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The Red Wing measuring stick

In the grand scheme of the NHL schedule, there aren't many must-win games in January. But for Marty Turco and the Dallas Stars, Saturday's rematch against the Detroit Red Wings comes pretty close.

It's not that the result is likely to impact the playoff hopes of either squad when the top two teams in the Western Conference get together for the second time in four days, this time at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. That's especially true for the Wings, a Fritz Lang-worthy machine that has won 30 of its first 41 games, including a convincing 4-1 thrashing of the Stars on Wednesday.

That setback aside, the Stars have enjoyed a quietly impressive run themselves, so it might seem unnecessary to place so much weight on the outcome of this particular contest. But the truth is that they need this one badly. And for it to really count, it has to happen with Turco in net.

A little dramatic? Not at all.

The Stars are a team that has pretty much had its way with the league since the dramatic decision to kick general manager Doug Armstrong to the curb after a 7-7-2 start that was actually flattering to their tepid performance. But powered by the change in atmosphere, the end of Mike Modano's lengthy American-born scoring record quest, and the return to form of Turco, Dallas has surprised critics (including this one) with its climb to the top of the Pacific Division at 23-15-4, where it is now locked in battle with San Jose.

Just as important, the successes of the past two months have allowed the Stars to begin to rebuild the bridges they burned with local fans after yet another first-round playoff ouster last season. The team has sold out four straight games -- a startling run in light of early attendance miseries -- and are sure to make it five on Saturday.

But while the Stars started to rekindle that loving feeling, there's a cold wind ready to blow out the flames. Dallas can handle the Ducks and Sharks, but they haven't given any indication that they can compete with the Wings. Not beat the Wings; just battle them close enough to prove that they belong in the same conversation with the best team in hockey.

It's hard to imagine how a team that looks so confident, so capable, when it lines up against every other team can empty its pockets and fork over its lunch money as soon as it sees that famous winged wheel crest. No club is more spooked by the Wings' aura than the Stars, and no player pulls the sheets up over his head faster than Turco, whose career mark against Detroit stands at 1-10-5 after the latest de-pantsing.

That record's not all Turco's fault, of course. In Wednesday's contest he was given little offensive support from a group of forwards whose panic level rises dramatically against the Wings. It also didn't help that the team was missing four regulars, including big-minute defenders Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher.

But it's in those very situations that a No. 1 goaltender earns the role. He has to encourage his mates to hop on his back, rather than break their backs with soft goals caused by bad positioning and weak rebound control, as Turco did on Wednesday.

Given a chance to redeem himself the following night, Turco was chased just 13 minutes into a 6-3 loss in Minnesota, victimized for three goals on the Wild's first four shots. Thinking instead of reacting, the hallmark of his periodic plunges into ineptitude, Turco's wheels came flying off.

After the game Dallas coach Dave Tippett, steam venting out of his ears, wasn't willing to commit to Turco or backup Mike Smith for Saturday's critical start against the Wings. But while Smith may be the obvious choice, the skipper has to have the big picture in mind. When you play San Jose or Columbus, you're trying to get two points. When you play Detroit, you're trying to prove a point: that you can be considered a legitimate contender.

And the capabilities of Smith aside, Dallas can only earn that recognition with Turco in the net. The bottom line is simple. You don't pay a goalie $5.7 million to sit on the bench against the top team in the conference, let alone the league.

For the Stars to turn things around, both on the ice and in their heads, they need their best players to be their best players. And Turco is, without a doubt, the best, most valuable Star.

At least, that's what his paycheck says. Time for him to earn it on Saturday.

Pillow talk

It was all a misunderstanding. At least, that's the way Rick DiPietro is characterizing the situation after being forced to change his leg pads after the first period of Thursday night's game against the Panthers.

The new, all-white pillows worn by the Isles stopper to start the contest were replaced before the second period, reportedly at the request of the NHL. According to two sources, DiPietro was asked to remove them because they were in violation of league rules. That doesn't mean they were illegal, per se. Instead, they just hadn't been approved by Kay Whitmore, the league's goaltender equipment consultant, who vets all armor before it can be used in a game.

It may have been a simple mistake, but as in the case of the guy who carelessly flips the puck out of play, there can't be leeway granted based on intent. The rules are clear: Equipment has to be approved first, to prevent the kind of cheating that was prevalent in the pre-lockout days. Since his pads weren't cleared, DiPietro deserves the mandated two-game suspension.

As tough as this is on DiPietro, who just returned after missing three games with a sprained knee, it could be worse on Scott Boggs. The Islanders' equipment manager is ultimately responsible for securing the league approvals, and is subject to a $1,000 fine for failing to do so -- not an inconsiderable amount on a workingman's salary. And given how tight the race for the playoffs will be in the Eastern Conference, the Isles can scarcely afford to go two games without their best player. I'd hate to be the guy responsible for his absence...

Samsonov's luggage

If you'd been inclined to cobble together a list of players likely to benefit from the new rules implemented by the league in the wake of the lockout, odds are you'd have included smooth-skating Russian winger Sergei Samsonov. So it's sad, and somewhat surprising, to see the NHL career of the former Calder Trophy- winner come to such an abrupt, ignominious end this week.

The Blackhawks assigned Samsonov to Rockford on Wednesday, two days after he cleared waivers. An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, he's likely to play out the string in the AHL to finish collecting on his $3.25 million contract -- a cap hit that no team would take a chance on even at 50 cents on the dollar.

It's been an amazing freefall for Samsonov, a former 70-point man who failed to score a single goal in 23 games with the Hawks after being acquired from the Canadiens during the offseason. Chicago gave him every opportunity in the early going to get his career back on track after an equally rough single season in Montreal, but the speed and hockey sense that defined his early success deserted him.

"He used to be willing to go north/south," one scout said. "But for the past few years he's always gone east/west. He was too predictable, too easy to defend. And he really didn't do enough in other areas to justify the ice time...or that contract."

Also on the waiver wire: Carolina goalie John Grahame, whose league-worst 3.83 GAA and $1.4 million salary ensure that he'll be spending the rest of the season in Albany. The Canes called up the well-traveled Michael Leighton to replace not just Grahame, but also possibly Cam Ward, who watched five of the 14 shots fired at him by Atlanta on Wednesday hit the back of the twine. Although that effort was especially dismal, Ward has slowly opened the door for Leighton over the last two weeks, posting a woeful .750 save percentage in his last six starts. With goaltending like that, it's little wonder that Carolina has the 30th-ranked penalty kill . . .

With some clear cap space, the Hurricanes may join the Lightning, Penguins and Kings as suitors for Curtis Joseph, who went 5-0 as Team Canada won the Spengler Cup last week. The 40-year-old was solid -- especially considering his six-month layoff -- giving up just 10 goals in the tournament. With playoff spots still there for the taking, at least in the East, it's hard to imagine why one of those three teams wouldn't take on a player who could stabilize their netminding at low cost, and provide a solid presence in the dressing room . . .

After a brutal start that saw them win just five of their first 13 games, it's startling to see the Vancouver Canucks tied for the third-best record in the NHL. Credit their rise to the top on some home cooking, and the return to form of Roberto Luongo. After Thursday night's 3-0 whitewashing of the Rangers, the Canucks are 11-0-2 in their last 13 home games. Luongo, stingier than at any point of his career, has allowed just 11 goals during that stretch . . .

The most underrated skill in today's NHL? How about the ability to fake a shot. The way most defensive systems are designed, shot blocking is the key to clogging up the lanes and taking away scoring opportunities. But when an offensive player can effectively mix in a fake, the defender takes himself out of the play, allowing for a temporary man advantage. No wonder that some of the game's most effective scorers -- Ilya Kovalchuk, Sergei Zubov and Vincent Lecavalier, among others -- are some of the most proficient practitioners of the fake.

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