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What to watch for as streaking Stars take on Penguins

Dallas enters the second half of its back-to-back on a four-game win streak

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Stars return home tonight riding a four-game win streak, having completed a season series sweep of Chicago with a gritty 4-2 win on Thursday, only to face a red-hot Penguins team that has been cooling its collective heels in Dallas.

Here's what to watch for at American Airlines Center.

 

What's in the tank?

No use complaining about the National Hockey League schedule, even though it does seem wildly counterintuitive to play in Chicago in the teeth of winter on a Thursday night and then return to Dallas just 24 hours later to play a team that's already been in Dallas for a day and a half.

Every team deals with these kinds of wrinkles. But throw in the snowstorm that delayed the Stars' arrival back in Dallas to 3:30 a.m. local time Friday and, well, you wonder where the Stars will be at in terms of their physical and emotional reserves.

But that's life in the NHL, and so this stands as another nice test for the mental toughness of a Dallas team that has proven to be as resilient and mentally tough as anyone in the league in recent weeks.

They are a team that has learned to put performances, both good and bad, behind them and quickly move on to the next task. It strikes us that's this is a big game for the team's leaders.

Tyler Seguin, who scored twice in Thursday's win and now has surpassed his 2016-17 goal total with 28 -- tied for fourth in the NHL -- admitted he and linemates Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov weren't as good as they needed to be to start Thursday's game.

With a team that boasts three players in the top 10 in NHL point production (Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby) a slow start tonight has the potential to be a very bad thing, and it will be up to the Dallas leadership group to make sure that doesn't happen.

Video: Oleksiak ready for return to AAC

 

A homecoming of sorts for Big Rig

It has been a whirlwind of a season for Pittsburgh defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who went from being touted as a top-four defender with the Stars during training camp and early in the regular season to being dealt to the Penguins on Dec. 19 for a fourth-round pick in 2019.

Since his arrival in Pittsburgh, Oleksiak has settled nicely into a top-six role with the Penguins and has been paired with Ian Cole, who also played under Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock when they were both with the St. Louis Blues.

Oleksiak admitted coming back to play against the team that drafted him with the 14th-overall pick in 2011 was "surreal," but he's on a roll having been a plus-rated player in five straight games, the longest sequence of plus play in his career.

He has scored twice, has two assists and is a plus-6 while averaging 17:50 a night in ice time -- almost three minutes more per game than he was playing (when he was in the lineup) with Dallas.

"He's been a good player for us," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan said Friday morning. "He's everything that we thought we were going to get when we acquired him. Sergei Gonchar (the Penguins' defensive coach and former Stars defenseman) was a guy that was most familiar with his game, and Sergei works a lot with him one-on-one through video and some of the drills on the ice."

Oleksiak follows a trend of young defensemen who have been able to revive their careers with the Penguins, including Cole and Justin Schultz, both of whom won back-to-back Cups with the Penguins.

"He's a guy that we thought could fit in the style of play that we're trying to play," Sullivan said of Oleksiak. "He's a mobile guy. He's got pretty puck skills. He can make an outlet pass, and we think he has upside. We think he's only going to get better.

"There's aspects of his game where we think he can improve and we're trying to help him in those areas. But we really liked what he's brought to our team to this point."

 

Stars lineup in flux

The Stars did not skate this morning and there remains more than a little fluidity when it comes to what kind of lineup they might ice against the Penguins.

We know this for sure (or as sure as any of this is) that Kari Lehtonen will start in goal. Julius Honka did not return to action Thursday after taking a hard hit from Patrick Sharp along the boards in the second period and was to be evaluated today.

Hitchcock said that all of the players who did not play against Chicago would likely play tonight, which suggests rookie Dillion Heatherington will return to the lineup, presumably in Honka's spot after sitting the last four games.

Martin Hanzal took a Brett Ritchie shot to the inside of his left knee late in the second period, but he did return for the third period and moved up to play with Mattias Janmark and Devin Shore as the Stars sought to protect a one-goal lead.

Jason Spezza, who had been playing with Janmark and Shore on the right side, dropped down to the fourth line and finished with 11:24 in ice time.

If Hitchcock does use both Jason Dickinson and Gemel Smith, the other extra forwards Thursday, it's unclear which forwards would come out of the lineup, although much will be determined by whether Hanzal has any residual issues from the shot that might prevent him from playing.

 

Lehtonen at home

For the first time this season, Lehtonen will start back-to-back games at American Airlines Center.

Initially, Hitchcock had planned to use Lehtonen on Thursday in Chicago and Ben Bishop against Pittsburgh. But goaltending coach Jeff Reese produced some statistical data that led Hitchcock to change his mind, and part one of the plan couldn't have gone better as Bishop was the team's top player in stopping 37 of 39 Chicago shots to earn the victory.

Lehtonen has been one of the team's surprise stories of the season as he has provided consistent quality starts for Dallas, often in challenging circumstances.

He has won four straight starts and is 6-1 in his last seven starts. All but one of those starts was on the road. But with Bishop injured, Lehtonen stopped 30 of 31 in a 6-1 win over Minnesota last Saturday. It was his first win at home since Nov. 4.

Lehtonen has allowed 12 goals in those seven games and is on a streak of allowing just one goal in three straight starts. Needless to say, facing the firepower of the Penguins on the second of back-to-backs will provide yet another challenge for Lehtonen.

Video: Hitchcock previews tilt with Penguins

 

Avoiding costly penalties, exploiting weaknesses and more

Interesting that as well as Pittsburgh has played of late -- climbing into second place in the Metropolitan Division just four points out of first -- they are still not where you'd expect them to be on the road. They are 3-6 in their last nine road games, including losses in three of their last four road games.

Overall, the Pens are 10-15-2 away from PPG Paints Center. That said, the Penguins are first in the league in power-play efficiency and are first with the man-advantage on the road. That should be a red flag for the Stars coming off a game in which they took a handful of ill-advised penalties, including two minors to Benn. The Blackhawks scored one of their two goals while Radulov was in the box for an offensive-zone holding penalty in the second period.

The Penguins are averaging 3.87 goals per game since January (15 games) -- tied with Boston for tops in the league over that period of time.

If there is an area the Stars look to exploit the Penguins it's at even strength. Dallas enjoys a plus-21 goal differential while playing 5-on-5, while the Penguins -- thanks to some lackluster play earlier in the season -- are minus-30 playing 5-on-5.

That, of course, is the Stars' bread and butter, being able to roll four lines and pressure opposing teams into mistakes in the offensive zone.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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