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Stars seek to tighten grasp on first place

Will move ahead in Central Division with victory against Coyotes

by Steve Hunt / NHL.com Correspondent

COYOTES (34-35-7) at STARS (46-22-9)

TV: 8:30 p.m. ET; FS-A, FS-SW, NHL.TV

DALLAS---With five games remaining in the regular season, Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff wants to see his team continue to focus on finishing the season as strong as possible, starting with a game against the Arizona Coyotes at American Airlines Center on Thursday.

"I think we've played well [over the past few weeks]," Ruff said. "We've found ways to win games. I like where our team is at. I think there's areas where we can continue to work on."

Dallas, 5-1-0 in its past six games, can take a step toward securing first place in the Central Division with a victory Thursday. The Stars are tied in points with the St. Louis Blues, but hold the regulation/overtime wins tiebreaker 44-41. The Blues will have one game in hand following games Thursday.

The Stars, who clinched a playoff berth with a 6-2 win at the Chicago Blackhawks on March 22, are bidding for their first division title since 2005-06, when Dallas won the Pacific Division with 112 points but lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the 2006 Western Conference Quarterfinals.

Ruff is keeping his forward lines and defensive pairings identical from a 5-2 win against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday.

However, goalie Antti Niemi was first off the ice at morning skate and will start against Arizona after Kari Lehtonen started against Nashville.

"I thought he was rock solid. He played a heck of a game [on Tuesday], he stood tall," Ruff said of Niemi's performance against the Predators. "For me, he looked real sharp."

Arizona coach Dave Tippett made morning skate optional on Thursday but said after practice on Wednesday that Mike Smith would start in goal against Dallas.

Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who missed a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday with an upper-body injury, is likely to return, Tippett said.

Doan likely will play right wing on Arizona's third line, with Jordan Martinook on the left and Brad Richardson at center.

Tippett kept his top line of Max Domi, Martin Hanzal and Anthony Duclair intact from the Calgary game, but shuffled his bottom three lines.

Tippett also is making one change to his second defensive pair, with Alex Grant likely replacing Nicklas Grossmann, alongside Klas Dahlbeck.

Grant, who has two games of NHL experience with the Anaheim Ducks during the 2013-14 season, would be making his Coyotes debut.

"Well, he's a big defenseman that moves the puck well," Tippett said of Grant. "With the injury to [Michael] Stone, it's an opportunity for him to come in and get some of those minutes. We want to evaluate all of our players and see where he's at."

Here are the projected lineups:

COYOTES

Max Domi - Martin Hanzal - Anthony Duclair

Tobias Rieder - Antoine Vermette - Alex Tanguay

Jordan Martinook - Brad Richardson - Shane Doan

Kyle Chipchura - Boyd Gordon - Sergei Plotnikov

Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Connor Murphy

Kevin Connauton - Zbynek Michalek

Klas Dahlbeck - Alex Grant

Mike Smith

Louis Domingue

Injured: Anders Lindback (Achilles), Michael Stone (knee).

Scratched: Nicklas Grossmann, Jiri Sekac, Eric Selleck, Viktor Tikhonov.

STARS

Jamie Benn - Cody Eakin - Patrick Sharp

Mattias Janmark - Jason Spezza - Valeri Nichushkin

Antoine Roussel - Radek Faksa - Ales Hemsky

Colton Sceviour - Vernon Fiddler - Patrick Eaves

Alex Goligoski - John Klingberg

Johnny Oduya - Stephen Johns

Patrik Nemeth - Jordie Benn

Antti Niemi

Kari Lehtonen

Injured: Jason Demers (shoulder), Brett Ritchie (lower body), Kris Russell (lower body), Tyler Seguin (Achilles).

Scratched: Travis Moen, Jamie Oleksiak.

Status report: Tippett said there is no news on Stone, who missed the Calgary game and will also miss the Dallas game. Tippett said the club still is consulting with doctors about Stone's injury. … Ruff said he hopes to get Seguin (Achilles) back skating sometime next week. Seguin is riding a stationary bike and progressing, which Ruff called a good sign. … Ruff said Russell (lower body) could play, but chose to rest him because he's not yet at 100 percent.

Who's hot: Arizona is 8-8-1 against the Central Division. … The Coyotes are going for their second season sweep of the Stars in franchise history. … Tanguay has 10 points (four goals) in 12 games with Arizona since being acquired from the Colorado Avalanche prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. … Dallas is 9-6-3 against the Pacific Division. … The Stars are 5-1-1 in their past seven home games. … Hemsky is on a five-game point streak. … Dallas is 6-0-0 in its past six home games against Arizona.

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