DALLAS Its been a little more than a month since the Sharks beat the Dallas Stars to take a 10-point lead over their division rivals.
Since then, the Sharks have fallen off of a cliff while the surprising Stars have steadily risen to take over the Pacific Division lead three points better than the sinking Sharks.
Dallas is 7-0-1 in its last eight games, and will seek its first win over the Sharks this season when they host San Jose tonight at American Airlines Center. For the Sharks, who still have two games in hand on Dallas, they will try to avoid falling behind by as many as five points.
Its why tonights game should probably be considered the biggest game of the season so far. Right, Logan Couture?
Probably, right now, Couture said. Were getting down to end of the regular season and were trying to make a push for the playoffs, and these guys are ahead of us. I think both teams know how important these points are, and its a big game.
Todd McLellan said: Thursdays game is the biggest game of the year, Saturdays game in Phoenix is going to be the biggest game of the year, and were going to just keep going on and on. Were into every night being the biggest game of the year. With big games come big efforts, and were looking for that from a lot of guys. Its a great opportunity for guys, and they have to seize that and go out and play.
The Sharks have had Dallas number this season, winning all three games in regulation. A fourth could do wonders to help reverse a stretch in which San Jose has won just four times in its last 16 games since its 5-2 home win over Dallas on Feb. 2.
Were going to need a good effort, Joe Pavelski said. When we play these guys its always a competitive game, and it brings some good play out of the guys.
Couture said: Its a rivalry. Theyve got some players who get under the other teams skin. I think we have some players who do that as well. Its going to be a grind playing these guys, and its always a tough game."
The clubs will meet twice more after tonight.
Moore line vs. Stars top line? Dominic Moore, along with linemates Torrey Mitchell and Daniel Winnik, did a very good job against the Edmonton Oilers top line in the 3-2 shootout loss on Thursday night.
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That trio will likely be together again for tonights game, and although it will be more difficult on the road, its possible McLellan will try and get them out against the Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder line as much as possible.
During Dallas 7-0-1 stretch, that line has combined for a whopping 31 points (14g, 17a).
Im happy to contribute any way I can. I think Im ready for that, or any assignment, said Moore, who, in six games with his new team, has yet to be in the lineup for a Sharks victory.
Their top line is really on fire right now, McLellan said. Its carrying their team.
Stars on fire: Dallas has been among the NHLs hottest teams for a couple weeks now, after it was seemingly buried in the standings in early February.
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Head coach Glen Gulutzan was asked what is different about his club that wasnt there a month ago. He sited a simpler game plan, but theres more to it than that.
Since the trade deadline, our team is a close-knit group," Gulutzan said. "Anyone thats around us can attest to that. When youve got players that are working hard for each other and they are being held accountable to each other, youve got something good there. Thats probably been the biggest difference.
Jamie Benn, tied for second on the team scoring with 52 points, said: I think you figure out how to win hockey games, and were doing it as a team right now and playing the right way. Were all buying into a system and playing for each other, and thats whats going to win us games down the stretch now.
A look at the lineups: Expect some changes for the Sharks in their lineup again when they take the ice tonight.
All indications are that TJ Galiardi will come out, while Brad Winchester is back in. Jason Demers could also be back in after a two-game absence, after he came off of the ice early while Justin Braun stayed out later than usual.
Backup Richard Bachman led the Stars to a 5-2 win in Vancouver on Tuesday, but starter Kari Lehtonen will get the start against the Sharks. Lehtonen is just 3-4-1 in his career against the Sharks, with a 3.70 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
Antti Niemi gets the call for San Jose, his fifth straight. In 10 games against the Stars, Niemi is 6-2-2 with a 2.24 GAA and .923 SP. Hes won two of the three games against Dallas this season, as Thomas Greiss made 19 saves in the 5-2 Sharks win on Feb. 2 with Niemi injured.
Pavelski, who missed Wednesdays practice after taking a puck to the face on Tuesday, will play, as will the Stars Steve Ott, who has been battling an illness and left Dallas morning skate earlier than usual.
Odds and ends: The Sharks have won the first three games of the season series by a combined 14-5 score. Dallas has killed of 23 of the last 24 opponent power plays. The Sharks were a combined 0-for-8 on the power play during their 1-2-1 homestand.