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NHL Winter Classic

Winter Classic has crucial two points for Stars, Predators

Battling for position in Central Division heading into outdoor game at Cotton Bowl

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

DALLAS -- The stadium is big enough to fit more than 80,000 fans. The event is even bigger, especially with a national television audience and the bells and whistles of the State Fair of Texas serving as a backdrop.

But the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl Stadium between the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars on Wednesday (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS) has an added layer of significance that creates more interest and intrigue.

It's the NHL's marquee regular-season game being played between Central Division rivals and Stanley Cup Playoff opponents last season. It features one team, the Stars, who are hoping to continue a surge toward solidifying themselves in the playoff race, and another, the Predators, who need to start a surge to get back into the playoff picture.

 

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"It's a huge game," Predators captain Roman Josi said. "I mean, we're obviously not where we want to be in the standings and Dallas is a team that's in front of us. It's a big game because of the standings. It's a big game because we played them in the playoffs last year. The first game we lost to them this year. It's a huge game."

Nashville is four points out of a Stanley Cup Playoff position in the Western Conference, and six points behind the Stars, who are third in the Central Division with a one-point lead between them and the fourth-place Winnipeg Jets.

This will be the sixth of 12 Winter Classic games that features division rivals, but the first when one of the teams is entering the game on the wrong side of the playoff line.

"I think the fact that this is a very important game, and they're right on our heels, so they are going to be chomping at the bit to get that win," Stars goalie Ben Bishop said. "It's important for us to go out there and take care of business."

The Predators (18-14-6) arrived Monday fresh off losing two games in a row against the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, with goalie Pekka Rinne getting pulled in the first period of 5-2 loss Friday and Juuse Saros starting and suffering the same fate the next night in a 6-4 loss.

"It's inconsistency throughout our team, throughout our lineup, individually," Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "One night we play a game and we dominate. The next night we battle and win or we battle and lose. Then the next night we take completely off. It's really a tale of two teams right now."

Video: What should we expect for the 2020 Winter Classic?

The Predators believe they're better than they've shown. They think they can figure out a way to play more consistent. They definitely think they should. They also think, or hope, a win in the Winter Classic could be a springboard to a surge in the second half of their season.

"Totally," Nashville forward Ryan Johansen said. "We've lost our last two games in a row. Guys have been frustrated. We've wanted results. We're scratching and clawing to rise in the standings and gain points. With this game, it can bring a lot of confidence and a lot of swagger into our room and our group. The fun and excitement from all the guys, the coaches, the trainers, that's been brought out from this event so far. To add a win to that can give us a boost to string some wins together and go on a bit of a roll."

And, yes, the fact the Stars are the opponent factors into what Johansen is saying.

Nashville lost in six games against Dallas in the Western Conference First Round last season. The Predators lost to the Stars 4-1 at home on Dec. 14, when they blamed themselves for a lack of intensity and investment in the game.

"It's really a rivalry game and we owe them," Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. "It builds up for sure. You take into that that it's a Central Division matchup with the position we're in, we've got to fight like crazy for the points."

The Stars, although they're in a better position, especially because they've won their past two games, are taking a similar approach. It wasn't long ago they were in the same position the Predators are in now.

A 1-7-1 start to the season set the Stars back. They're 21-7-3 since Oct. 19, tied for third in wins and points (45) in the NHL, but they're not comfortable, especially with the Predators behind them.

"You go out there [Tuesday], you enjoy practice and then you enjoy the family time after and you enjoy your family and friends while they're here because they're a big part of your life and a big part of your career," Stars coach Rick Bowness said. "That being said, when we come in [Wednesday] you put that all aside and you focus on the job at hand, and that's the two points against a very tough, a very well-coached and a very hungry hockey club coming at us."

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