Stars (6-7-4, 16 points) vs. Blue Jackets (9-10-5, 23 points)
7:30 p.m. CT, American Airlines Center
TV: FOX Sports Southwest
Radio: The Ticket 96.7-FM, 1310-AM
DALLAS -- With the top three teams in the Central Division -- Florida, Tampa Bay and Carolina -- all at .705 points percentage or above, the battle sure looks like it might be waging for the fourth and final playoff spot.
Chicago enters Thursday's play at .609, so Columbus (.479) and Dallas (.471) have some catching up to do.
The Stars start a stretch of 10 of 11 games against teams that are not Florida, Tampa Bay or Carolina, so now would be a perfect time to start collecting points and trying to move up the standings.
"It's a big challenge, obviously," said defenseman John Klingberg. "They're ahead of us in the standings and we've got a couple of games less played, but they're one of the teams we've got to catch. So we've got Columbus two games and we've got Chicago after that two games, so they're very important games for us right now. It's a huge test for us and a chance to get back."
Stars coach Rick Bowness said he wants to focus on one game at a time, but added that he knows how important this stretch is.
Video: Bowness on Blue Jackets: 'That team plays hard'
"We're not looking at the series, we're looking at tonight," Bowness said. "The Columbus Blue Jackets are ahead of us in the standings and if we want to make the playoffs, then we have to catch them. That starts with tonight's game."
The two teams split games in February, but both have been struggling lately. Dallas is 1-6-3 in its past 10 games, while Columbus is 2-5-2 in its past nine.
"They're the same team, they play the same way, nothing has changed," Bowness said. "Listen, that team plays hard. The forecheck pressure is going to be the same, going to the net hard is going to be the same, the way they defend is going to be the same."
And right now, both Columbus and Dallas know how the standings look.
"You can see three teams kind of breaking out and running away a little bit," said Klingberg. "So we're in the middle part there where we're fighting to get into the playoffs. We've got to catch Chicago and Columbus, so we're starting with Columbus tonight."
Short turnaround a challenge Stars must work through
The Stars are playing pretty much every other night, so they are trying to manage energy levels with their players.
Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski, John Klingberg and Roope Hintz each took maintenance days on Wednesday and did not practice. Those decisions are typically left up to the players, Bowness said.
"The plan (Wednesday) was 20-25 minute practice, high skill, and then leave it up to the players if they want to skate or not," Bowness said.
Video: Klingberg on 'big challenge' Columbus presents Stars
"We had a couple of guys decide not to skate, and we had a couple of guys who decided to skate that really surprised us. That's fine. Some of the guys who didn't skate yesterday skated this morning, so we're in that position right now where we just have to let them tell us how they're feeling."
Klingberg said the condensed schedule is a challenge for players.
"It's going to be hectic and it's going to be different this year with playing every other day," Klingberg said. "It''s a great test for me and for other players. Indiviudally, you have to find a way to have 100 percent energy when games start. Whatever it takes to find that, that's what you've got to do."
Khudobin in net; Radulov remains out
Anton Khudobin will start in goal for Dallas. He is 4-6-1 on the season with a 2.55 GAA and .917 save percentage. In his career against Columbus, Khudobin is 3-3-1 with a 2.43 GAA and .917 save percentage.
Alexander Radulov continues to be out with a lower-body injury.
Bowness said he will make several game-time decisions on possible changes. There's a good chance Joel Hanley steps in for Mark Pysyk on defense.
By the numbers
Columbus has outscored opponents 26-16 in first periods (second most first-period goals in the NHL). Dallas has been outscored 9-6 in first periods (fewest first-period goals in NHL).
Columbus forward Patrik Laine has 19 goals and seven assists in 19 career games against the Stars.
Columbus ranks 26th in most shots allowed on goal per game at 31.5. Dallas ranks 28th in fewest shots on goal per game at 27.8.
He said it
"We've been dealing with adversity as a team throughout a lot of years, and from that you get stronger as a team. We know how good we can be, we saw how far we went in the bubble and played in the Stanley Cup Final, so we have a lot of belief in ourselves and in the organization." -- Klingberg
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.