Stars-Blue Jackets Preview
After a grueling stretch against three teams chasing them in the standings, the Dallas Stars draw a matchup against the NHL's worst.
The Stars can improve on their league-best record while extending their point streak to six games when they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night.
Dallas (27-7-3) is riding a 4-0-1 stretch with the last four games coming against its closest pursuers in the Central Division, beating Minnesota and Chicago last week before earning three points from a home-and-home set with second-place St. Louis.
The Stars regrouped from Saturday's 3-2 shootout loss with a dominating performance in Sunday's 3-0 win. Captain Jamie Benn scored his NHL-leading 23rd goal and Patrick Sharp extended his point streak to five games with a goal and an assist.
"Tough to give up the point in the shootout loss, but I thought our team bounced back with a great effort at home," Sharp told the team's official website. "Three of four points coming out of the (Christmas) break is good."
Now the Stars are tasked with righting the ship on the road, where they are 1-1-2 since Dec. 4. They still have a Western Conference-best 12-3-3 road record.
The NHL's top-scoring offense at 3.46 goals per game will take its second look this month at a Columbus defense allowing an average of 3.13, second-worst in the league. That mark is up to 4.00 since Dec. 10 with a 2-6-1 record since the Blue Jackets lost top goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to a groin injury.
Dallas ranks toward the top of the league with a 1.67 goals-against average since Dec. 11, allowing no more than three goals in 11 straight games. Two of the Stars' four shutouts have come within the last week as Kari Lehtonen logged Sunday's with 22 saves, and Antti Niemi made 20 in last Tuesday's 4-0 victory over the Blackhawks.
It's unclear who will start Tuesday, though Niemi earned the NHL's second star of the week after going 2-0-1 with a 1.02 GAA and .966 save percentage. But he is 1-4-0 with a 4.03 GAA in his last six games versus the Blue Jackets, while Lehtonen is 7-5-1 with a 1.85 GAA against them for his career.
Lehtonen made 34 saves in the first matchup between the teams Dec. 15, a 5-1 win in Dallas. Tyler Seguin tallied two goals and Johnny Oduya, Mattias Janmark and Alex Goligoski each scored.
The Blue Jackets (13-22-3), who have seven players on their roster at 23 years old or younger, have surrendered at least five goals four times in their last six games - all in regulation.
''It's very frustrating ... I see weakness,'' coach John Tortorella said. ''I think we're weak mentally, and it's not the kids. I worry about the kids getting into bad habits by watching other people. That's frightening to me.''
Columbus was outshot 19-1 while taking 11 minutes in penalties during the first period of Sunday's 3-2 loss at Florida. The Blue Jackets have served 71 penalty minutes in the last three games.
Rookie Joonas Korpisalo was pulled after allowing four goals on 27 shots against the Stars earlier this month, and Curtis McElhinney allowed a goal on seven shots in relief. Korpisalo has a 3.65 GAA in five games since being called up from the AHL after the injury to Bobrovsky, who could be on the verge of returning but is listed as day-to-day.