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As Stars continue slide, Ruff toys with lineup

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It may be a bit cliche to use the "must-win" mantra in mid-January but things change quickly in the NHL.

Only 18 days ago the Dallas Stars were ahead of the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division standings and had the added benefit of three games in hand.

But following a stretch of seven losses in eight games, Dallas now trails Minnesota by eight points heading into their game Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.

The Stars play the Wild again Tuesday in Dallas but will lose one of their games in hand before then when they play the Nashville Predators on Monday. With that in mind Stars coach Lindy Ruff said the team needs to snap out of its 2014 funk now if it hopes to be a factor in the Stanley Cup Playoff race down the stretch.

"The way the schedule sits we're just in that situation," Ruff said. "I said [prior to a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Thursday] that we needed to win three out of four. We lost the first one so now we need to win the next three now.

"To push into the pack we have to do our work now."

Ruff tinkered with breaking up the Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin combination on the Stars' top line Friday in practice but put them together during Saturday's morning skate.

Benn has goals in back-to-back games but Seguin hasn't scored a goal in seven games, a season-long stretch for the Stars' leading goal-scorer; Dallas is 1-6-0 in that span. Rookie Valeri Nichushkin, who has played much of the season on a line with Benn and Seguin, will be a healthy scratch

Ruff indicated that toying with new line combinations is an effort to get players other than Seguin and Benn going.

"We've got about four or five guys we need to get on the board and we're just trying to strike a little bit better of a balance," Ruff said. "When you've lost seven of eight, for me, I need to get [Vernon Fiddler] and [Alex Chiasson], if we're going to be an effective team, those guys have to produce."

Defenseman Aaron Rome is expected to play Saturday after missing one game with a lower-body injury.

Kari Lehtonen, who has one win in his past seven games, will start in goal. Dan Ellis started the only other game between these teams this season, allowing five goals on 36 shots in a 5-1 loss Oct. 12.

Winners of six of eight, Minnesota is expected to go with the same lineup that defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 Thursday.

That includes rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who has emerged in the absence of Josh Harding. Saturday will mark Harding's eighth straight game out of the lineup due to illness. It also will mark Kuemper's fourth consecutive start.

Since being recalled from the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League on Jan. 2, Kuemper is 3-1-0 with a 1.25 goals-against average and .957 save percentage. If he continues his brilliant play, Wild coach Mike Yeo said he won't hesitate to keep three goalies on the roster once Harding returns.

"If he keeps winning games we're not going to send him down. I don't see why we would do that," Yeo said. "What's important is we just focus on [Saturday's] game. These things have a way of sorting their way out."

Here are the projected lineups for the Stars and Wild:


Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Rich Peverley

Antoine Roussel - Cody Eakin - Alex Chiasson

Erik Cole - Vernon Fiddler - Ryan Garbutt

Shawn Horcoff - Dustin Jeffrey - Ray Whitney

Alex Goligoski - Trevor Daley

Brenden Dillon - Jordie Benn

Aaron Rome - Sergei Gonchar

Kari Lehtonen

Dan Ellis

Scratched: Valeri Nichushkin, Kevin Connauton

Injured: Stephane Robidas (broken leg)


Nino Niederreiter - Mikael Granlund - Jason Pominville

Jason Zucker - Charlie Coyle - Dany Heatley

Matt Cooke - Kyle Brodziak - Justin Fontaine

Stephane Veilleux - Erik Haula - Torrey Mitchell

Ryan Suter - Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella - Nate Prosser

Keith Ballard - Clayton Stoner

Darcy Kuemper

Niklas Backstrom

Scratched: Mike Rupp

Injured: Zach Parise (fractured left foot), Mikko Koivu (fractured ankle), Jared Spurgeon (foot), Josh Harding (illness)

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