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What to watch for as Stars complete lengthy trek at Caps

Dallas will have to overcome several injuries as it looks to finish the six-game swing on a positive note

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

WASHINGTON -- An injury-plagued Dallas Stars team will try and salvage one win from their current six-game road trip as they close out their odyssey in Washington tonight against the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals.

Here's what to watch for.

 

[RELATED: Stars recall LW Curtis McKenzie from Texas]

 
Banged up -- as in really banged up

The Stars' locker room is looking more like a M.A.S.H. unit given the number of players who aren't going to be in the lineup against the Capitals.

Starting netminder Ben Bishop is back in Dallas awaiting word on an MRI on his reinjured left knee after he departed midway through the first period in Sunday's 4-2 loss to Winnipeg.

"Can't give you that until we get back, but obviously when we say we're going to evaluate it in two weeks, then you get the picture," head coach Ken Hitchcock said Tuesday morning.

Brett Ritchie (lower body) is also out Tuesday, as is Jason Spezza (back).

"Ritchie -- we're not sure of right now. We'll give you a better evaluation in a couple of days. Jason has a back injury, so we'll see where that's at let you know that in a few days," Hitchcock said.

And veteran defenseman Marc Methot (hand) is not ready to return to the lineup either.

"He's not close," Hitchcock said of Methot. "He's trying but he's unable to do even the minimum necessities to be able to play."

The Stars called up Curtis McKenzie from the American Hockey League, but it wasn't known if he was going to be able to get to Washington in time for the game. If he doesn't arrive in time, Dillon Heatherington will draw into the lineup and the Stars will go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen.

It's unknown what the forward line combinations will look like, given the injury situation and the fact the team held an optional skate this morning.

Video: Stars battling injuries in Washington

 

The next most important game of the year

Let's recap: The Stars will complete a torturous six-game road trip tonight. They are 0-3-2 on the trip thus far, and needless to say, the point production has been disappointing.

That said, the team has, at times, showed very well on this trip.

They played one of their best games against Winnipeg, but couldn't find a tying goal late. They were strong against Toronto for much of the game before fading in the third period and losing in a shootout.

Now, having dropped just below the playoff line and with injuries the challenges grow even greater.

"Who cares? You know, for me, we're still in this fight," Hitchcock said. "If we get points tonight, then the magnification of what we have to do at home isn't as dramatic. But whatever happens today happens. We get back home, we fight like crazy. We got to win our home games -- that's obvious. But we're in this fight. And for what we've gone through, and everything that we've gone through roster-wise, we're still hanging around here, which is great.

"We knew going in we had to bank points, and we knew how tough this was going to be. Unfortunately, we didn't get the overtime points, so that puts things in a little bit more pressurized situation, but we're right there, you know.

"Man, we've played so hard the last three games. We just got to stay with that type of program. We're going to twist and tweak a little bit today on some roster moves and see if we can get even some more energy. But there's a lot of things off the last game you've got to like."

 

All you, Kari

As noted, Bishop is back in Dallas rehabbing a reinjured left knee, having missed five games earlier with a knee injury and then reinjuring it midway through the first period Sunday while making a splendid glove save. He left the game immediately and did not return.

Mike McKenna has been recalled from the AHL, but it's all on Kari Lehtonen if the Stars are going to climb back into the top eight in the Western Conference.

The Stars have nine games remaining counting tonight, and it's not a stretch to imagine that Lehtonen will play every one of them. It's also not a stretch to suggest that the Stars will need 12 points (let's call it 6-3) down the stretch to earn a playoff spot.

Lehtonen's mindset is to take each single game as a separate event as opposed to looking big picture or looking at the entirety of the Stars' remaining schedule. It's the only way, frankly, to approach what will be a pressure-packed time for the veteran netminder.

"I've learned over time to just write the number on the sheet and then let the goalie coach take care of it, so obviously, he's won us a lot of big points in very difficult situations," Hitchcock said of Lehtonen. "We expect the same, and he's like the rest of us: just battle, fight, battle -- whatever word you want to use, that's what we need to do."

 

No help from outside

Monday night was a good example of what faces the Stars down the stretch as they watched Los Angeles get up 2-0 on Minnesota (bad for the Stars), fall behind 3-2 (good for the Stars) and then tie the game in the final minute and beat Minnesota in overtime (very bad for the Stars).

That's the reality when you're chasing a playoff spot. You can't expect other teams to help you by failing (unless it's Calgary, which lost again Monday).

In short, take care of your own business because no one else is going to do it for you.

For the Stars, who begin play tonight two points out of eighth place in the Western Conference, that will mean several things, especially given the injury issues. The forwards have to do a better job of hunting down and controlling pucks in the offensive zone. They were excellent in Winnipeg, but need to be better and that should help generate offensive chances, and, in theory, draw more penalties -- something that has been an issue for the Stars of late.

In six straight games, the Stars have drawn fewer or equal numbers of penalties as their opponents. Hard to win the special-teams battle that way.

They also need to stay out of the box as Washington has been on a tear with the third-best power play since Jan. 1. Against Winnipeg, a careless penalty late in the first period by captain Jamie Benn led to a Jets goal with less than a second to play in the opening frame.

Dallas needs to avoid that kind of mental breakdown if they're going to have success against a deep, veteran Washington team.

Video: E.J. Hradek interviews Jim Nill at GM meetings

 

Bring on the Caps

So, from one Rocket Richard Trophy candidate to another for the Stars.

After giving up two goals to Patrik Laine on Sunday, the Stars will try and contain this generation's greatest goal-scorer, Alexander Ovechkin.

Ovechkin has 43 goals and is tied with Laine for the league lead in the goal scoring department. Ovechkin has enjoyed success against Dallas historically, scoring eight times in 15 career games against the Stars.

"The term I use is you're never safe. You're never safe when you're playing against him because you're going on an odd-man rush, or you think you're on the attack or you're hanging in the offensive zone, and he has the ability to read when the puck's going to spring free and he's gone," Hitchcock said of Ovechkin, who has now scored 601 career goals.

"So, to me, you've got to have awareness away from the puck and you've got to really protect it well in the offensive zone. If you don't protect it well, you're going to get burned."

Another interesting matchup will see the top two point-producing defensemen in the NHL squaring off as John Carlson has caught up with Dallas minute-muncher John Klingberg. Both have 59 points and both figure to be part of the Norris Trophy discussion as the NHL's top defenseman, pending how the Stars fare down the stretch.

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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