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Stars, Blues battle for West lead

Dallas turns to Niemi as St. Louis visit; Western Conference lead on line

NHL.com @NHL

BLUES (40-20-9) at STARS (41-20-8)

TV: 9 p.m. ET; NHLN, FS-MW, FS-SW

Goaltender Antti Niemi will start for the Dallas Stars against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday at American Airlines Center, with the top seed in the Western Conference and first place in the Central Division hanging in the balance.

Niemi made 14 saves in a 5-3 loss to the Nashville Predators on March 1. Kari Lehtonen, who replaced Niemi in that loss, has started the past four games for Dallas, including the 5-2 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Friday.

That win moved the Stars to the top of the Western Conference and Central Division with 90 points. The Blues, who defeated the Anaheim Ducks 5-2 on Friday, are hot on their heels with 89 points. Both teams have played 69 games.

Niemi is 22-12-6 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .903 save percentage in 42 games (38 starts) this season.

"We're all tight in the standings," Stars center Jason Spezza told the team's website. "We had to try to take two points off [Chicago]; now we've got to try to take two points off St. Louis. We know it's going to go right down to the wire for the division."

The Blues are 10-3-0 in their past 13 games and have tied a season high with five consecutive wins. Coach Ken Hitchcock said it's a testament to his players.

"With everything we've gone through, we wake up [Saturday] morning in a hockey game for first place," Hitchcock said after the win Friday. "Nobody would have thought of that because everything these guys have been through. That's been a feather in their cap. Pretty impressive that we've been able to maintain a competitive level despite missing keys guys all year."

Jake Allen, who made 26 saves against the Ducks, makes his 40th start this season for St. Louis. Allen (23-13-3, 2.24 GAA, .923 SV%) has won his past five starts.

"These [games] are crucial," Allen told the Blues website. "I think we have one of the hardest schedules to finish the season in the League. To start the way we have is great, but we've got a long way to go. Only a handful of games left; it feels like the season is flying by already, but we want to finish on the right foot and head into the playoffs in a winning way, with everyone having confidence again."

The Blues did not skate Saturday morning. Dallas held an optional skate.

Here are the projected lineups:

BLUES

Jaden Schwartz - Jori Lehtera - Vladimir Tarasenko

Robby Fabbri - Paul Stastny - Troy Brouwer

Patrik Berglund - David Backes - Dmitrij Jaskin

Scottie Upshall - Kyle Brodziak - Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester - Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson - Kevin Shattenkirk

Joel Edmundson - Colton Parayko

Jake Allen

Anders Nilsson

Injured: Alexander Steen (upper body), Brian Elliott (lower body), Steve Ott (hamstring)

Scratched: Magnus Paajarvi, Robert Bortuzzo

STARS

Jamie Benn - Cody Eakin - Patrick Eaves

Valeri Nichushkin - Jason Spezza - Brett Ritchie

Antoine Roussel - Tyler Seguin - Ales Hemsky

Mattias Janmark - Vernon Fiddler - Colton Sceviour

Kris Russell - Alex Goligoski

Johnny Oduya - Stephen Johns

Patrik Nemeth - Jamie Oleksiak

Antti Niemi

Kari Lehtonen

Injured: Jordie Benn (lower body), Jason Demers (shoulder), John Klingberg (lower body), Patrick Sharp (lower body)

Scratched: Radek Faksa, Travis Moen

Status update: Sharp and Jordie Benn participated in the Stars' optional skate Saturday. Coach Lindy Ruff said Klingberg skated before practice. … Ott practiced Friday for the first time since having surgery in December. "The guys have played extremely well and if I can go in later on and the boys need me, I'm going to be ready and anxious and full of energy," Ott told the Blues website. Hitchcock said Steen, Ott and Elliott will join the Blues for their five-game road trip that begins in Dallas.

Who's hot: Tarasenko has three goals and five points in his past four games. … Fabbri has two goals and five points in his past five games. … Schwartz has a goal and four points in his past four games. … Spezza has scored goals in five straight games. … Dallas leads the League in scoring with 3.2 goals per game. … Stastny has 17 goals and 35 points in 35 career games against the Stars.

 

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