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Stars face key test with divisional games

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars have accomplished several of their early-season goals. They are off to an excellent start at 12-4-0. They’ve been good at home, posting a 5-2-0 mark. The goals-against average has improved, and so has the goaltending.

But it’s a long season, and there are always challenges on the horizon. The Stars will face one of those challenges when they close out their latest homestand with games against Winnipeg (Thursday) and Minnesota (Saturday), two key Central Division rivals.

“Now the fun begins,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “You start getting inside your division and your conference. We have another question we have to answer.”

The Stars have played only once against the Central Division, losing at Colorado in the second game of the season. They’ve played 11 of 16 games against the Eastern Conference, so these divisional games are a big test.

“They’re the two biggest games of the year,” Stars defenseman Jason Demers said. “They should be considered playoff games for us, and that’s the way we have to handle it. We have to win our division games because it’s so tight in the Central, so they’re the two biggest games of the year.”

The Central Division is the toughest in the league. Of the top 13 teams in the overall NHL standings, six are from the Central. Only five at most will be able to qualify for the playoffs since the Pacific Division is guaranteed three Western Conference playoff spots. It’s a highly competitive division and the points up for grabs in divisional games will be key.

“These are big games. It doesn’t matter how you look at it or break it down; these are games that really separate you at the end of the year,” said Stars center Vernon Fiddler. “Being at home, we are going to have to set the tone right off the bat and at our pace. Not really worry about what the other teams are doing, but worry about what we are going to do.”

The Central Division wasn’t kind to the Stars last season. The Stars were 8-14-7 within the division, picking up 23 points in 29 games. Central Division foes posted a 21-7-1 record against the Stars and pulled in 43 points in 29 games. The poor record within the division contributed to the Stars missing the playoffs last season.

“Obviously, last year is last year,” said Stars defenseman Jordie Benn. “Just like every other game, it’s important. We want to get all the points we can. We’ve got two good teams coming in, and we need to win.”

And adding to the challenge and the fun of playing these divisional games, according to Ruff, is that the Stars are currently sitting at the top of the division with their 12-4-0 record.

“When you are going the way we’ve been going, this is fun. It’s your next challenge,” Ruff said. “We know there is added incentive for teams coming in to knock you off. Its’ not we’re playing Dallas, and it’s 50-50 or whatever; now they know we got off to a tremendous start and teams are going to be gunning for us. Our next challenge is get through that.”

Only four players skated in Frisco this morning and among the group were the three Dallas players currently out with injury: Patrick Eaves (lower body), Travis Moen (upper body) and Curtis McKenzie (hip).

Stars coach Lindy Ruff said Eaves is close to returning, Moen is a little behind Eaves and that McKenzie isn’t close yet because he hasn’t started practicing with the team.

On if Eaves might be available for Thursday’s game against Winnipeg, Ruff had this to say.

“If it’s an emergency you’d play him. I think the better part is to get him in a couple of really good practices,” Ruff said. “He’s close to playing.”

The Stars made a couple of roster moves Wednesday. Defenseman Patrik Nemeth was assigned to the Texas Stars of the AHL on a conditioning assignment. Forward Devin Shore was reassigned to Texas.

Nemeth has been a healthy scratch in 14 of 16 games. The conditioning assignment will allow him to get in some playing time with Texas.

“Patrick wants to play; he wants to get some games,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “He understood he didn’t play so well in the couple games he was in. I think it is hard when you step in on a one-game trial. It’s an opportunity that he wanted. He wanted to go play. We don’t know how many games he will play, but it could be up to six games.”

The Stars recalled Shore from the AHL at the beginning of November, and he played in three games, registering no points and a plus-two rating. Shore, who is in his first full pro season, has 11 points (eight goals, three assists) in nine games with Texas.

“For Devin, it’s important that he goes and plays big minutes. He was playing really well,” Ruff said. “You can see that his development and confidence level from training camp to playing with us has gone way up. The only way you are going to get better is to play.”

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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