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Dire straits as Stars begin homestand against Kings

by Matthew Mankiewich
KINGS (39-22-5) at STARS (29-25-12)

Last 10 -- Los Angeles 5-3-2; Dallas 4-5-1

Season series -- The Kings have managed a clean sweep of the four games played so far, most recently right out of the Olympic break on March 2 in Dallas, a 5-1 dress-down of the Stars that showed which team was more ready to play. At that point the Kings capped off a 13-2-1 run dating back to Jan. 14, but have dropped three of four since, as have the Stars. Los Angeles is 10-2-1 in its last 13 meetings with the Stars.

Big story -- The Kings have been in the middle of the playoff ranks most of the season, and are now in fifth place in the Western Conference, two points behind fourth-seeded Phoenix, or two points away from home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. They have a game in hand on the Coyotes with 16 to go, but need to right themselves to have any chance of overtaking them.

The Stars are feeling the squeeze in the lower half of the conference, seven points behind the eighth-place Flames and with all but five of their remaining games against playoff-caliber teams. The next six of those, however, are at home.

Team scope:

Kings -- Ten days ago, it looked like the Kings were ready to sprint out of the Olympic break into a stretch run that would lock up a top-four playoff spot. They slipped a bit in losses to Nashville and Montreal, rebounded with a 6-0 shutout of the fading Blue Jackets, then faced their toughest post-Vancouver test, the Chicago Blackhawks.

They'd manage a point in a 3-2 overtime loss, but the way it ended left the Kings cold. Bad enough they couldn't hold on to a 2-1 late-second-period lead, but in overtime Kings winger Brad Richardson tried a drop-pass into the neutral zone that got picked off by Patrick Sharp, who broke toward the net and beat Jonathan Quick straight up to take the extra point away.

"Well, you can never really be satisfied with one point, especially with the time of year it is," Quick said. "Points aren't going to come easy, so you want to get them whenever you can. The team played great. We played a great game. That's a strong team we went against, and we battled well. It's unfortunate that we only got one point out of it."

Stars -- The six-game homestand is a fortunate turn in the schedule, where the Stars can improve on an 18-8-5 record in the American Airlines Center.

"Quite frankly, it's our season," Steve Ott said after their latest loss in Buffalo. "If we don't get the ship in the right direction, you might as well call it a season."

A lot of weight had been put on the Stars' 4-3 shootout win in Washington on Monday, that it could be a potential turning point that came just in time. Marty Turco, lacking defensive help in front of him all year, didn't need much of it as he stopped 49 shots. Two days later, a final push couldn't get much going as the Sabres exploited their own home-ice advantage, winning 5-3. And the same problem in front of Turco persisted as he faced 43 more shots.

They've given up 30 or more shots in nine of their last 12 games, going 5-6-1.

Who's hot --
Anze Kopitar of the Kings has an eight-game points streak (tying a career high) and points in 22 of his last 25 games. He also logged his only career hat trick so far in the Oct. 22 game at home against the Stars, a 5-4 overtime win. Backup goalie Erik Ersberg, who will start with Quick away for the birth of a child, hasn't played since Feb. 11, but has a 2-0-1 record in Dallas with a 1.96 goals-against average.
Brad Richards has his own five-game points streak going for the Stars, and he's been shut out only once in his last 11 games.

Injury report --
Jonathan Bernier has been called up to back up Ersberg, while Justin Williams is apparently ready to play for the first time since breaking his leg Dec. 26. He will rejoin mates Kopitar and Ryan Smyth on the top line.

Stars defenseman Nicklas Grossman (back), forward Jere Lehtinen (illness) and forward Brian Sutherby (shoulder) are questionable for Friday.

Stat pack -- Turco has gone 1-3-0 with a 4.66 GAA in his last four games, and has a 4.01 GAA in his last two meetings with the Kings, both losses. James Neal, whose 25 goals tie Loui Eriksson for the Stars team lead, has scored only once in his last seven games. He does have three goals in four games against the Kings, all on the road. Kopitar has eight goals and five assists in his last 10 meetings with the Stars.

Puck drop --
The Stars know they have to get on a serious roll to stay in the Western Conference race, and it's not farfetched to say they need 10 out of a potential 12 points on this homestand. The Kings can't wait much longer to break out of their short slump before the rest of the conference catches up to them.

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