STARS (18-10-3) at BLUE JACKETS (16-12-3)
TV: TXA 21 (HD), FS-O (HD)
Dallas 6-2-2; Columbus 2-5-3
Columbus leads the season series 1-0 after taking a 3-2 shootout win over the Stars on Dec. 6 at Nationwide Arena.
Both Columbus and Dallas are tied up in tight, competitive division races, but each is looking at it from a different perspective. While the Stars sit atop the Pacific, the Blue Jackets are scrapping to get back into the Central hunt, and with the bulk of the West's playoff teams likely to come from those two divisions, neither task facing these teams will be easy. Saturday is a valuable opportunity for each to cover more ground in their respective races.
That Dallas is leading what may be the toughest division in the League is a surprise to many, but with the way the Stars have played lately, the surprise may not last much longer. The Stars have only won two of their last six games, and have no wins in regulation since Dec. 2. Despite the recent stumble, however, Dallas still leads the Pacific but the margin for error has gotten much thinner. The Stars lead the division by just one point over Anaheim, and San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix are all lurking. The entire group is separated by just four points in the standings.
The Stars missed an opportunity to pick up some ground this week with a home-and-home against San Jose. While Dallas grabbed a shootout win at HP Pavilion Monday, the Sharks managed to take the second meeting in overtime Thursday night. If Dallas is to hold on to its lead, those opportunities must be taken advantage of. Fortunately, the Stars' offense may be potent enough to carry them -- James Neal has 9 points in his last nine games -- but consistency in the net, as always, is key. Kari Lehtonen
has gotten the bulk of the work in Dallas, and with no regulation losses in his last six starts, the Finnish netminder has managed to keep the Stars in it whenever he's between the pipes.
Columbus has proven itself one of the streakier teams in the Western Conference, but unfortunately for the Blue Jackets they don't currently seem to be in one of the positive streaks at the moment. The Jackets have lost nine of their last 10 games, resulting in a tumble in the standings that has them eight points back of Central-leading Detroit. As the Jackets open up a three-game homestand, a return to Ohio may do them some good -- considering their recent winless swing through western Canada, it certainly couldn't be much worse.
The last time they took the ice, the Blue Jackets suffered a 6-3 thumping to the Oilers on Thursday in Edmonton. While Kristian Huselius
did record a hat trick, Columbus' offense couldn't muster much else, a recent trend for a team which hasn't scored four goals in a game since an overtime win on Nov. 24. Rick Nash
has done his part with 4 goals and 4 assists in the last six games, but very few players have managed to score consistently, a fact that only increases the burden on the Jackets' struggling goaltenders. Mathieu Garon hasn't won in his last four appearances, while Steve Mason
gave up all six goals to the Oil. Clearly, both the offense and defense have to turn their fortunes around if the Jackets are to get back to winning.
Who's hot: Loui Eriksson
's solid season has continued recently, with Eriksson tallying five points in his last five games. … While Nash gets the most offensive attention in Columbus, Antoine Vermette
has also contributed of late with four points in his last four games.
Columbus may be without Derek Dorsett
, who missed Thursday's game with a lower-body injury. … Dallas could be lacking some toughness if Krys Barch doesn't return. While the right wing was activated for Thursday's game after being out with a foot injury, he did not take the ice. His status for Saturday is undetermined.
If the Stars appear to barely be squeaking their opponents every night, there might be a reason. Dallas averages 2.74 goals per game, barely more than the 2.71 goals against it gives up.
For Columbus, the season may be at a crossroads. While the Western Conference race is remarkably tight throughout the standings, the Jackets' slide has begun to put the campaign in peril and another loss Saturday could hasten the skid into a spiral the team can't escape. Given how close the rest of the Pacific is nipping at the Stars' heels however, don't expect Dallas to make a turnaround easy.