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Stars have two big points at stake against Sharks

by Matthew Mankiewich
STARS (38-26-11) at SHARKS (44-23-9)


Last 10:
Dallas 3-3-4; San Jose 6-1-3

Season series:
Final game of the requisite six between the Pacific Division rivals, but it will be the third this month alone, and it's a series in which the Stars hold a 3-1-1 edge. Of only two regulation losses in March for the Sharks (8-2-3), one came at the hands of the Stars, 3-2 on March 5.

Big story: The music is starting to run out and the Stars better find a chair quick. Still only three points behind the eighth-place Blackhawks despite a 1-3-3 stretch, the season has dwindled down to seven more games to work their way into the playoffs, and five of those are on the road. The Sharks opened up some space in the Pacific Division by beating the Coyotes on Saturday and moved within a point of the Red Wings for the second seed in the Western Conference. They can clinch a playoff spot with a win Thursday.

Team scope:

Stars: The effort deserved a better result. The Stars toiled against the Coyotes to force overtime, outshot them 45-27 and got the game into a shootout, but Ilya Bryzgalov was slightly better as Ray Whitney's shot just trickled past Kari Lehtonen to give Phoenix the 2-1 win Tuesday. The point helped, but a second one would have helped more.

"I thought we played a good enough game to get two points, but we'll take one I guess," said Jamie Benn, who scored both the lone regulation goal for Dallas and the only one for them in the shootout. "I think if we play like that from here on in, we'll win some games."

"We did a lot of good things. We just can't give up and we have to keep battling," defenseman Stephane Robidas said. "We know all the teams that we can compete against, and we know we can beat them. We've done it this year. It's just a matter of doing the little things consistently. We just can't give up … that's the worst thing."

Sharks: It's been more of a formality over the years as the Sharks often had their sights set significantly higher, but clinching a playoff spot this year will be more special than usual, especially given the doubts cast on this team as late as mid-January.

"I think this season more than any," Douglas Murray said in the San Jose Mercury News, "it will be somewhat of a relief based on the way this season has gone, how we started, how we played a little more than half of the year and how tight it’s been."

Coach Todd McLellan isn't buying in so quickly, however.

"We've gone that route before, where we get excited about small accomplishments and it's done nothing for us," he said in the Mercury News. "It's about our game."

Who's hot:
While many of the Sharks' top offensive stars struggled through most of the season only to pick up the pace down the stretch, Logan Couture is one player who has stayed consistent all year. Two goals on Saturday brought him to 30 on the season and added to his franchise rookie record. Ryane Clowe added a Gordie Howe hat trick with a goal, two assists, and a fight with Paul Bissonnette. … Mike Ribeiro has been a rock for the Stars with only five scoreless games in his last 18 and 20 points over that stretch, but he came up empty against Phoenix. Benn has 9 goals and 16 points in 13 March games, and more importantly has 3 goals and 4 assists in the five games against San Jose so far.

Injury report:
Stars winger Adam Burish (lower body) has been out six games, but is expected to return soon, as is defenseman Karlis Skrastins (lacerated leg), but no return date has been set for defenseman Nicklas Grossman (sprained knee ligament) or forward Brian Sutherby (back). … For the Sharks, both forward Scott Nichol and defenseman Kent Huskins have been out since February, but are skating without timetables themselves.

Stat pack:
Before the Coyotes forced the Sharks' power play to pull an oh-fer Saturday, they had scored a goal in nine straight games, then the longest active streak in the NHL. They still have a 7-for-28 mark in eight straight wins against Phoenix. Saturday was also the third time in four games the Sharks have scored at least four goals. On the other hand, the Stars have been held to fewer than three goals in four of their last six, a span in which Brad Richards has also failed to score.

Puck drop: "We're focused on Dallas. They play us hard every game and we know it's going to be a competitive game, probably a really good one for us to play in after this break. As far as clinching and playoffs and that type of stuff, it takes care of itself if we play the game we're supposed to play, not only tomorrow night but moving forward for the rest of the season." -- McLellan in the Mercury News on the Sharks' opportunity to nail down a playoff spot Thursday night.

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