NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Stanley Cup playoffs don't begin for a little more than a month, but tonight's matchup between the Stars and Predators will certainly have a postseason-like feel to it.
The Central Division rivals will square off for the first time since they played outdoors in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, opening a late-season home-and-home at Bridgestone Arena.
Though there will be about 65,000 fewer people in attendance than there was at the historic Cotton Bowl, the Stars expect another difficult challenge in an enviornment that will be charged up.
[GAME DAY GUIDE: Everything you need to know before Stars face Predators tonight]
"We better have our A-game ready to go," Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said following morning skate. "It's gonna be a playoff-type atmosphere, and it's gonna be a playoff-type intensity out there. We just better be ready for that."
The two-game miniseries also adds a little more fire to an already intense rivalry that dates back to Dallas' first-round series win over Nashville in last year's playoffs. The teams meet again to close out their regular season slate at American Airlines Center on Saturday afternoon at 1.
Dallas has points in seven of its past nine games against Nashville (5-2-2) and four straight at Bridgestone Arena.
For Stars center Jason Dickinson, the intensity is all part of the fun.
"I think there's a lot of fire between these two teams anyways," he said, "and with back-to-back games, it just creates a little bit more animosity."
Video: "There's a lot of fire between these two teams"
Nashville has seen its share of changes since the outdoor game, so Dallas may get a different look at their familiar foe. On Jan. 6, the Predators fired longtime coach Peter Laviolette in the middle of his sixth season with the club and tapped former Devils bench boss John Hynes as his replacement one day later.
Three months later, the Predators find themselves sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference wild-card race with 72 points, trying to close a two-point gap on Vancouver and Winnipeg (tied at 74 points) for one of the final spots.
Captain Roman Josi leads the Predators in points with 62, and three players -- Filip Forsberg, Nick Bonino and Craig Smith -- are knotted with a team-high 18 goals. Prized offseason addition Matt Duchene has 12 in 63 games.
Despite personnel moves by the Predators, Dickinson said he doesn't expect a game "much different than two teams battling hard for crucial points" as the regular season winds down.
"Since we last saw them, we've seen some coaching changes for them, so we might get a little bit better picture of what they're going to bring at us as far as their game plan," Dickinson said of the back-to-back. "But I think we know each other pretty well. We know what to expect, we know to expect a hard game. They're in a win-now position and we've let three games slide in a row now, so we've got to win as well."
Bowness' message? Be ready.
"We just better be ready to respond," he said. "It's in interesting thing to have these two games Thursday night (and) Saturday afternoon, and both games should be exciting and great hockey."
Khudobin gets another start for Stars
Anton Khudobin will make his third straight start in net for Dallas, looking to continue a strong run against the Predators. In his last start at Nashville on Dec. 14, Khudobin stopped 37 of 38 shots in a 4-1 victory.
Khudobin has earned points in four of his last five outings against the Predators, which includes one of his most memorable performances in a Stars uniform -- a 49-save shutout victory on Dec. 27, 2018 at Bridgestone Arena coming off the holiday break.
Video: Stars ready for March mini-series with Predators
Bowness said Ben Bishop, who was held out of Tuesday's overtime loss against Edmonton with a lower-body injury, is healthy and has been cleared to return to action. The Stars called up 2017 first-round pick Jake Oettinger on Tuesday on an emergency basis and reassigned him to the AHL on Wednesday -- a good sign for Bishop.
"(Bishop) had a full practice today, practice tomorrow and we'll go from there," Bowness said. "But he's ready to go."
Defenseman Roman Polak stayed back in Dallas for the one-game trip while attending to a family matter, Bowness said, so Andrej Sekera will remain in the lineup on the third pairing with Jamie Oleksiak.
By the numbers
Jamie Benn's six-game assist streak is the captain's longest since he reached a career-best seven games between Dec. 19-31, 2015.
Nashville's Viktor Arvidsson has tallied 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in his last 15 games against the Stars.
With his game-tying goal in Tuesday's overtime loss to Edmonton, John Klingberg became the first defenseman in franchise history to reach the 30-point mark in each of his first six NHL seasons. He is also one of only three Stars blueliners to reach the plateau in consecutive years, joining Hall of Famer Sergei Zubov and Darryl Sydor.
He said it
"I came in here with Vancouver in the playoffs and it was the loudest rink I've been in in a long time ... it was incredibly loud. It's a great atmosphere here. This is a great franchise, great fan base. I think it's a great building to play in because of that excitement from the fans and the noise from the fans."
-- Bowness on the enviornment of Bridgestone Arena, frequently mentioned as one of the league's toughest rinks for opposing teams to play in
Stars projected lineup
Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Corey Perry
Roope Hintz - Jason Dickinson - Denis Gurianov
Andrew Cogliano - Radek Faksa - Blake Comeau
Mattias Janmark - Joe Pavelski - Alexander Radulov
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen - Stephen Johns
Jamie Oleksiak - Andrej Sekera
Scratched: C Justin Dowling, D Roman Polak, D Taylor Fedun
Injured: C Martin Hanzal (back)
Spend your afternoon with the Stars when they return home to battle the Nashville Predators at American Airlines Center on Saturday at 1 p.m. Get your tickets now!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Jeff Odom is the manager of DallasStars.com and writes about the Stars/NHL. Follow him on Twitter @jeffodom.