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Panthers hope to cool off surprising Stars

by David Kalan
STARS (4-1-0) at PANTHERS (2-2-0)


Season Series:
This is the only meeting between the Stars and Panthers this season. Florida took the last meeting in a shootout, 6-5, on Oct. 30, 2009.

Big Story: After suffering their first loss of the season, the Stars will look to rebound as they make a rare visit to Sunrise, Florida, where the rebuilding Panthers are searching for their third win in a row.

Team Scope:

Stars: After a disappointing 12th-place finish a season ago, Dallas was something of an enigma heading into this season. Gone were mainstay goaltender Marty Turco and career-long Star Mike Modano, with a crop of new younger players entering the roster. But whatever naysayers Marc Crawford's crew may have faced before the season appear to have been silenced with an impressive start for Dallas. After rallying from an early two-goal deficit against the highly-touted Devils to take their season opener, the Stars went on to take their first four games of the season. That run came to an end on the first stop of their brief jaunt through the Sunshine State on Monday in Tampa Bay, but a 4-1-0 start is better than most would have expected.

Appearances can be deceiving, however. Aside from a 4-1 victory over the Red Wings last week, none of Dallas' wins have come in regulation, which could feed the impression that their strong start is a result of some luck rather than skill. A cursory glance at the stats would refute that, however. Kari Lehtonen has had a strong start to the season with a .921 save percentage, while the offense has been sparked by a blistering pace set by Brenden Morrow and Loui Eriksson, who have combined for 9 goals in the season's first five games. Getting back on the long side of the ledger won't just make for a more pleasant flight home. It could be the jumping point for another hot streak for the Stars, who open up a six-game homestand on Saturday.
Panthers: Florida general manager Dale Tallon has wasted little time in his first year on the job. After spending the last several years building the 2010 Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks, Tallon is quickly making an imprint on the Panthers, gathering up numerous draft picks and shipping away expensive commodities like Nathan Horton. The resulting roster should endure some growing pains over the next few seasons as younger forwards like Stephen Weiss and David Booth continue to develop, but for any in the organization who doubt the direction Tallon is steering them towards, he could just as easily show them the birthday present he received Tuesday: a Stanley Cup Championship ring delivered by Blackhawks president John McDonough.

Despite the changes to the team's roster over the last six months, the Panthers have still managed to win their last two games and bring their early season record up to .500. For that they can mostly thank goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who has been superb in the early season. Vokoun's 1.26 goals-against average and .952 save percentage are tops in the League for any goaltender with four or more starts. With the potent offenses of division rivals Washington and Tampa Bay, that type of strength in net could help the Panthers make an unexpected run at a postseason berth. And Florida's own offense isn't without its share of firepower -- the Panthers beat the Lightning, 6-0, in their last outing Saturday.

Who's Hot: Brad Richards has had as strong a start as a pivot could hope for in Dallas this year, tallying 10 points in the season's first five games. Keeping that streak alive could be tough against Vokoun, who has stopped 56 shots while pitching back-to-back shutouts in his last two starts.

Injury Report: Jamie Benn is expected to play for Dallas after experiencing concussion-like symptoms. … Florida may be without defenseman Jason Garrison, who is questionable with a groin injury.

Stat Pack:
If there's one glaring flaw that should be of concern to Dallas, it's the tendency of the Stars' defense to give Lehtonen a heavy workload. Despite a solid start for the Finnish vet, Lehtonen has faced more than 40 shots in three of his five starts this year, as Dallas has allowed an average of 38 per game, the second most in the League. The porous defense should have Booth itching to get on for Florida. Booth is coming off a 2-goal outing against Tampa Bay, and has registered 18 shots on goal in his last three games.

Puck Drop:
It isn't often that Dallas and Florida get together, but with both teams off to a better-than-expected start the cross-conference showdown could be an important test as both sides look to sustain their winning ways.

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