It may be the middle of January and there may be 35 games still to go in the season, but the Dallas Stars face some crucial games over a four-day span starting with a two-game road trip that opens Saturday night in Minnesota.
Minnesota currently sits in the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, eight points ahead of the Stars, who have three games in hand. The two teams play twice over a four-day span. There’s Saturday’s game in St. Paul, and then another meeting Tuesday in Dallas.
“Your best opportunity to move up is to play head-to-head with the teams you need to beat, and the key sentence there is you need to beat them,” said Ruff. “You can play other teams and those teams are winning and you don’t gain any ground. When you get to play those teams head-to-head it is an ideal scenario.”
Game two of the trip is Monday in Nashville. This will be one of those games in hand because the Wild don’t play another game between Saturday and Tuesday. Nashville is currently tied with the Stars at 49 points, but the Stars are ahead of the Predators in the standings based on having played two fewer games. These are big points as well.
“It’s huge. Four point games, all of them,” said Stars defenseman Brenden Dillon. “Especially playing Minnesota twice in four days, we want to set the tone in the first game. I think we need to gain some of the ground that we lost in [the six-game losing streak]. We understand the importance of these games and what this two-game road trip will mean for us.”
The Stars enter this key stretch of games with seven losses in their last eight games. They’ve lost ground in the playoff race during the slide, but they can look to the Wild as an example how things can turn around and turn around quickly. Minnesota lost six straight at the end of December, fell four points out of playoffs but have bounced back to win six of their last eight to pull back into a playoff spot.
“Every team goes through its ups and downs. We’ve hit a little bit of adversity here and it’s an excuse to simplify our game and play to our strength, which is our speed, chip pucks in and go after teams,” said Dillon. “Playing against Minnesota and Nashville by no means is going to be easy for us to just walk in there and get two points. We’re going to have to be at our best, and I think it will be good for us to get the train rolling again.
“It’s how you battle back and react to those losing streaks. That shows the true sign of a team. I think with the group of guys we have, the character we have that we’ll answer back.”
Gonchar, Whitney questionable for Saturday; Rome ready to go
Defenseman Sergei Gonchar and forward Ray Whitney did not practice Friday. Stars coach Lindy Ruff said both are dealing with injuries and are questionable for Saturday’s game in Minnesota.
“[Gonchar] has a little bit of a lower body issue. He could be a player tomorrow still. Both of them. Whitney is upper body,” Ruff said.
Defenseman Aaron Rome, who has been out with a lower body injury, went through a full practice today and appears ready to return.
“He’s ready. He’s cleared to go. It’s just based on how he feels,” Ruff said.
Line juggling: Ruff breaks up Benn and Seguin
There was some line juggling in Friday’s practice and the most notable change was that Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were no longer playing together. Seguin centered Antoine Roussel and Erik Cole. Benn skated on a line with Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt.
“The way it has gone, I am going to take a look at having them play on different lines,” Ruff said.
Turn overs have been an issue for Benn and Seguin recently.
“I would use the [Cody] Eakin line as an example of a line that is determined to put in what I call the hard work. Make sure you put it in deep, make sure you put it behind the goal line,” Ruff said. “There’s a fine line there, and those guys have a little bit of rope when it comes to making the fine offensive plays. I am not one of those guys that is pounding on them that you dump the puck in every time, but I am asking them to make better decisions, which for this stretch we haven’t made a lot of them.”
Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski’s minutes have climbed over the course of the season due to the injuries on the blue line, and Ruff thinks it is time to cut those minutes back. Goligoski averaged 19:58 of ice time in October, 23:34 in November, 26:37 in December and so far this month he is at 24:51.
After Friday’s practice, Ruff said the Stars have put too big a load on Goligoski, who is minus-eight over the last eight games.
“We’ve hit that line I think. We talked about that after the game last night; we are going to have to back off that,” Ruff said. “He emptied his tank for us. He’s competed hard and he’s still competing hard, but I think the minutes have got too high.”
Third goaltender at practice
The Stars had a third goaltender at practice today to take some of the load of Kari Lehtonen. Ruff said it is something the Stars will do when the schedule dictates.
“With the schedule, I think you’ll see that at times where we don’t want to over use Lehts in practice,” Ruff said. “We’ll let him go through his routine and let him prepare the way he wants to prepare, maybe get a 30 minute workout and then judge were he’s at.”
Stars practice lineup
Antoine Roussel – Tyler Seguin – Erik Cole
Jamie Benn – Cody Eakin – Ryan Garbutt
Shawn Horcoff – Rich Peverley – Valeri Nichushkin
Dustin Jeffrey – Vernon Fiddler – Alex Chiasson
Alex Goligoski – Trevor Daley
Brenden Dillon – Jordie Benn
Aaron Rome – Kevin Connauton
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.