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'This is the best': New additions aim to spark Stars in final stretch

Excited to join a team in the thick of a playoff race, Lovejoy and Zuccarello are ready to battle for Dallas

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Ben Lovejoy is pumped for Sunday's game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The newest Stars defenseman was acquired from New Jersey on Saturday, and the Devils have been struggling this season. So the 35-year-old veteran is going from battling other lottery teams for somewhat meaningless points to having a full arena screaming about every play as two desperate teams battle for playoff spots.

"I love it," Lovejoy said. "I'm pumped to be back in a playoff race."

New Stars teammate Mats Zuccarello is going through a similar feeling. He played nine seasons with the New York Rangers and is dealing emotionally with a very sad departure after his trade to the Stars, but he's doing it by coming onto a new team that is hungry to make a statement.

"I haven't slept that much, so I'm kind of wound up," Zuccarello said after leaving New York at 5 a.m. and traveling straight to Chicago's United Center. "I'll have a little Red Bull and ready to go. It's why we play hockey. It's fun to play games that mean something. I'm pretty sure the whole team is excited to play this game."

Indeed they should be.

If you really want to set this stage with all the drama that has unfolded, the final 21 games of the season should be entertaining. The Stars as a team are in their sixth season under GM Jim Nill and have made the playoffs twice in the previous five campaigns. They need to take the next step.

With that motivation, the front office went out and added Lovejoy -- a playoff hardened defensive defenseman -- and Zuccarello -- a swift and nifty skilled winger -- with the belief that both will make this team better. And Sunday will allow everyone a glimpse of whether that is the reality of the moves.

Video: Mats Zuccarello is headed down to Dallas

Zuccarello will play on a line with Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz to start out with. Hintz is a young player who seems to be breaking through and is a good fit to play beside Zuccarello because both have speed.

That will allow Tyler Seguin to play on a line with Mattias Janmark and Alexander Radulov, put together a checking line of Andrew Cogliano-Radek Faksa-Blake Comeau, and leave a fourth line of Jason Dickinson with Jason Spezza and Brett Ritchie.

The belief is that group can improve upon the current scoring rate of 2.51 goals per game that ranks 29th in the NHL.

"He adds a diversity and creativity to our forward group that is much needed and od going to make us a better team," said coach Jim Montgomery.

Montgomery said the team has been better since the break in creating more scoring plays, and yet they still have been shut out in three of the past five games. Still, one good player can help other good players break out of slumps.

"He makes finishing plays, whether he's passing it or he's making plays on the rush," Montgomery said. "The odd-man rushes when you have another player of his caliber, the goalie has to make great saves."

Video: Zuccarello arrives to join Stars, meets teammates

Lovejoy will jump in on defense as a partner with Jamie Oleksiak. Taylor Fedun will be a healthy scratch. The Stars improve their depth on defense and also create competition for ice time by adding Lovejoy.

So, in theory, this is best for everyone involved. Zuccarello can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer, and a nice playoff run would help him. Lovejoy also can become a UFA in the summer, so he will definitely be giving his all.

"This is the best," Lovejoy said. "For a long time in New Jersey, we've been out of it, and you don't have that same adrenalin. You have to find ways to get up for games. These types of games against a divisional opponent in a building like this, against a team that has had so much success, these are fun."

Of course, they're a lot more fun if you win. The Stars on Saturday had a good team in a revved up building and didn't respond in a 3-0 home loss to Carolina. It was a confusing performance when the team needed to be at its best.

"We felt good about our game against St. Louis, but then we played a game like this. So why do we do it?" defenseman John Klingberg said. "How did the game come and happen like this?"

It's the kind of game that can provide all sorts of motivation. Mix in a few new faces who are being given a second chance on this season, and the guess is the Stars should realize just what is on the line for the final 21 games.

"It's not how hard you fall, it's how quickly you get up," Montgomery said. "We need to respond with an effort that symbolizes you're proud to wear the Dallas Stars jersey."

That goes for everyone.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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