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What to watch for as Stars face Ducks in important home tilt

Dallas will try to get back in the win column at American Airlines Center before its six-game road trip

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / Inside Edge

The Dallas Stars will try to take advantage of the cozy confines of American Airlines Center tonight and rediscover their winning ways before heading out on a critical six-game road trip as they entertain the Anaheim Ducks.

Here's what to watch for.

 

Restating the obvious

The Stars will play at home for the sixth time in seven games. They are a tepid 2-2-2 over that stretch of time, including Tuesday's 2-0 loss in Nashville. But of more pressing concern isn't the recent past, but the imminent future.

After tonight's game, the Stars will have 14 remaining, and just four of those will be at home. It behooves the Stars, who have -- for the most part -- been exemplary at home with a 23-10-3 record, to bank two important points before embarking on a road trip that could very well determine whether they're a playoff team or not.

The Stars did not look particularly sharp in an overtime loss to Ottawa on Monday at AAC, and then they could not take advantage of a superlative effort by Kari Lehtonen on Tuesday, so there is general agreement that the Stars have lots more to give.

Tonight, it would seem, would be an opportune to do just that before the rubber hits the road -- both literally and figuratively.

Video: Hitch responds to Hanzal news

 

Gathering the reinforcements

Of course, the news of the day, delivered by general manager Jim Nill, was that center Martin Hanzal will undergo season-ending back fusion surgery in the coming days and require six to seven months of recovery.

The reality is, though, that the Stars had become used to playing without Hanzal. And no matter how important he was when he played -- that happened just 38 times -- there had been a feeling even before this announcement of the team moving on.

Yes, Hanzal was key on both sides of special teams and in terms of important faceoffs. "But I think a couple of weeks ago, to be honest with you, we got on with business," Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think we were starting to figure out that this was more serious than we thought, and obviously, it turned out that way."

And in that sense, while the news of Hanzal's season coming to an end is disappointing, it actually isn't as significant -- at least in the short term -- as the news that Radek Faksa and Esa Lindell both look to return to the lineup tonight after missing the last two games with a foot injury and illness, respectively.

Faksa's absence was felt up and down the forward lineup given his importance to the penalty kill, key faceoffs and general effectiveness in all three zones on the ice. And Lindell, who has formed an important tandem with John Klingberg, was also missed for his steadiness and versatility.

That will be important against an Anaheim team that Hitchcock refers to as one of the savviest, most veteran teams in the Western Conference.

The other, ongoing ripple effect of the Hanzal absence is that this merely reconfirms an open audition for the team's top center prospect, Jason Dickinson. This isn't to say Hanzal out, Dickinson in. One is a veteran, two-way center that, when healthy, is one of the best in the business. The latter is a rookie.

But with Hanzal gone for the season, this is a chance for Dickinson to log some penalty-kill time, win some key faceoffs and generate some offense playing in his natural position as a center.

What do they say about seizing the moment?

 

Patching up the offense

The return of Lindell to the fold simplifies things on the back end, restoring the natural defensive order with Klingberg and Lindell reunited and Marc Methot returning to a pairing with Stephen Johns that had been very effective prior to the Lindell injury.

That is the easy part.

Up front, Hitchcock wants to keep Jamie Benn on the wing, but needs to balance his scoring, so look for Benn to move to the left side with Faksa and Tyler Pitlick.

Not to put any pressure on the trio, but they've got to deliver if the team is going to compete against bigger, deeper teams like the Ducks. Benn has one goal in his last 14 games (it happened to be the overtime winner against St. Louis a week ago) and Hitchcock is hoping Pitlick and Faksa will be a good fit with Benn.

"I think it's what their style brings," Hitchcock said of Pitlick and Faksa. "This isn't the time of season for reputation, this is the time of season for who's being productive and who's not, and then you've got to adjust accordingly.

"And look, Faksa and Pitlick have been very productive players in both ends of the rink, so we're hoping that they help Jamie be productive also so that we've got a second line that can really impact the game in a positive way."

With Tyler Seguin anchoring the team's de-facto top line with Mattias Janmark and Alexander Radulov, Hitchcock is hoping the reconstituted second line with Faksa in the middle and Benn on the wing can provide a critical one-two punch offensively.

For a team that has been shut out three times in its last 11 games, generating offense from anywhere in the lineup will be a key factor in reaching the playoffs.

 

The Kari Lehtonen Show

The good news on Ben Bishop's tender left knee, injured in the first period Monday night when Dan Hamhuis fell on the Stars netminder, is that the goaltender is going to accompany the team on their upcoming road trip.

But there is no real timetable for his return to the ice and/or game action. And so, for the moment, this is Lehtonen's team. Does that subtle distinction change anything in Lehtonen or the team's mindset? It shouldn't.

Lehtonen has been a rock all season. His loss Tuesday, where he stopped 32 of 33 shots, was just his third as a starter in his last 11 games (8-3-0). He's allowed fewer than three goals in eight of those starts. He's been the team's most pleasant surprise this season, and he is a key factor in the Stars' standing as a playoff team heading into this critical stretch.

That the team's reliance on him is about to grow, at least in the short term, should change nothing. Rather, it must change nothing.

Video: Nill updates Martin Hanzal's status

 
Miller time redux

The Ducks played Thursday in Nashville, where they lost 4-2 to the red-hot, Central Division-leading Predators in a hard-fought, emotional game. Look for backup Ryan Miller to get his second straight start against Dallas, having pitched a masterful 41-save shutout en route to a 2-0 Anaheim win during a West Coast road trip last month.

It was a game that turned on a squandered 5-on-3 for the Stars of just more than two minutes in the third period, and on Miller's goaltending. But 5-on-5, the Stars gave as good as they've got to a very deep, veteran team, and in fact, allowed just 17 shots on goal.

Tonight, the Stars will need to see more of the same against a Ducks team that has survived early-season injuries to move into third place in the Pacific -- one point out of second.

"Well, they're a physical team. They play in your face. You have to get used to that," Hitchcock said. "If you think you're going to avoid it, you're not. You're going to have to dig in, and there's a price to pay.

"Anaheim makes you pay a price, and if you're not willing to pay the price, you don't win the hockey game."

Since Feb. 15, the Ducks have a league-best 2.00 GAA and have now gone a franchise-record nine games without giving up a power-play goal.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Scott Burnside is a senior digital correspondent for DallasStars.com. You can follow him on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his podcast.

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