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First place on the line again as Stars face Blues

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

Another day, another big Central Division showdown for the Dallas Stars. After defeating the Chicago Blackhawks, 5-2, Friday at American Airlines Center to take over first place in the Central Division and Western Conference, the Stars square off against the St. Louis Blues Saturday at the AAC.

The Blues have won five straight games and sit in second place in the Central and West, one point behind the Stars. So, first place will be on the line for a second consecutive night.

“It’s a big game. We’re fighting for a divisional title,” said Stars defenseman Kris Russell. “The win last night was huge, but it makes tonight that much more important. St. Louis got a win [last night], so they are just one point back. It is a big weekend for us. Hopefully, we have the same effort we had last night.”

The Stars held an optional skate in Frisco this morning. There were no line rushes, so it’s not known if Stars coach Lindy Ruff will go with the same forward lines he used in the win over Chicago. But he liked what he saw from the lines Friday and the team’s overall defensive effort. The Stars limited Chicago to 23 shots on goal.

“The thinking was getting back to being a stronger defending team,” Ruff said. “Putting two of our better defenders in [Radek] Faksa and [Cody Eakin] in the middle and tried to match lines most of the night. Gave those guys an assignment and I thought they did an excellent job.”

Faksa went head-to-head with Chicago’s Jonathan Toews most of the game.

“I thought he did a heck of a job,” Ruff said. “I know that’s putting a lot of trust in a young guy, but he’s a very responsible centerman when he plays. And he’s a heavy centerman. We geared it back, make sure we defend and be hard down low.”

The Stars will face another stiff challenge in the Blues, who have won three of four games against the Stars this season and limited Dallas to just six goals in the four games.

“The challenge is equal. We were up for one heck of a challenge last night, and we answered it,” Ruff said. “Right now, [the Blues] are playing the best in the league. It’s going to be a lower chance affair. The last time in there, they did a nice job of limiting our opportunities. We have to realize we are going to have to win a game that’s going to be tight, maybe 2-1 or 3-2 if you can get to that. The way their goaltender has been playing and their penalty killing has been excellent, so we have our hands full.”

Antti Niemi was the first goaltender off the ice for the Stars this morning, so he is the likely starter in goal. This will be Niemi’s first start since March 1 in Nashville when he was pulled midway through the game after allowing four goals on 18 shots.

All the players who skated this morning came off the ice at about the same time for a meeting, so there was no indication on scratches.

Forward Patrick Sharp (lower body) and defenseman Jordie Benn (lower body) took part in this morning’s optional skate in Frisco. Defenseman John Klingberg (lower body) skated before the practice. Lindy Ruff said all three are making good progress.

“All our guys are doing really good,” Ruff said. “Klingberg, really good before [practice]. All these guys are pushing. Sharp looks like the closest. From what I heard, Klingberg isn’t too far away. Jordie Benn may be a little bit further. Today was a real good day. There’s been some real good progress. I anticipate that at least two will be an option for Tuesday. “

The Blues are coming off a 5-2 win over Anaheim last night in St. Louis. It was the fifth straight win for the Blues and their tenth in the past 13 games (10-3-0). Jake Allen, who stopped 26 of 28 shots last night, is expected to get the start in goal again tonight. Allen is 5-0-0 in his past five games with a 2.14 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.

Who: St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars

Where: American Airlines Center

When: 8:00 p.m.

TV: Fox Sports Southwest

Radio: The Ticket 1310 AM/96.7 FM

Stars lineup from last night with Antti Niemi slotted in as starting goaltender:

Jamie Benn
Cody EakinPatrick Eaves

Valeri NichushkinJason SpezzaTyler Seguin

Antoine RousselRadek FaksaAles Hemsky

Mattias JanmarkVernon FiddlerBrett Ritchie

Kris Russell
Alex Goligoski

Johnny OduyaStephen Johns

Patrik NemethJamie Oleksiak

Antti Niemi

Kari Lehtonen

John Klingberg (lower body), Jason Demers (shoulder), Patrick Sharp (lower body), Jordie Benn (lower body)

Scratched: Colton Sceviour, Travis Moen

Blues lineup from last night:

Jaden Schwartz - Jori Lehtera - Vladimir Tarasenko

Robby Fabbri - Paul Stastny - Troy Brouwer

Patrik Berglund - David Backes - Dmitrij Jaskin

Scottie Upshall - Kyle Brodziak - Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester - Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson - Kevin Shattenkirk

Joel Edmundson - Colton Parayko

Jake Allen

Anders Nilsson

Injured: Alexander Steen (upper body), Brian Elliott (lower body),
Steve Ott (hamstring)

Scratched: Magnus Paajarvi, Robert Bortuzzo

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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