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Jackets host Stars in Claude Noel's coaching debut

by Brian Hunter

STARS (25-20-11) at BLUE JACKETS (22-27-9)

Last 10 -- Dallas 6-4-0; Columbus 4-6-0

Season series -- It's the fourth and final meeting of the regular season. Columbus has won two of three so far. The Blue Jackets split a pair of games in Dallas, winning 4-1 on Nov. 19 as Kristian Huselius scored both shorthanded and on the power play, and dropping a 3-1 decision on Dec. 23 as James Neal tallied a pair of goals for the Stars. They won the only meeting this season at Nationwide Arena, 2-0 on Jan. 10, as Mathieu Garon stopped all 26 shots he faced.

Big story -- When the Jackets hit the ice at Nationwide Arena, there will be a new face running the bench. With his team mired in 13th place in the West, GM Scott Howson fired Ken Hitchcock on Wednesday and named assistant Claude Noel as interim coach. Hitchcock led the Blue Jackets to the first playoff berth in franchise history last season, but the team has struggled over the last three months, and Howson felt a change had to be made.

Team Scope:

Stars -- Thursday's game begins a stretch in which Dallas plays four of its remaining five games before the Olympic break on the road. The Stars completed a four-game homestand with three wins by doubling up the Wild, winning 4-2 on Tuesday. Marty Turco was outstanding in net, making 40 saves, and 39-year-old Mike Modano continued to step up his performance of late with a goal and an assist.

"It's been a good stretch," said Modano, who now has seven goals and two assists in his last 10 games. "I've felt better, I feel like I'm getting some good looks on net, and getting some quality chances and shots that have been finding their way through some legs and the goalies. So it's been a good run, I'm feeling a little better, opportunities have been following me around, rebounds have been there, some guys have made some good passes to free up some shots, so it's been a good half-dozen games or so."

Blue Jackets
-- Columbus has alternated wins and losses over its last eight games, dropping a 5-1 decision in Colorado on Tuesday. The Jackets were blitzed for five unanswered goals by the Avs, including a pair of shorthanded tallies in the third period.

That was apparently enough to persuade Howson that a change had to be made behind the bench.

"Hitch worked tirelessly to build an identity for this team that was missing before he arrived and deserves a great deal of credit for those efforts," Howson said. "He earned and received the opportunity to turn things around this season, but unfortunately that has not happened and it has become apparent that change is in the best interest of our organization. Claude Noel is a good hockey coach with a proven track record in the American Hockey League. He knows our team and is deserving of this opportunity."

Who's hot
-- While Modano has been pacing the Dallas attack, Jamie Benn has two goals and an assist in his last three games. ... Columbus captain Rick Nash has five goals and five assists in his last nine games.

Injury report
-- Stars forward Brian Sutherby is expected to miss a week with a sprained shoulder. Forward Mike Ribeiro remains out after a tracheotomy and forward Tom Wandell is out for the season following left knee surgery. ... Blue Jackets defenseman Mike Commodore is day-to-day with a charley horse in his left leg, while defenseman Rostislav Klesla is out indefinitely with a groin injury.

Stat pack
-- Modano's game-winning goal against Minnesota was the 92nd of his career. That moved him past Wayne Gretzky and into a tie for 10th on the all-time list with Teemu Selanne of Anaheim and the retired duo of Jeremy Roenick and Mark Messier. ... Columbus has gone 8-4-4 against Dallas since April 18, 2006.

Puck drop
-- With the Jackets barely alive in the playoff race, Noel will have to get a number of key players to step up their performance if they hope to make the postseason again. His biggest question is likely to be in goal, where neither Calder winner Steve Mason nor veteran Mathieu Garon has played well enough to grab the No. 1 job. Noel's job prospects and the Jackets' playoff fate may rest on the next five games -- all of which are at home. A win over the Stars would be a first step in the right direction.

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