The Dallas Stars have played well the last few weeks. They are 7-2-0 in their last nine games and seem to be heading in the right direction. But there are still hills to climb, and one is to prove they can play against the top teams in the Central Division -- Nashville, Winnipeg, and St. Louis.
So far this season, the Stars are 0-5-0 against the big three in the division, and they have been outscored 22-8 in those games. They fell short in their latest test, a 5-2 loss to Nashville on Tuesday in Dallas. And now they get another crack tonight when they play at St. Louis.
"We haven't collected points from any of the top three teams, and we have to prove we can play with these guys whether it is St. Louis, Nashville or Winnipeg," said Stars coach Ken Hitchcock. "We've improved a lot in the last three weeks. There are a lot of elements in our game that you like, but we have not proven that we can beat the big boys. We want to take that next step and today's another chance to take that next step."
The Stars will turn to Kari Lehtonen in goal tonight against the Blues with Ben Bishop out with a sore back. Lehtonen is 3-3-1 with a 2.80 goals against average and .900 save percentage. He took over in the second period of Tuesday's game and stopped 15 of 17 shots after Hitchcock pulled Bishop. Lehtonen won his last start, stopping 25 of 27 shots in Sunday's 7-2 win at Colorado.
"We've put him in some tough spots. He's had to play back-to-backs, the tough travel to Colorado. We've put him in some tough spots, and he has answered the bell," Hitchcock said of Lehtonen. "We're kind of lucky that we've got a starting goaltender who plays a backup role. It's been a blessing for us because he's got us points when physically and mentally we've been a little bit down."
Video: Lehtonen in net tonight for the Stars
As for Bishop, he worked out on Thursday and Hitchcock said he expects Bishop to join the team for practice on Friday.
The status of forward Antoine Roussel, who has missed the last three games due to illness, is still up in the air. Roussel practiced Wednesday and skated this morning, but Hitchcock said a decision would come later today.
"We'll see how Roussel feels today after the skate," Hitchcock said. "If he feels fine, he'll play. If we need another day, we'll do that."
If Roussel can't go tonight, then the Stars will use the same 12 forwards as last game. On defense, it's expected to be the same six as last game with Julius Honka as the scratch.
The Stars (16-11-1) come into tonight's game on a three-game winning streak on the road.
Jake Allen is expected to get the start in goal for the Blues. He is 14-6-2 with a 2.75 goals against average and .906 save percentage this season. The Blues snapped a three-game slide with a 4-3 win at Montreal on Tuesday. St. Louis is 2-3-1 in its last six games and 5-5-1 over the last 11.
Who: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues
Where: Scottrade Center
When: 7 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports Southwest
Radio: The Ticket 1310 AM/96.7 FM
Stars Projected Lineup
Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov
Mattias Janmark - Jason Spezza - Devin Shore
Remi Elie - Radek Faksa - Tyler Pitlick
Curtis McKenzie - Gemel Smith - Brett Ritchie
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Dan Hamhuis - Greg Pateryn
Jamie Oleksiak - Stephen Johns
Scratched: Julius Honka
Injured: Antoine Roussel (illness), Ben Bishop (back), Martin Hanzal (hamstring), Marc Methot (knee)
Blues Projected Lineup
Vladimir Sobotka - Paul Stastny - Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz - Brayden Schenn - Alexander Steen
Magnus Paajarvi - Patrik Berglund - Dmitrij Jaskin
Scottie Upshall - Kyle Brodziak - Chris Thorburn
Jay Bouwmeester - Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson - Colton Parayko
Carl Gunnarsson - Vince Dunn
Scratched: Robert Bortuzzo, Oskar Sundqvist
Injured: Zach Sanford (shoulder)
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @StarsInsideEdge.