STARS (19-5-1) at CANUCKS (9-9-8)
TV: FS-SW, SN360
VANCOUVER -- Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen is likely to return from an upper-body injury to start against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.
Lehtonen, who has missed three games since leaving early against the Ottawa Senators after a crease collision on Nov. 24, was taken off injured reserve Wednesday and was the first goalie off the ice after an optional morning skate Thursday. Antti Niemi, who started and played overtime in three games while Lehtonen was injured, stayed on the ice working with goalie coach Jeff Reese long after most of the regulars had showered, changed and left the arena.
If it is Lehtonen, who is 9-1-0 with a .921 save percentage this season, he should benefit from a renewed defensive focus in front of him.
Dallas blew a 3-0 lead in the third period and lost 4-3 in a shootout against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday, and lost 7-4 to the Senators in the game Lehtonen was injured. In the two wins sandwiched between those losses, including a 3-2 shootout victory against the Canucks and a 4-3 overtime win against the Minnesota Wild, coach Lindy Ruff said the Stars' defensive play slipped.
Correcting it was the focus of an intense practice here Wednesday.
"Our play away from the puck has been down a little bit," Ruff said. "That's always the challenge when you have gifted offensive players, is to ask them for what I would call the simpler play."
Dallas leads the Western Conference at 19-5-1, and with 87 goals. Top-line forwards Jamie Benn (35 points) and Tyler Seguin (34 points) are second and third in NHL scoring, and Benn leads the League with 18 goals. But if you ask Seguin, the biggest reason for the Stars' early success has been the forwards' role on defense.
"It starts with the forwards and how we come back and how focused we want to be in our own zone, not blowing out trying to cheat for offense," Seguin said. "It's defending our net before anything else. We've worked hard and really focused on how we are going to play in our own zone, not offensively, and everything else just kind of flows from there."
Vancouver has three wins in its past 14 games (3-7-4); 11 of those were on the road. The Canucks start a four-game homestand missing five regulars, including top-pair defensemen Christopher Tanev and two-way center Brandon Sutter, who has missed three weeks and will be out another four to six after having sports hernia surgery earlier this week.
Forward Ronalds Kenins, who was a surprise training camp cut after finishing last season with the Canucks, has been called up from the American Hockey League and will play on the second line.
"I didn't deserve to be here," said Kenins, who was criticized for trying to play too cute during training camp and preseason. "Now I have another chance and hopefully I can prove it. Definitely
I know what I have to do to be physical out there and play my game."
Here are the projected lineups:
Jamie Benn -Tyler Seguin - Patrick Sharp
Mattias Janmark - Jason Spezza - Patrick Eaves
Antoine Roussel - Cody Eakin - Valeri Nichushkin
Colton Sceviour - Vernon Fiddler - Ales Hemsky
Alex Goligoski - John Klingberg
Johnny Oduya - Jordie Benn
Jamie Oleksiak - Patrik Nemeth
Scratched: Travis Moen, Jyrki Jokipakka
Injured: Jason Demers (upper body)
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Jannik Hansen
Ronalds Kenins - Bo Horvat - Radim Vrbata
Sven Baertschi - Adam Cracknell - Alexandre Burrows
Brandon Prust - Jared McCann - Derek Dorsett
Alexander Edler - Alex Biega
Dan Hamhuis - Yannick Weber
Luca Sbisa - Matt Bartkowski
Injured: Jake Virtanen (upper body), Chris Higgins (upper body), Christopher Tanev (hand), Brandon Sutter (sports hernia surgery), Ben Hutton (lower body)
Status report: With Demers leaving the game in Calgary early and not skating the past two days, Dallas was expected to insert either Oleksiak or Nemeth into the lineup, but based on the morning skate it appears they will play ahead of Jokipakka. Ruff said it was about taking care of the front of the net better. "They both have size," Ruff said of Oleksiak and Nemeth. "I want them to be heavy around the front of the net. I thought around the front of the net we weren't a tough enough team to play against last game." … Higgins, Tanev and Hutton skated Thursday morning and are expected back soon, but Virtanen, who was injured by a cross check against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday and didn't play against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, "is going to be a little bit," coach Willie Desjardins said.
Who's hot: The Stars have defeated the Canucks nine straight times, including twice this season, and Dallas captain Jamie Benn has eight goals, including an overtime winner, and eight assists (16 points) in his past 12 games against Vancouver.