What a difference a year makes. In last season’s regular season finale, the Dallas Stars were out of the playoff picture, and captain Jamie Benn was chasing the NHL’s scoring title, which he won with a four-point game against the Nashville Predators. This season, Benn’s focus is on a team goal. He hopes to help lead the Stars to a win over the Predators Saturday to secure a Central Division title and the top seed in the Western Conference Playoffs.
“This is a lot better,” Benn said. “I like it way more. We can do something special on the last night here, and that’s what we are going to try and do.”
The Stars, who are tied with St. Louis atop the Central Division at 107 points, can clinch the division in a few different ways Saturday, but a win over Nashville at American Airlines Center is the most direct path.
“We would have like to clinched it earlier, but I think it is a good thing that this last game means something,” Benn said. “It will keep us sharp.”
Stars coach Lindy Ruff made it clear Friday that the team is putting a premium on the two points at stake in Saturday’s game.
“It’s really the only thing that counts,” Ruff said. “You’re in a position to clinch the conference and a division title. We have one game left to play, and it’s a game we want to win.”
The Stars, who are missing several key players could be getting some help for Saturday’s game. Jason Spezza, who missed Thursday’s win over Colorado due to illness, was back for Friday’s practice. Patrick Eaves, who missed Thursday’s game with a mid-body injury, returned for practice as well. And defenseman Jason Demers, who has been out since Mar. 8 with a shoulder injury, shed the red no-contact jersey Friday and went through a full practice.
“[Demers’] status is he’s available to play tomorrow,” Ruff said. “Looks like [Spezza] is going to be available to play. One surprise is Patty Eaves is really feeling a lot better. I think he’s available to play too, so we’ll see how everybody’s doing tomorrow morning, and we’ll make some decisions then.”
Demers is a surprise as well. When he went out with his injury, the Stars put his return somewhere around April 19. Instead, he is close to returning now.
“He wants to play,” Ruff said. “I think we just weigh exactly where we want to be with this. I’d like to see him play. At the same time, he’s got to be ready, and it’s got to be the right thing to do.”
The Stars were down one defenseman in practice. Patrik Nemeth did not skate due to illness. Mattias Janmark (upper body), Tyler Seguin (Achilles) and Brett Ritchie (lower body) are not practicing yet.
Dallas reassigned center Jason Dickinson to the Texas Stars of the AHL Friday. Dickinson was on emergency recall Thursday due to Jason Spezza being out due to illness and scored a goal in his NHL debut Thursday.
The 20-year-old Dickinson, a first-round pick (29th overall) in 2013, was excited to score the first goal and appreciative that the opportunity came in such a big game for Dallas, which was battling for the top spot in the Central Division and Western Conference.
“It’s an amazing feeling that they believe in me,” Dickinson said. “To be able to come in here in my first game, they trusted me and it humbled me that they were willing to give a chance this late in the season in an important stretch.”
Here’s how the Stars lined up in Friday’s practice:
Jamie Benn – Cody Eakin – Patrick Sharp
Valeri Nichushkin – Jason Spezza – Colton Sceviour
Antoine Roussel – Radek Faksa – Ales Hemsky
Curtis McKenzie – Vernon Fiddler – Travis Moen/Patrick Eaves
Alex Goligoski – John Klingberg
Johnny Oduya – Stephen Johns
Kris Russell – Jordie Benn
Jamie Oleksiak – Jason Demers
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 DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.