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Morning skate: Lehtonen in goal as Stars kick off key stretch against Central Division

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars haven’t seen much of the Central Division so far this season, but that will change starting with tonight’s game in Minnesota. The Stars will play their next four games and five of their next six against the Central, which is the toughest division in hockey.

How tough? Based on points percentage, four of the top eight teams in the NHL – Dallas, St. Louis, Minnesota, Chicago – are from the Central Division. In the Western Conference, Central teams have six of the seven best records.

The Stars have played five games against the Central, posting a 3-2-0 mark. There are 24 games left within the division, and five of them come in the next week-and-a-half. The Stars play Minnesota tonight, Chicago Tuesday and then have a back-to-back with St. Louis Saturday and Sunday. They play Nashville on New Year’s Eve.

The Stars believe the intense competition within the division is good as the team builds toward the playoffs.

“If you’re going to be good, you’ve got to beat good teams,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “If you want to win in the playoffs, you’ve got to beat good teams.”

“You are going to be trained in a way where you are going to have to face a lot of good teams,” said Stars defenseman Johnny Oduya. “You are going to have to make your stands and you know eventually in the playoffs you are going to have to face these teams early on. There’s only one way, and that’s to go through it and that is a good test for us. We’re a younger team, and that’s a good way to learn, playing against the best. For us being on top now, being hunted a little bit more than in the past, I don’t think I would pick another scenario. This is a perfect setup for moving forward as a group.”

It appears Kari Lehtonen will get the start in goal tonight against the Wild since he was the first goaltender off the ice for the Stars at this morning’s skate. Lehtonen is 11-2-0 with a 2.54 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He’s faced Minnesota once this season, stopping 22 of 24 shots in a 3-2 overtime win in Dallas on Nov. 14. Lehtonen has been money on the road, posting a 7-0-0 record, 2.00 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.

The Stars aren’t expected to make any lineup changes at forward or defense, going with the same group that defeated Montreal 6-2 in Dallas on Saturday. Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth and Travis Moen are the expected healthy scratches for tonight.

Devan Dubnyk will start in goal for the Wild, which has lost once in regulation over its past ten games (6-1-3). The Wild are 17-8-6 on the season and rank sixth in the NHL based on points percentage (.645).

The Wild have lost their first two games against the Stars this season, both in overtime.

“Staying out of the box will be real important. Puck management is going to be crucial. And every guy ready and aware of who you are on the ice against,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo. “Obviously, we are going to have to be dialed in with our defensive game and our play without the puck. That puck possession game is going to be very important tonight as well.”

Who: Dallas Stars at Minnesota Wild

Where: Xcel Energy Center

When: 7:00 p.m.

TV: Fox Sports Southwest

Radio: The Ticket 1310 AM/96.7 FM

Jamie BennTyler SeguinPatrick Sharp

Mattias JanmarkJason SpezzaAles Hemsky

Antoine RousselCody EakinColton Sceviour

Valeri NichushkinVernon FiddlerPatrick Eaves

Alex Goligoski
John Klingberg

Johnny OduyaJason Demers

Jyrki JokipakkaJordie Benn

Kari Lehtonen

Antti Niemi

Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, Travis Moen

Injured: None

Zach Parise - Mikael Granlund - Jason Pominville

Thomas Vanek - Mikko Koivu - Jason Zucker

Nino Niederreiter - Charlie Coyle - Justin Fontaine

Chris Porter - Jarret Stoll - Ryan Carter

Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon

Jonas Brodin - Marco Scandella

Nate Prosser - Matt Dumba

Devan Dubnyk

Darcy Kuemper

Scratched: Erik Haula, Niklas Backstrom

Injured: None

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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