DALLAS -- The Dallas Stars embark on an 18-day stretch beginning tonight against the Phoenix Coyotes in which they will play 11 games without having consecutive home games at any point. Dallas clearly wants to start off this run on a positive note, but there is a lot more in play surrounding tonight's Pacific Division clash.
That's because after Phoenix beat Detroit 3-1 in Glendale on Monday night, the Coyotes (24-21-8) pulled into a tie with the Stars for the ninth spot in the Western Conference standings with 56 points. The Stars (27-22-2) currently hold the tiebreaker because they have played two fewer games.
First-year Stars coach Glen Gulutzan is well aware how big tonight's game is for his club, especially playing a division rival they figure to be battling the rest of the way for one of the bottom two playoff spots in the West.
"Every game's important for us, but some have different meanings. This is a team we're tied with. This is direct competition. This is a team that wants what we want," Gulutzan said. "This is a bigger game for us. They played last night. We're fresh. This is a real big game for us."
While the Coyotes come into this game on the second end of a back-to-back and in the early stages of a stretch where they play four games in six nights, Dave Tippett's club does have history on their side. The Coyotes are 2-0-1 in their last four games at American Airlines Center, but they are just 12-11-4 on the road this year.
Phoenix is 4-3-1 in the second game of a back-to-back this season, a solid mark. But for Stars center Vernon Fiddler, who spent his last few seasons with the Coyotes, jumping on tonight's foe early is vital, especially with them having played Monday.
"It's an advantage for any team -- a team's coming in back-to-back. With their travel, they get in late. We've been waiting for them and we have to be focused and ready," Fiddler said. "It seems like when we're a little more physical, we're a better hockey team. It's something we're going to start doing tonight."
The Stars last played on Saturday when they beat the Wild 2-1 in a shootout. No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen was stellar, stopping 33 of 34 shots and two of three attempts by Minnesota in the shootout. It was Lehtonen's third consecutive win after a run of four straight losses. He is 4-1-3 with a 1.91 goals-against-average in his nine career starts against Phoenix.
But if there is a key to tonight's game for both clubs, it involves discipline. Phoenix is the least-penalized club in the NHL, averaging just 7.8 minutes per night while Dallas averages 13.1, making them the League's third-most penalized team.
However, should they play a fairly disciplined game and be able to draw some penalties, the Stars' power play could be a factor. Dallas has scored on the power play in three straight games, which ties a season high, and it's a streak the Stars would like to continue tonight.
"I think we have to get a real good start here. We have a lot of games coming up here. There are so many big games coming up," Stars winger Loui Eriksson said. "We have to play well to make it to the playoffs. Starting today against Phoenix, it's a four-point game for us here. If we win, we can get two extra points against them before we go on a road trip here with a lot of games coming up, so it's going to be an important game."