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Stars hope to keep it going at L.A.

by Matthew Mankiewich
STARS (35-23-7) at KINGS (36-25-4)


Last 10 -- Dallas 4-5-1, Los Angeles (6-3-1)

Season series -- More than three quarters of the NHL season in the books and these Pacific Division rivals have only completed half their season series, the Kings having taken two of three so far. Most importantly, the three remaining meetings could reflect huge swings in the next couple of weeks, as only one point separates the two in the Western Conference standings.

Big story -- They're both in playoff spots for the moment, the Stars in sixth as they jockey with Phoenix for second place in the Pacific Division, the Kings in eighth with the Ducks nipping at their heels one point back. It's also a final opportunity for the Kings to build on their 3-2-0 homestand before spending the rest of the month on the road, including a stop in Dallas. The Stars appear to have righted themselves after a 1-9-0 February swoon knocked them off the top of the division, winning four of their last five.

Team scope:

Stars -- In this chaotic Western Conference, one of the few certainties had been a Dallas lead after two periods. Going into March, they were 17-0-2 with a second-intermission lead this season and 38-1-4 over the last two. Then they blew a two-goal lead in Phoenix before Jamie Benn bailed them out in the closing seconds and did the same thing in Anaheim, Lubomir Visnovsky's hat trick turning a 3-1 lead into a 4-3 overtime loss.

That made ending the Sharks' eight-game winning streak on Saturday all the sweeter. Displaying none of the tentative third-period play from the previous two games, they came from 2-1 down to take away the two points, 3-2.

"It was a big win for the team," said Jason Williams, who scored the go-ahead goal. "I feel that when I can use my shot it makes it difficult for the goaltender. It’s just going out there and making the most of your opportunity. I got a little more ice time tonight. It’s unfortunate that Jamie (Langenbrunner)’s hurt, but down the stretch you need guys to step up and play big roles, and I thought we got a good effort from everybody. It was a good rebound game from Anaheim last night."

Kings -- The numbers certainly bear out what Los Angeles fans have known all season, that the Kings have not scored at the same rate they did last year. And it's not because of the top two lines, whose production is on pace year-to-year. The biggest dropoff comes from the third line. As Rich Hammond points out on the Kings' official blog, the current third line is on pace for 73-83 points from 133 last season. It's been a scramble to replace the lost offense, and coach Terry Murray has reverted to his season-starting combo of Alexei Ponikarovsky joining mainstays Michal Handzus and Wayne Simmonds.

"Poni, he’s responding to a challenge," Murray told Hammond. "He’s working very hard, playing pretty physical and getting those bumps whenever the opportunity is there. And you get a reward for that. So there’s probably a different look for him tomorrow. He gets moved up to a higher line, to play with Zeus, and hopefully he responds and keeps going, actually. Not responds, but keeps going with the same kind of intensity and the same kind of purpose to his game."

Who's hot -- Not only has Benn had three goals in his last three games, they've been big ones, and it's no coincidence the Stars are 4-1-1 since he returned from injury. Loui Eriksson has four goals over a five-game point streak. Kari Lehtonen has been in nets for those six games, posting a 1.98 goals-against average. Defenseman Alex Goligoski has four points in his first five games in a Stars uniform and one of the team leaders in ice time. Kings forward Dustin Penner scored his first goal as a King Saturday. Jonathan Bernier will get the start against the Stars, and is 3-0-2 with a 1.16 GAA in his last five turns in nets.

Injury report -- Langenbrunner was scratched Saturday night with an undisclosed upper-body injury. It was the first game he missed since arriving in a trade with the Devils Jan. 7. Brad Richards remains out with a concussion sustained Feb. 13 but has resumed skating. Defenseman Nicklas Grossman (hip) was expected back on Saturday, but is still day-to-day. Other than Scott Parse's long recovery from hip surgery, the Kings will hit the ice fully staffed.

Stat pack -- Whenever these two teams meet in Staples Center, it's usually a tight one. Eight of the last 11 games played in Los Angeles have been decided by one goal, and six of those went past regulation, the Kings winning all of them. Kings defenseman Jack Johnson leads both teams with a goal and four assists in the three head-to-head games played so far. Lehtonen is coming off back-to-back games and has played 16 out of 17. Benn's minutes have been steadily increasing in the few games since his return to compensate for Richards' absence, as have Goligoski's to fill in for Grossman.

Puck drop -- "We're very aware of it. But you need your best players to be your best players, and he is one of our best players. He's got a day off (Sunday), so when you get a chance to recoup, you take that.'' -- Stars coach Marc Crawford in the Dallas Morning News on Lehtonen's heavy workload given his early-career injury history

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