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Important points at stake as Kings play host to Stars

by Matthew Mankiewich
STARS (23-17-1) at KINGS (21-15-7)

TV: FS-Southwest, FS-West (HD)

LAST 10:
Dallas 5-5-0, Los Angeles 6-1-3

Season Series:
Four games already played and they've split them every which way they can, each taking a home and an away game, each decided by one goal, save for the Oct. 27 meeting in Dallas, a two-goal Kings win thanks to an empty-netter. Given the nature of tie-breakers and the tightness of the Western Conference playoff race, the final two games of the season series become very important should the two finish even-up in the standings. It will also be the first meeting between the two since Darryl Sutter made his Kings coaching debut in a 2-1 home loss to Dallas.

Big Story:
Any intra-divisional game in the Western Conference has growing implications, and this one is no exception. Two points separate these teams, but even more importantly they straddle the playoff cutoff line in the West, the Kings just above in the eighth seed, the Stars right below it. As for the Pacific Division, both teams are in hot pursuit of the Sharks, who hold a mere two-point edge over the Kings and five points over fourth-place Phoenix. The Kings want to wrap up their six-game, 3-1-1 homestand with a win, while the Stars would like to even up their two-game trip to Southern California after losing to the Ducks 5-2 in Anaheim on Tuesday.

Team scope:

Stars: It's the halfway point of the season for the Stars, and things are looking good despite some of the adversity the team has faced with injuries to top players, something that derailed their season the year before.

One setback that could have done them in was Kari Lehtonen's groin injury suffered on Nov. 26 at Phoenix that knocked him out of action for a month. Unproven Richard Bachman, with only one game of NHL experience, stepped in and not only kept pace, but won the last meeting in Los Angeles and shut out the Rangers, the best team in the NHL right now, in Madison Square Garden. His 6-2-0 record has been vital to the Stars' staying in the race and trending upward. A typical example is what he did Saturday afternoon, filling in on short notice for a flu-stricken Lehtonen and stopping 25 of 26 Oilers shots in a 4-1 home win.

"Huge," coach Glen Gulutzan told ESPN Dallas of Bachman's performance. "We told him probably 45 minutes before he warmed up and he was ready. It was a good game for him."

Lehtonen, on the other hand, has struggled since his return Dec. 29, going 2-3-0 including Tuesday's loss in Anaheim.

It's a good thing Jonathan Quick is having a Vezina-worthy season, because the offense's 2.09 goals per game is lowest in the NHL, and recently went through a three-game stretch scoring only twice. That made Monday's 5-2 win over the Capitals a welcome relief and gave the Kings a 6-1-3 record under Sutter.

Defenseman Jack Johnson's goal and assist ended a personal scoring drought dating back to Dec. 1, a dry spell that prompted his teammates to present Johnson with a dare while watching the Steelers-Broncos playoff game. Johnson had to celebrate his next goal by "Tebowing," which he did, ruffling the feathers of the opposing Caps just a bit.

"I don't know if anything is easy for us these days," Johnson said. "But we finally scored some goals, which makes everything easier. It's a great feeling to give our goalies some breathing room finally."

Who's hot:
Jamie Benn has had a breakout season for the Stars with 42 points in 41 games, including a five-game points streak and getting on the board in 11 of his last 12 games. He's on a pace to obliterate his personal best of 56 points last season. Mike Ribeiro sat out Monday's game in Anaheim due to a knee injury, but has two goals in each of his last two games. … Quick is 3-1-1 in his last five starts and 6-0-1 with a 1.71 goals-against average in his last seven versus the Stars. Backup Jonathan Bernier has allowed two or fewer goals in each of his last five starts.

Injury report:
Ribeiro will be out at least one more game with a slightly torn MCL in his right knee. Defenseman Philip Larsen (concussion-like symptoms) was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. Rookie forward Tomas Vincour (sprained MCL) has not returned to the ice after missing 15 straight games. … On the Kings' side, Simon Gagne (concussion) has yet to return to the ice and his availability for the rest of the season remains in doubt.

Stat pack:
Another reason the Kings can get away with low offensive production is that nobody can score on their penalty kill. They've snuffed out 37 straight opportunities and their 89.1 percent kill rate leads the West. The scoring is still a problem, though, as only two teams since the WHA merger in 1979-80 have finished last in goals per game and made the playoffs. The 1986-87 Detroit Red Wings made it to the Campbell Conference finals and the 1988-89 Vancouver Canucks lost in seven games in the first round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Flames.

When the Kings do score, they're unbeatable. They're 11-0-0 when they score three or more goals in a game and 17-4-5 when they allow fewer than three. They've allowed seven goals in their last seven games.

Puck drop:
"The division is tough and the conference is tough and you go from anywhere from 11th to 12th to third in one night. It's about sticking with about how we play. We're finishing off a six-game (run) at home here and we obviously want to hit the road on a good note." -- Sutter on the need to keep up in a tight Western Conference

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