As much as the Dallas Stars would love to claim their first division title in 10 years, the main goal now is heading into the playoffs fully healthy.
Patrick Sharp and Jordie Benn finally have decided not to play through nagging injuries in order to heal up before the postseason, but the Stars certainly will have a more difficult time snapping their slump and pulling into a tie atop the Central.
Dallas looks to avoid a season-high fifth consecutive loss when it faces the playoff-hopeful New Jersey Devils on Friday night.
The Stars (38-20-7) are two points back of first-place Chicago with a game in hand despite going just 1-5-2 since Feb. 16. They also have a game in hand on St. Louis, which they tie for second as they seek their first division crown since 2005-06.
The slump continued Tuesday with a 5-3 loss at Nashville after Dallas allowed three unanswered goals in the second period that put the game away. Sharp, whose 47 points are fourth on the club, left that contest early with a lower-body injury and is expected to miss 5-7 days, according to coach Lindy Ruff.
The veteran is in his first season with Dallas and had played in every game.
"Sharp has been battling his situation most of the year," Ruff said. "Just got to a point where we're going to shut him down for a few days. Hopefully, he'll be ready once we get back from the road trip."
After facing New Jersey (31-27-7), the Stars travel to Montreal and Ottawa on Sunday and Tuesday. Benn, whose brother Jamie leads Dallas in scoring, will miss at least each of those games and could be out up to two weeks with a lower-body issue.
Ruff will have to switch up his defensive pairings with Benn out. He had Alex Goligoski on the right with Patrik Nemeth and put recently acquired Kris Russell with John Klingberg at practice Thursday.
Johnny Oduya and Jason Demers will remain together as the Stars also try to avoid a fifth consecutive home defeat.
"I think we have options now," Ruff said. "With Jordie out, one of our top five will have to play some right defense, and Alex has been the best at it so far."
Sharp scored in the first meeting with New Jersey on Jan. 2 before John Moore's overtime goal gave the Devils a 3-2 victory and their fourth win in six meetings.
Moore assisted on Adam Henrique's overtime goal as New Jersey roared back for a 5-4 win at Nashville on Thursday. The Devils trailed by two entering the third and were down a goal late in regulation when Henrique force OT with 39.7 seconds left.
New Jersey scored three times during a three-game skid prior to the victory and had dropped six of its previous seven. The club is tied with Philadelphia for ninth in the Eastern Conference, but it sits five points back of Pittsburgh and has played two more games than both the Flyers and Penguins.
"It was nice we were able to tie it up and find a way to win," coach John Hynes said. "You can feel it on the bench and with your team that guys felt good, felt good about how we played."
Cory Schneider will be back in net after Keith Kinkaid made 30 saves Thursday. Schneider had a 3.35 goals-against average over his previous seven but is 3-1-1 with a 2.09 GAA in his last five against the Stars.
Antti Niemi, who has a 4.68 GAA over his last five, could be in goal for Dallas.