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What to watch for as Stars look to continue home success against Calgary

Dallas returns to American Airlines Center tonight, where it is a stellar 8-2

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars will once again look to home as a refuge from their woeful road play as they entertain the Calgary Flames on Friday, a night that will include the retirement of Jere Lehtinen's jersey beforehand. 

To pay homage to the three-time Frank J. Selke Trophy winner, all of the Stars players will be wearing the yellow laces that Lehtinen favored when he was playing. Just in case you were wondering.

 Here's what to watch for on a night when the Stars will look to keep the home fires cooking before they hit the road next week for dates in Las Vegas and Chicago.

 

All about mindset

So far this season, it hasn't been an issue for the Stars to block out the team's failures on the road when they return to the American Airlines Center, where they are a stellar 8-2. 

But the Stars are coming off one of their most disappointing road efforts, a 3-0 loss to Colorado on Wednesday night, in which they somehow allowed the second, pivotal goal against with 0.1 seconds left in the second period. 

Certainly the team's leadership group, especially up front, is going to have to prove they can move quickly past the loss that dropped the Stars to 3-8-1 on the road. As Ken Hitchcock and the players have noted over and over, there is just something different about how the team responds to adversity at home. 

They trailed in their last two home games against Edmonton and Montreal and still emerged with wins. They have won three in a row at home and their eight home wins are tied for the most among all Western Conference teams. 

The lineup will have a slightly different wrinkle Friday with Martin Hanzal returning after missing the last two games. That will help take some of the pressure off of the rest of the forward group, given the important minutes he plays both killing penalties and as a net-front presence on the second power-play unit, as well as taking shifts against opposing teams' top forward lines. 

"He has come out and been really good, and then got hurt three times," Hitchcock said. "It's been really unfortunate for him, because just when he's really having a huge impact in the game, and on our team, boom, he's out." 

Rookie defenseman Julius Honka will return to the lineup, as well, and take Jamie Oleksiak's place on the blue line. He, too, will get an opportunity to display his puck-moving skills on the second power-play unit.

Video: Mike Smith chats with Scott Burnside

 

Traction or history?

Speaking of the Western Conference, how wacky are the standings in the west? 

As of Friday morning, the Stars were technically 13th of 15 teams in the conference. Calgary is in third place in the Pacific Division. They are two -- yes, that's two, deux, 2 -- points ahead of Dallas. 

In fact, just three (trois, 3) separate No. 5 through 13th in the west. 

Now you know why Hitchcock said he feels like every Western Conference game is a single-elimination playoff game. 

Going back to the loss in Denver on Wednesday, the Stars are beginning a stretch that has them playing nine straight games against Western Conference opponents. Not to put too fine a point on it, but being better than .500 through this stretch will be critical to playoff aspirations. 

"Road thing -- the word is overrated. It's about playing winning hockey," Hitchcock said. "The difference is in an adverse situation, can you continue on your winning program. So for us, it's not road, it's not home -- it's continue on the five or six things that allow you to be a winning team, wherever you play. Could be in the street, I don't really care."

 

Back to Ben

Ben Bishop has been outstanding at home this season and will start his third game in four nights Friday night, having played in games Tuesday (a win over Montreal) and against Colorado Wednesday, a loss in which he was, at times, spectacular in keeping the game close. 

Bishop is 7-1-0 at home with a .950 save percentage and is statistically the top home goaltender in the league among netminders with at least nine appearances on home ice. 

Enough said. 

Bishop will be backed up by Kari Lehtonen, who returns to the team after the birth of his son last Sunday. 

Friday's goaltending matchup is an interesting one, and not just because Calgary starter Mike Smith broke into the NHL with Dallas before being traded to Tampa Bay in the Brad Richards deal back in 2008. Tonight's game will feature two of the best puck-moving goaltenders in the game in Bishop and Smith. Both have the ability to make stretch passes and can help take advantage of sloppy line changes. Plus, if it's a one-goal game late, both have the potential to find the back of the opposing net. 

In other words, don't leave early.

 

Quickly, quickly

Wednesday's game might have had the best pace of any game in which the Stars have played this season, and there should be more of the same Friday against a quick, talented Flames team. 

The Flames, whom the Stars defeated in Calgary by a 2-1 count last month, have started to find a groove, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 -- although they're coming off a disappointing shutout loss in overtime to Columbus. 

Notwithstanding the Sergei Bobrovsky factor, the Flames offense has been chugging along nicely with the top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland doing much of the heavy lifting. Gaudreau has points in all but four games this season and had five straight multiple-point games before being shut out against Columbus. 

"He has a clear understanding on a 50-50 puck, who's going to get to it first, and his anticipation is second to none. And if you sleep on the ice, or if you stare at the puck, he's gone," Hitchcock said.

"That can be mentally draining on you as an opposition."

Video: Hitch and Shore talk about Jere's legacy

 

Other stuff

The one area that Stars look to exploit is the Flames' poor penalty kill, which ranks dead last in the league -- although they have been marginally better at keeping pucks out of their net on the road than at home, while killing penalties. 

The Stars are in a bit of a dry spell on the power play, going 1-for-16 over the past five games. The penalty kill, which had taken a bit of a dip, has been good the last two games, killing 7 of 8, including all three in Denver against the Avs. 

One of the features of the Stars' strong home record has been the ability to consistently win the special-teams battle.

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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