After the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup seven months ago, it was easy to envision them back near the top of the standings near the midpoint of this season.
What wasn't so predictable was finding the Dallas Stars near the bottom.
Twenty points separate last season's Western Conference finalists, a gap the Red Wings will try to widen with their fifth straight victory on Thursday when they host the Stars.
It took six games for Detroit to eliminate the Stars en route to the franchise's 11th Stanley Cup championship, and for the most part, coach Mike Babcock's teams has picked up right where it left off. The Red Wings (27-7-5) have 59 points in 39 games, and are on pace to finish with 124.
Detroit gave up the fewest goals in the league last season, but it's in the middle of the pack in 2008-09, allowing 2.82 goals per game while starting goalie Chris Osgood has battled injuries. Backup Ty Conklin has kept the Wings afloat, going 6-1-1 with a 1.86 goals-against average and three shutouts since Dec. 18.
Conklin's latest shutout came Tuesday, when he stopped all 23 Columbus shots in a 3-0 victory at Joe Louis Arena.
"I feel real good, period. I certainly feel a lot more comfortable than when I first got here," Conklin said. "The first couple games I was tentative and had some butterflies but now I'm a lot calmer and I feel comfortable behind this team. Hopefully, it works both ways."
Over the same stretch Conklin has rescued the Wings on the back line, Pavel Datsyuk has carried them up front. Datsyuk, named to his third All-Star team on Wednesday, has nine goals and 17 points since Dec. 18 - both league highs.
The Stars (17-16-5) will certainly be paying attention to Datsyuk's whereabouts. Detroit's star center had a hat trick in the Wings' pivotal Game 3 victory over Dallas last spring, then scored the winning goal in the Game 6 clincher.
Datsyuk, however, was held off the scoreboard in the team's first meeting this season, a 3-1 Stars win in Dallas on Dec. 12.
The Stars are only one point ahead of Los Angeles for fourth place in the Pacific Division, but they're also just four points out of the conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
They've started to move up the standings recently. Dallas is 6-2-1 in its last nine games, and evened its record at 1-1 on its current four-game road trip with a 3-2 shootout win at Vancouver on Sunday.
The Stars had been outshot 39-19 in a 4-1 loss at Edmonton the previous night.
"The energy level for me was as good as it could have been," goaltender Marty Turco said after his ninth straight start. "Sometimes I find it easier on the second nights of back to back just because you are kind of in that mode already."
Turco is 7-2-1 with a 2.62 GAA since stopping 37 shots in the win against Detroit last month. In his regular-season career against the Wings, Turco is 3-10-0 with five ties and a 2.78 GAA.
Stars rookie winger James Neal, who scored the shootout winner in Vancouver, has five goals in his last six games.