether it’s Crosby using his skill or Hornqvist crashing the net. Keeping the puck to the outside is vital in this game.
- Take advantage of opportunities. The Penguins and the Stars are the two best teams in the league in not giving up goals in high-danger areas, with 43 and 41 respectively. They are also both in the top ten in generating high-danger scoring chances. Expect battles in front of the net on both ends.
Did you know?
If Pittsburgh defender Marcus Pettersson plays in each of the last seven games of the season for the Penguins, he will end up with 84 total games played on the season.