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What to watch for as Stars get set for rematch with Winnipeg

Four days after being knocked around by its division rival, Dallas looks for revenge

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

The Dallas Stars hope they can keep one trend going -- playing well at home -- while reversing another -- struggling against Central Division foes -- as they host the surprising Winnipeg Jets at home on Monday nnight.

Here are some thoughts and meanderings about a second clash between these two teams in four days.


1. New-look Stars

The Stars have had to retool their lineup on the fly with injuries to Brett Ritchie -- placed on injured reserve Sunday -- and Tyler Pitlick and Radek Faksa, who will both miss Monday's rematch against the Jets. 

On the plus side, Martin Hanzal will rejoin the lineup after missing three games as he continues to try and put a nagging lower-body issue to rest. 

In lieu of bringing up another forward, the Stars have elected to move defenseman Jamie Oleksiak to the forward group for Monday's game. He looks to play with Hanzal and impressive rookie Gemel Smith. 

Hanzal's return should be a boon to a Stars team that was overmatched physically by the surging Jets in a 5-2 loss in Winnipeg last Thursday, the finale of a five-game road trip. 

Head coach Ken Hitchcock said the coaching staff had actually considered using Oleksiak up front earlier in the season, and they have no reservations about making this move. 

"He's just got to keep the puck in front of him," Hitchcock said. "He's got really good skill. He's got a great shot. He's got good foot-speed for a big man. He's a smart guy." 

Oleksiak seems pretty Zen about the chance to get back into the lineup after being scratched for the last two games, even if it is as a forward. 

"I'm just not going to over complicate it," he said. "Just got to keep it simple. I got two good (linemates) here. Just make sure we talk and play smart defensively and kind of do our job out there, and just play a smart, simple game." 

As for forward experience, Oleksiak might have played a couple of games up front as a junior, but this is going to be pretty much uncharted territory for him.


2. Jets redux

The Stars did a nice job of staying focused on the task at hand in dominating the Sabres 5-1 on Saturday night, scoring four times in the first period. 

But this rematch provides an interesting test for a Stars team that has taken care of business at home with a 5-1-0 record, during which they have allowed 10 goals in total. 

That's good. But big picture, the Stars have struggled against divisional opponents -- and quality opponents overall -- including the loss to Winnipeg, which featured more than a little testiness. 

Against teams in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, as of Monday morning, the Stars are 2-4-0. And the Jets represent the kind of opponent that is built for the playoffs: fast and tough, and now, getting solid goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck, while having addressed some of their longstanding discipline issues. 

"I think it's all on the Jets," Hitchcock joked when asked about the friction between the two Central Division teams. 

"They're just a mean-spirited team. They've been beating up on everybody. I was with St. Louis and it wasn't fun there either. I think they're mean-spirited, and the league ought to look in to it."

Video: Jets ready for rematch with Stars


3. Why the early division woes?

Hitchcock was clearly having some pregame fun, but the issue of how the Stars make up ground against stronger divisional foes is going to be an ongoing narrative. 

The team's only win against a Central Division foe came at home against Colorado, after suffering losses in St. Louis, Nashville, Colorado and Winnipeg on the road. 

So, what gives? 

"I think our inexperience has caught us off guard a few times," Hitchcock acknowledged. 

He noted strong performances in all four losses marred by brief breakdowns. 

"But when you're playing teams with a lot of experience and a lot of gamesmanship it shows," he said. "And that's what showed up was our inexperience at being able to manage the minutes or manage the big ebbs and flows of the game." 

Did we mention Monday represents a nice test of whether the Stars have learned from those missteps? 

"I think we're better at it now," Hitchcock said. "We've had some games under our belts. But that's what you've got to go through in the Central, because we're playing against a lot of really experienced teams. Teams that really know how to play and know how to play well and are consistent, and that's one of the things that we're trying to play catchup on is to catch up to the mental part of the game."


4. What will we see from Hanzal?

It has been a difficult go for Hanzal, one of the Stars' important offseason acquisitions, as injuries have hampered his playing time and -- on some levels -- his effectiveness when he's been in the lineup. 

Initially, it looked like Hanzal would wait until Friday's home contest with the Islanders, but whether it was the other injuries or just that he's ahead of schedule, he's going to make a return Monday. 

"As I said, I tested it yesterday, I felt pretty good," said Hanzal, who has one goal -- an empty-netter --  in 11 games for the Stars. 

"Even this morning, I feel I'm 100 percent." 

He may not have the offensive numbers that should be expected from a player of his caliber, but Hitchcock noted that the team's faceoff efficiency, and even the penalty kill -- which remains strong -- took a hit when Hanzal went out of the lineup. 

"When he's played, he's been really good for us," Hitchcock said. "He brings a lot of elements to our team game that we need, but we also need him to be healthy so that he can get some confidence."

Video: Pregame: DAL vs WPG

5. Return of another big man

If this is a good test for the 6-foot-6 Hanzal, it's likewise a good chance for another man of imposing stature, netminder Ben Bishop, to make a statement. 

Bishop was given the night off on Saturday with Kari Lehtonen getting his second straight win. Bishop was in goal for Thursday's loss in Winnipeg, and while he could hardly be faulted on the four goals he allowed on 26 shots (the Jets scored two first-period power-play goals and got a gift on the third via a ghastly Esa Lindell giveaway that ended up on Patrik Laine's stick) the Jets are playing at such high level, having lost just once in regulation in their last 10 games (6-1-3). 

It stands to reason that Bishop is going to have his hands full, especially with a Stars lineup that has been diminished by injury. 

Bishop is 4-0 at home and has allowed just seven goals in those four wins (he earned a no-decision in the home-opener against Las Vegas when he left with an injury in the third period).

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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