MONTREAL -- The Dallas Stars have made up a fair bit of ground in the Western Conference standings since they last faced the Montreal Canadiens.
After winning nine of its first 26 games, Dallas has gone on a 12-6-2 run that began with a 4-1 win against Montreal on Dec. 6. The Stars were 11 points out of a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before their first game against the Canadiens; they are now within four points going into their game against Montreal at Bell Centre on Tuesday.
"It's a fact we've been able to defend a lot better," Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said after the morning skate. "We won that game in kind of a low-scoring game and we caught them in a back-to-back situation, which I think was a little bit tougher, but the (wins) have been coming because mainly I think our defensive play as a whole has been better as a team."
The Stars (21-18-7) are in sixth place in the Central Division with 49 points. The Canadiens (29-13-3) are in third place in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference with 61 points.
"We know they're a good team," Dallas captain Jamie Benn said. "They play with lots of speed, they've got great goaltending, good defense, and they can put the puck in the net as well, so we've got to find a way to slow them down tonight and just make them play with us."
Canadiens goalie Carey Price and forward Jiri Sekac missed practice Monday because of flight delays returning from the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Columbus. They returned to Montreal on a charter flight and will be in the lineup.
"We're all in the same boat here, probably get the rust out in the first period and then we'll see how it goes after that," Benn said. "But we definitely want to set the tone early, get our legs going and see what happens."
Stars center Tyler Seguin tweeted Monday that his travel itinerary from Columbus took him through Washington and Ottawa on his way to Montreal, where he tweeted a photo to Price that he had arrived there first.
"Lots of travel, but it was worth it," Seguin said Tuesday. "It was a fun weekend."
Dallas center Jason Spezza's next game Thursday will be his first in Ottawa since he was traded to the Stars by the Senators on July 1. He acknowledged it's a date he has thought about.
"I try not to, but it's going to be strange," Spezza said. "It was home for me and it's where I grew up as a player and I have fond memories of being there. I think the time was just right for me to move on, but it'll be a little nostalgic for me going back there for sure, but we've got to take care of this one first. We need the wins right now."
Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban said possession will dictate whether Montreal will be able to pick up on its roll that saw them defeat two of the NHL's top teams, the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators, heading into the break.
"The keys to us are to be first on the puck," Subban said after the Canadiens morning skate at their suburban practice facility. "I think if we get there first then we're not playing defense, we're playing offense as well as getting the puck out of our zone. Our (defense), we have to work really hard to get back and our forwards have to support us so we can get out of the zone with speed. For us, when we're coming up the ice with speed we usually generate lots of scoring opportunities."
Here are the projected lineups:
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Patrick Eaves
Shawn Horcoff – Jason Spezza – Ales Hemsky
Antoine Roussel – Cody Eakin – Ryan Garbutt
Travis Moen – Vernon Fiddler – Colton Sceviour
Jordie Benn - Alex Goligoski
Trevor Daley – Jason Demers
Jyrki Jokipakka – Jamie Oleksiak
Scratched: John Klingberg, David Schlemko, Erik Cole
Injured: Patrik Nemeth (arm), Valeri Nichushkin (hip), Brett Ritchie (hand)
Max Pacioretty - Tomas Plekanec - Dale Weise
Alex Galchenyuk - David Desharnais - Brendan Gallagher
Jiri Sekac - Lars Eller - Brandon Prust
Michael Bournival - Manny Malhotra - Christian Thomas
Nathan Beaulieu - P.K. Subban
Andrei Markov - Sergei Gonchar
Alexei Emelin - Tom Gilbert
Scratched: Mike Weaver
Injured: PA Parenteau (concussion)
Status report: Daley returns after missing the past three games because of an undisclosed injury. … Parenteau is out for the sixth time in his past eight games.
Who's hot: Spezza has five points (one goal, four assists) during a four-game point streak. Seguin has two goals and two assists in his past three games. … Markov has seven assists in his past five games. Pacioretty had 10 points (seven goals, three assists) during a seven-game point streak that ended a week ago in Montreal's 2-1 overtime win against Nashville. He scored goals in six straight games to begin the streak.