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What to watch for as Stars meet Wild in home finale

Seguin says Dallas wants to give fans 'a performance they can be proud of' tonight at AAC

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars close out the home portion of the 2017-18 schedule tonight with a return engagement against the Minnesota Wild, who pushed them to the brink of playoff elimination on Thursday with a 5-2 win in St. Paul.

Here's what to watch for.

 

The kids can wait

For many teams that are outside the playoff bubble at this time of year, it's an opportunity to employ younger players in different roles. Montreal was a great example of that. Ottawa, too. But Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock is of a different mind -- and not because the Stars still have the slightest mathematical opportunity to make the playoffs.

Hitchcock said he feels the best teaching moment for a team trying to learn how to win at the most difficult times of the season is to play to win every night.

"I want to win the games. I think there's no better teacher than winning hockey games against good teams," Hitchcock said. "These are really good teams we're playing."

The Stars play their final home game tonight against Minnesota and then travel to San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles next week. All four teams currently own postseason berths.

"Got to win games on the road. Everybody knows our road record's got to be better," Hitchcock said. "I'm focused on winning games, and if that means a guy like Tyler Seguin's got to play 25 or 30 minutes, whatever it is, we're trying to win the hockey game. That's the best lesson for us right now, and we're going to focus on that.

"We're putting the best lineup in. We're not having tryouts or anything like that. We're putting the best lineup in and we're going out to win the hockey game."

Hitchcock added that there will be adjustments to Dallas' special teams and that the final stretch will be about creating momentum.

"We're making changes on the special teams," he said. "We met today on that to try and help us even get better there, and to me, that's the major focus right now is continue that push to create positive momentum. The thing is, for me, this is a great lesson for all of us is that we've climbed the ladder. We've taken on a lot of rungs, but there's a lot more rungs to go if you want to be a Stanley Cup champion."

The coach said the players were "a little bit quiet" this morning, but he felt they would be ready to go.

"From a competition standpoint, you want to put your best foot forward," he said. "It's a home game, and it's obviously a Central Division opponent. These are playoff teams. You want to keep proving you can play against top players."

Video: Stars seeking revenge against Wild

 

Good challenge for Honka

There will be at least one lineup change for tonight's game with defenseman Stephen Johns recovering from a possible concussion sustained in the first period against Minnesota on Thursday. That means Julius Honka will draw back into the lineup after being scratched in three of the last four games.

These contests against deep, heavier teams will be a good test for Honka, Hitchcock said.

"It's finish strong -- show that we can play and we want to win the rest of the games. It's pretty simple, just win the games," Honka said.

As for Johns, he'll be out for four or five days. 

"And then, we'll read it from there," Hitchcock said. "So I would say let's get through the weekend and we'll see. Hopefully he's on the trip with us and eligible to play at that time, but he won't play (against the Wild)."

Honka skated with Esa Lindell at the morning skate, with Lindell's usual partner, John Klingberg, skating with Marc Methot.

Gemel Smith looks like he'll return to the lineup for a second straight game and was skating with Jason Spezza and Mattias Janmark.

 

Playing well, just not well enough

During this stretch that has seen the Stars win just once in their last 10 games and twice in their last 13 to fall out of the playoff chase, there has been a consistent high level of effort from up and down the lineup combined, unfortunately for the Stars, with almost nightly breakdowns.

Often these breakdowns come at the end of periods, as was the case Thursday when Minnesota scored a power-play goal with less than 11 seconds left in the second period to go up 4-2. There have been special teams breakdowns, too, like the shorthanded goal they gave up to Mikael Granlund in the waning minutes of the first period that tied the game 1-1, and so on.

Every night it seems there is a moment or two that is just enough to send the Stars off the rails. And so, Hitchcock has challenged his players to be better and rise to the challenge of four remaining games -- all against teams currently holding down playoff spots in the Western Conference.

"I look at it this way: there's playoff teams and the next step for us is to beat playoff teams. That's the next step," Hitchcock said. "We got a challenge in front of us because we basically got four playoff teams, so I want to see if we can beat them and we challenged the players about that today. They were good with it and understood that we're knocking on the door, we're pushing people, but we're not pushing hard enough and there's some areas of our game that can still get better.

"There's a lot of things we like that are happening right now. There's element of our game that's got to get better if we expect to beat these teams that, obviously, are experienced teams with a lot of gamesmanship that they've been through this before. In little areas, it shows up, so we've got to find a way to get better in the little areas that some of these teams that have experienced playoffs for a long time. It shows up in the big contests."

 

The Roussel factor

A couple of Minnesota players took exception to the behavior of Antoine Roussel in the waning seconds of Thursday's loss.

Roussel took a run at Daniel Winnik and then covered up prompting Winnik to tell Michael Russo of The Athletic that "unless he's jumping a guy, he's not going to fight."

Netminder Devan Dubnyk also was pointed in his comments on Roussel saying, "Play how you want, but I mean, that's how you're going to be? It's not a surprise, so I took the opportunity to let him know."

Hitchcock was nonplussed at the postgame tempest with the two teams embroiled in a home-and-home set.

"It's good they didn't like it," Hitchcock said.

We won't be at all surprised if there is an addendum to this matter tonight. Hitchcock did say, however, he doesn't see a likelihood of a carryover of emotion from Thursday's game, and it's important for the Stars, who gave up two power-play goals to the Wild on Thursday, to stay disciplined and out of the box.

Video: Stars thankful for continuous fan support

 

Not autopsy time yet, but it is jersey night

Hitchcock was asked about assessing the season after Thursday's loss and twice used the term "autopsy," saying that is the process that will take place at the end of the season, not before.

Still, it is worth noting that tonight could be the final home games for a number of Stars regulars, including veteran center Jason Spezza, who has one year left on his contract at $7.5 million, but whose name has popped up in potential off-season buyout or trade scenarios as this season has ground to a close.

Starting netminder Kari Lehtonen will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and fellow potential UFAs Roussel, Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn are all coming to the end of their respective contracts.

Not all those players will necessarily be going elsewhere, but it is fair to say their futures in Dallas are not assured and so, when they give fans the jerseys off their backs at the end of the game, as per tradition, it will be the last time for a number of players on this team.

"(Tonight is an) opportunity to show some pride," said Tyler Seguin, who leads the Stars with 39 goals and 74 points.

"They're a rival and it's been a tough go as of late, but our fans have stuck with us for a long time. And tonight, we want to put on a performance they can be proud of."

This story was not subject to the 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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