DENVER -- This should be a fun one.
The Stars and Avalanche are one point away from each other in the standings, with Dallas second in the Central Division at 56 points and Colorado third at 55 points. If the playoffs started today, the two would meet in the first round. What's more, the Stars have won three games against the Avalanche this season (one in a shootout, so points are 6-1), and this is the last meeting of the season between the two teams.
"It's our last kick at them," said Stars interim coach Rick Bowness. "We've taken five out of six points against them, and that's really the only reason we're ahead of them in the standings. This is a very important game. For them, it's a statement game, really. And we want to look at it like a playoff game. If we're going to end up playing these guys, then our approach has to be similar to their's.
"It's a statement game."
The two teams are an intriguing match-up. Dallas is first in goals against average (2.33) and save percentage (.926). Colorado is second in goal scoring (3.60) and has one of the top players in the NHL in Nathan MacKinnon. Dallas is 25th in scoring at 2.64 goals per game and Colorado is 12th in GAA at 2.96.
Video: DAL@COL: Avalanche present unique challenge for Stars
"They are very very quick, and they know how to get away from checks and get to open ice, and all of their (defensemen) are mobile and they move the puck really well to the forwards," Bowness said of the matchup. "So the key for us is keep our feet moving defensively without the puck and crowd them as much as we can."
The Stars are coming off a 2-1 loss at San Jose, but are 6-1-0 in their past seven games. Colorado is 0-2-1 in its past three games and 3-6-2 in its past 11.
Colorado coach Jared Bednar said the Avalanche have to be ready for the Stars' counterattack.
"A real good team we're playing again tonight, very similar in a lot of ways to Pittsburgh, and I thought we had a pretty good game against them," Bednar said of a 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins. "(Dallas') defense helps their attack a lot, one of the best rush coverage teams in the league. Power play is really on fire right now (7-for-14), so special teams and discipline will be important tonight."
Dallas has actually moved ahead of the Avalanche in power-play success rate as the Stars are now 14th at 20.2 percent to 19.6 percent for Colorado (16th). However, the Avalanche rank second in the NHL in power-play opportunities at 163 and Dallas is bottom 10 in times shorthanded at 152. So the Stars will need to try to stay out of the penalty box.
Klingberg returns after knee injury
John Klingberg returns to the lineup for Dallas after missing four games with a knee injury sustained in the Winter Classic. Klingberg was hit on the kneecap with a puck and that split the skin above his kneecap. He said he's feeling good now and ready to go.
Bowness is expected to put Klingberg back with Esa Lindell (who had been playing with Roman Polak) and will then move Polak back to the third pairing with Andrej Sekera. Miro Heiskanen and Jamie Oleksiak will stay together on the third pairing.
Bowness has had a tendency to simply roll his lines and D-pairs, and that means there will be times when the third pairing will be out against the Avalanche's deadly top line of MacKinnon between Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Bowness said he has learned to trust all of his players and said he's not panicked about matchups.
Video: DAL@COL: Klingberg ready to return to Stars' lineup
"With the way Big Rig (Oleksiak) has played with Miro and Roman with Andrej and Feds (Taylor Fedun), we haven't got beat up on the match-ups," Bowness said. "We have full confidence in all six or seven D that have played and all of the pairings on the ice. He (Klingberg) gives us more of an offensive threat, so when we're down a goal, his minutes will go up, and he'll play more with the Seguin line. But the match-ups? We're pretty comfortable on D with anybody out there."
Bowness also has been trusting the fourth line and has been balancing his minutes most nights, but he said the trust in the players and the use of everyone fairly equally is something he believes will help throughout the season.
"You have to trust them," Bowness said. "If you start changing on the fly all of the time, then you're changing your own game. You've got to build a trust, and they've got to know that. `OK, you're out there with MacKinnon's line, we've got to be able to trust you.' Even if it doesn't work initially, that trust will grow and they'll become better players."
Faksa out with upper-body injury
Radek Faksa had a collision in practice with Alexander Radulov Monday and suffered an upper body injury. He will sit out this game and could be ready to play Thursday against Buffalo, Bowness said.
Jason Dickinson will move up to the checking line with Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau, and Justin Dowling will jump into center the fourth line, which could be with Mattias Janmark and Joel Kiviranta. Dickinson should be just fine in the move up, but Dowling has been a healthy scratch for the past seven games, so he will have to transition back into the lineup.
"It's going to be a tough start for him, against this team for sure," Bowness said. "Your timing is off, your confidence is off, your reads are off a little bit. He works very hard, he's a true professional, and we put him in tough spots.
"This is a tough game to throw him in, and we'll have to be a little patient with him in the first period to get the timing down, to get the reads down, to get the confidence up."
Dowling has centered the top line on several occasions and is averaging 11:10 in time on ice this season. He has six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in his past 11 games.
Video: Stars, Avalanche have a storied history as rivals
"He can handle it, he's done it all year for us," Bowness said.
One other interesting change in the forward group could be that Joel Kiviranta gets to play the right wing with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Bowness had the rookie up there in practice Monday and said it's a possibility he could step into Alexander Radulov's place and that Radulov could play on the fourth line.
"We'll see. We'll get him out there every now and then," Bowness said of Kiviranta.
Corey Perry is serving the final game of a five-game suspension, so Kiviranta could be sent down to the AHL after this game if both Perry and Faksa return to the lineup Thursday. Taylor Fedun will come out of the lineup to make room for Klingberg.
Ben Bishop will be in net. He is coming off a 27-save shutout at Anaheim and is fifth in the NHL in GAA at 2.24 and fourth in save percentage at .928. Bishop is 8-7-0 in his career against the Avalanche with a 2.18 GAA and .926 save percentage.
By the numbers
The Avalanche are plus-26 in power-play opportunities in that they have earned 163 power plays and have been shorthanded 137 times. That's a sign of a fast offensive team that draws penalties. Dallas is minus-23 in that they have been shorthanded 152 times while only earning 129 power plays. That's typically the sign of a team that defends more.
Tyler Seguin has 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) and is plus-3 in 30 career games against the Avalanche.
After starting the season with two assists in 18 games, former Stars winger Valeri Nichushkin now has seven goals and seven assists for 14 points in his past 23 games with the Avalanche. Nichushkin also is plus-15 on the season.
He said it
"It's amazing to look in the standings. We've been playing really good, and you're still five points out of missing a playoff spot. That's crazy, but that's just how the league is right now."
-- Klingberg on how tight the standings are in the West
Stars projected lineup
Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov
Denis Gurianov - Roope Hintz - Joe Pavelski
Andrew Cogliano - Jason Dickinson - Blake Comeau
Mattias Janmark - Justin Dowling - Joel Kiviranta
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Jamie Oleksiak - Miro Heiskanen
Andrej Sekera - Roman Polak
Scratched: D Taylor Fedun
Injured: C Radek Faksa (upper body), D Stephen Johns (post-traumatic headaches), C Martin Hanzal (back)
Suspended: RW Corey Perry
Don't miss your chance to see the Stars take on the Buffalo Sabres when they return home to American Airlines Center on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Get your tickets now!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.