The Dallas Stars play their next five games at home, and the competition will be stiff. They’ll face Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders over the next nine days.
It starts tonight with Chicago, the team the Stars are tied with at 88 points atop the Central Division and Western Conference. Tonight’s game is the first of a back-to-back set this weekend that will see the Stars also play St. Louis, which is one point behind in the Central and West, Saturday night at the AAC.
“I think the games are all important, starting with the one tonight,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “We can take it one game at a time. Tonight is a good test with several players missing; it’s a good test for our team.”
The Stars will be without three regular defensemen in John Klingberg (lower body), Jason Demers (shoulder) and Jordie Benn (lower body) and a top six forward in Patrick Sharp (lower body).
“Sometimes injuries create opportunities and guys step up, play and become key cogs for down the stretch,” said Stars center Jason Spezza. “It’s a good test for guys, and it’s a good challenge.”
Among the players who will get a chance to step up is defenseman Stephen Johns, who will make his NHL debut tonight against the team that drafted him in 2010. Johns, of course, was traded from Chicago to the Stars in the Sharp deal this offseason.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Johns said. “Finally fulfilling your dreams and accomplishing a goal you set out years ago. There’s no greater feeling than what I am going to feel in a couple hours.”
With the Stars missing three regular defensemen, the play of young defensemen like Johns, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak will be important. So will the play of the forwards.
“I’d like our forwards to be a little bit more diligent for the lack of a couple veteran D or a couple of our important D missing on the back end,” Ruff said. “If you look at where we started the year, there’s three of the six that aren’t there right now, so our attention to what we do with the puck at some crucial times in crucial places on the ice is going to be real important.”
Said Stars forward Colton Sceviour: “We’re missing a few of our d-men for sure, which means we’re focusing on a five-man defensive game and playing a more solid game in five man groups and taking some of the burden off of our d-men and not just leaving them out there.”
Kari Lehtonen was the first goaltender off the ice for the Stars this morning, so he is the expected starter tonight. It will be the fourth straight start for Lehtonen.
The Stars didn’t run lines or defense pairs this morning, so we won’t know until warm-ups if Ruff will go with the lines he used in Thursday’s practice. Travis Moen was the only skater to stay on the ice late, so he appears to be a likely scratch. The other scratch at forward is up in the air.
The Stars did work on the power play this morning. The units looked like this:
Unit 1: Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Patrick Eaves, Kris Russell
Unit 2: Cody Eakin, Valeri Nichushkin, Ales Hemsky, Alex Goligoski, Stephen Johns/Brett Ritchie.
Corey Crawford will get the start in goal tonight for the Blackhawks. He is 35-16-4 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. He’s 1-2-0 against the Stars this season with a 3.87 GAA and .897 save percentage. Marian Hossa will return to the lineup after missing the past nine games with a leg injury. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews did not skate this morning, but he will play. Defenseman Michal Rozsival will not play tonight due to a lower-body injury.
Who: Chicago Blackhawks at Dallas Stars
Where: American Airlines Center
When: 7:30 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports Southwest
Radio: The Ticket 1310 AM/96.7 FM
Here’s what the Stars ran in practice Thursday.
Jamie Benn – Cody Eakin – Patrick Eaves
Valeri Nichushkin – Jason Spezza – Brett Ritchie
Antoine Roussel/Radek Faksa – Tyler Seguin – Ales Hemsky
Mattias Janmark – Vernon Fiddler – Colton Sceviour/Travis Moen
Kris Russell – Alex Goligoski
Johnny Oduya – Stephen Johns
Patrik Nemeth – Jamie Oleksiak
Injured: Patrick Sharp (lower body), John Klingberg (lower body), Jordie Benn (lower body), Jason Demers (shoulder).
Andrew Ladd – Jonathan Toews – Marian Hossa
Artemi Panarin – Artem Anisimov – Patrick Kane
Andrew Desjardins – Teuvo Teravainen – Tomas Fleischmann
Brandon Mashinter – Andrew Shaw – Dale Weise
Duncan Keith – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Erik Gustafsson – Brent Seabrook
Trevor van Riemsdyk - Christian Ehrhoff
Injured: Marcus Kruger (wrist), Michal Rozsival (lower body)
Scratched: Richard Panik, Dennis Rasmussen.
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.