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Stars focus on reviving power play

by Steve Hunt
DALLAS -- It's no big secret that the Dallas Stars' power play has been struggling of late. Over their last 10 games, that unit is 5-for-37 (13.5 percent). So it wasn't surprising to hear Stars first-year coach Glen Gulutzan say the primary focus of Wednesday's practice would be on improving the performance of that group.

Tonight Dallas (20-14-1, 41 points) hosts Columbus (9-22-5, 23 points), a team whose penalty kill currently ranks 29th in the NHL, killing off 74.6 percent of opposing power plays, and the Stars hope to get their power play going in fairly short order.

"We've got to see it on the ice. It'll be a good test because Columbus' PK is very, very aggressive. We talked about our work ethic 5-versus-4 that has to improve," Gulutzan said. "It's a good game for us to ramp up our work ethic."

Besides trying to ramp up their PP, the other big story surrounding the home side is the return of Kari Lehtonen to the nets tonight after a 12-game absence. The Finnish netminder suffered a groin injury in a Nov. 26 loss at Phoenix and hasn't played since.

Prior to his injury, Lehtonen was 13-4-1 with a 2.34 goals-against-average in 19 games, and getting their top goaltender back figures to be a huge lift for Dallas.

"It's big. It's a huge lift for us," Gulutzan said. "He's completely healthy now. To have him back is a big boost for our team."

While Dallas will get a huge lift from Lehtonen's return, the club is still dealing with several injuries, most notably on the blue line. Veterans Stephane Robidas (foot) and Sheldon Souray (ankle) figure to miss between 10 to 14 days as they recover from their respective ailments, leaving the Stars not only thin in the back but also on the power play, where both veterans log their share of minutes.

Columbus enters tonight's game riding a six-game winless streak after losing 2-1 to Calgary in a shootout on Tuesday night. The Blue Jackets are also just 3-12-2 on the road this season and have lost their last three games away from home.

The Dallas players are well aware of their next opponent's recent struggles, but also realize those woes mean nothing once the puck is dropped tonight at American Airlines Center.

"Obviously they have struggled the early part of the year. It's a team you can't take lightly," Stars third-line center Vernon Fiddler said. "They have talent over there that can bite you if you don't take care of things."

These teams have already faced each other twice this season, with Dallas taking both meetings. The Stars defeated the Jackets 4-2 at home on Oct. 15 and delivered a 3-2 win at Columbus just three days later.

Getting those four points was great for his team, but Gulutzan knows those results have little to no bearing on how things could play out tonight.

"We know what we're up against. They've been leading in lots of games late," he said. "They're physical. They're moving. They're healthy. Every game is its own in this League. Just because we won back in October has no merit now. We know we're in for a tough contest."
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