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Important points at stake as Predators host Stars

by David Kalan

STARS (14-10-5) at PREDATORS (14-14-3)


Last 10: Dallas 4-3-3; Nashville 4-5-1

Season series: This is the first game of the season between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators.

Big story: Both residents of the Central Division following the NHL's realignment this season, the Stars and Predators face off Thursday night as division rivals for the first time, as each looks to pick up two valuable points in the hunt for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Team Scope:

Stars: After a recent hot streak pulled the Stars to within touching distance of postseason position, a subsequent tumble has jeopardized Dallas' nascent playoff hopes. The Stars have won just three of their last nine games, widening an already expansive gap between them and the division's top teams, as the fourth-place Colorado Avalanche currently hold a seven-point lead on Dallas in the standings.

The distance between the Stars and their fellow postseason hopefuls was driven home Tuesday night, when Dallas closed out a short two-game homestand with a 6-2 loss to the first-place Chicago Blackhawks.

"It was poor from start to finish," center Shawn Horcoff said. "I don't think there was any one area you could point to."

While the defeat could have been demoralizing, Dallas has shown its own knack for scoring and the potential to stay in the race in recent games. Just three nights before the loss to Chicago the Stars beat up the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that has been among the League's best over the last five weeks, 5-1. If there is a time for the Stars to make a move up the standings, this could be it. The new Stanley Cup Playoffs format is heavily division-based, and the Stars will face Central opponents in their next four games, including two matchups with Colorado.

Predators: Ten teams in the NHL have the misfortune of currently being under .500 on the season, and the Predators are not one of them. Nashville, with its .500 record, does have the misfortune of playing in arguably the toughest division in the League, however, which means their even mark is only good enough for the Central Division cellar. Two weeks ago the Predators had been right in the playoff mix, but a disastrous homestand, in which they lost all four games, has dealt considerable damage to the team's hopes.

Nashville did manage to stem the tide Tuesday night, beating the New York Rangers, 4-1, at Madison Square Garden. The win came thanks to a surprising offensive explosion from the Predators' fourth line of Paul Gaustad, Matt Hendricks and Rich Clune, which combined for three goals and seven points in the win.

"I've been happy with the way our line has played. We have tons of O-zone time," Clune said. "We get so much time on the forecheck and cycling pucks, you want something to drop sooner or later. Especially when you're not winning."

As Nashville comes home for three straight games at Bridgestone Arena, the team will look to build some much-needed momentum with another victory, as the upcoming schedule does the Predators no favors. Their next five games after facing the Stars on Thursday are all against teams currently in playoff position.

Who's hot: The lone bright spot for Dallas in its loss to Chicago might have been left wing Antoine Roussel, who scored two goals. He now has five goals and two assists in his past seven games. … Gaustad had an impressive night in Nashville's win against New York, scoring one goal and adding two assists.

Injury report: Forward Vernon Fiddler (upper body) is expected to miss at least a week after leaving the Stars' win against Philadelphia on Saturday. Defensemen Trevor Daley (ankle), Aaron Rome (lower body) and Stephane Robidas (broken leg) are all on injured reserve. … Nashville forward Craig Smith (flu) is questionable, while goalie Pekka Rinne (hip infection) and forward Filip Forsberg (upper body) are both on IR.

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