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What to watch for as Stars begin critical trip at Pens

Dallas looks to build off its come-from-behind effort against Anaheim to kick off the six-game swing

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

PITTSBURGH -- The Dallas Stars begin a critical six-game road trip tonight against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena.

Here's what to watch for.

 

Coming in with some swagger

After being unexpectedly depleted in Friday's 2-1 come-from-behind win over Anaheim, with Mattias Janmark falling ill and Marc Methot unable to go after the pregame skate with soreness in his surgically-repaired knee, the Stars nonetheless prevailed in an important home game against a very-good Western Conference foe.

Both Janmark and Methot look good to go against the Penguins, which will give Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock lots of options up and down his lineup, and especially with his special-teams deployment as both Methot and Janmark figure prominently into the penalty-kill equation.

"Oh, man, last game versus Anaheim was huge," Methot said after the morning skate. "I think going into the trip, having a little swagger, a little confidence I think is important. But I mean, we know who we're up against tonight. These guys know how to win."

Getting off to a good start on a trip that includes stops in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Washington after tonight will be key, and of course, that begins against Pittsburgh.

"This road trip's huge for us," Methot said. "Being that there's only 14 games or whatever left, (it) is evident that these six games are massive."

Personally, Methot said he felt good after today's workout and is optimistic he'll be fine for the game.

"I feel pretty good. Had a little bit of a setback, and it gets to the point where you don't want to hurt the team by playing, or this or that," he said. "I'm sure I'll be fine."

Video: Stars looking for fast start in Pittsburgh

 

Big boys surprise

Friday's game turned when, trailing 1-0 on a Ryan Getzlaf goal scored on an odd-man rush late in the first period, Hitchcock reunited Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn early in the second period.

The trio was dynamic throughout the night, and it was Benn's deflection of a John Klingberg point shot on a power play late in the third period that provided the margin of difference in what was a critical win for the Stars.

But this morning, Hitchcock once again had the unit split over two lines with Benn back on the left side with Radek Faksa and Tyler Pitlick -- the same combination that began Friday's game. Janmark was skating with Seguin and Radulov. Devin Shore, who tied the game on a power-play goal thanks to a Seguin feed into the slot on another power play, skated with rookie Jason Dickinson and Remi Elie, with Gemel Smith, who was terrific against Anaheim, looking like the extra forward.

Still, Hitchcock assured that the big line will play together at some point tonight (they almost always play together on the top power-play unit).

"They're going to play together some period of time, after stoppages or whatever," Hitchcock said. "Look, what we need to get we need to be more dangerous 5-on-5, so we think this looked good at practice and we never got a chance to use it (because of the Janmark illness), so we want to try it again.

"I won't be afraid to switch it over right away."

 

Penguin problems

For the second straight game, the Stars will get a team coming off a loss on the first night of a back-to-back situation.

They took advantage of the Ducks, who lost in Nashville on Thursday night, by pressuring them relentlessly through the second period when they outshot the Ducks 17-5, and on into the third period when they scored twice to earn the win.

The Penguins, whom the Stars beat in a shootout in their first meeting of the season in Dallas, are coming off a 5-2 loss Saturday in Toronto in a game that hinged on a blown penalty call on what should have been a Brian Dumoulin goal that would have made it 3-1 Toronto. Instead, the Pittsburgh goal was waved off and Toronto immediately scored on the ensuing power play to make it 4-0. It was a terrible call that left the Penguins fuming.

Beyond the desire to right the wrong with a win against Dallas, Pittsburgh is embroiled in a fascinating race with Washington and Philadelphia for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. The three teams are separated by two points.

With starting netminder Matt Murray still out of action while recovering from a concussion, we would guess the Stars will face Casey DeSmith, who played the final 17:51 of Saturday's game after coming on in relief of Tristan Jarry, who allowed four goals on 16 shots, although Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan did not identify his starter after the Saturday loss in Toronto.

Either way, the goaltending will be an area the Stars would like to exploit as the Pens have allowed 29 goals in their last seven games, during which they've gone 3-4.

 

Big night for Johns

There will be an extra emotional oomph to tonight's proceedings for Dallas defenseman Stephen Johns, who grew up and still has a home about 40 minutes outside Pittsburgh in Wampum.

The big defender, in the midst of a breakout season for the Stars, will have a large collection of family, friends and supporters on hand for the game against the team he grew up cheering for.

"Pretty much anyone that's had an impact on my life," said Johns, who went to Notre Dame before being drafted by Chicago and then acquired by the Stars in a trade.

"My community -- pretty much everybody I grew up with -- everyone's parents, friends, family, it's definitely the most special game, personally, for me of the year, and it's fun."

He recalled buying student-rush tickets to the old Igloo, and former Penguin Max Talbot delivering pizza to the kids in line. And even though he's played against the Penguins three times now, there's still an extra kick of adrenaline that comes with these matchups.

As for Johns' breakout year with the Stars -- he has eight goals and 14 points, both career-bests for the 25-year-old -- Hitchcock said it's about simplifying the process.

"I just think the game has slowed down in his mind," Hitchcock said. "He's calmer with the puck and it allows him to control the physical aspect of the game. He's not trying to force hockey -- he's letting the game come to him, he's moving the puck efficiently, he's not trying to hit runs on the ice. Even when we get down, he's not trying to overdo it."

As for Johns' cannon-like shot, Hitchcock said they're working on getting a little more precision to the proceedings.

"Yeah, he's got a bomb from there, but sometimes, it misses the target and we're working with him on that," Hitchcock said. "That's the next step: For that bomb to actually go somewhere near the net."

Video: ANA@DAL: Lehtonen blockers away Henrique's wrister

 
Lehtonen in net again, and Bishop (perhaps) not too far behind

Kari Lehtonen (9-3-0 in his last 12 starts) will get the start for the Penguins. No surprise there as starter Ben Bishop continues to rehab a left knee that was injured on March 5 against Ottawa when Dan Hamhuis fell on the Dallas netminder.

Lehtonen has been terrific all season, but especially over the past couple of months. He has allowed three or fewer goals in nine of his last 12 starts, including back-to-back stellar outings against Nashville (a 2-0 loss in which he stopped 32 of 33 shots) and Friday's win in which he stopped 26 of 27).

Bishop skated sans gear this morning and will don the full equipment for a workout Monday in Montreal.

"We're not far away," said Hitchcock.

But rather than put a potential timeline for Bishop's return to action, Hitchcock preferred to wait until after Monday's workout.

"How about we get through tomorrow and then I can get you within 24 hours," Hitchcock said. "He's going to go on the ice with equipment (Monday) and then we'll see where he goes."

This story was not subject to 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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