Stars Host Coyotes in Crucial Matchup in Pacific

Written by Brian McCormack on .

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Since the All-Star break, the St. Louis Blues have asserted themselves as the top team in the Western Conference and top-dog in arguably the NHL's toughest division, with the likes of Nashville, Chicago, and Detroit all competing in the Central Division. The Wings and Predators both sit eight point back of Detroit.

The Canucks hold a commanding lead in the Northwest, eleven points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche, who are playing their best hockey of the season.

Then there's the Pacific, the division nobody seems to want. At the end of January, it belonged to the San Jose Sharks. At February's end, the Phoenix Coyotes had ridden an 11-0-1 streak to the top of the division. Now, thanks to Phoenix's 3-5-2 record in March, the division belongs to the Dallas Stars, in a virtual tie with the Coyotes, and only a one point lead over the Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings.

Tonight in Dallas, the Stars and Coyotes will face off with the Pacific's top spot on the line.

The Stars have a record of 6-2-0 in March, losing their last two contests to Winnipeg and Chicago by a combined score of 9-3. Still, their record of 10-2-1 since February 21st is their best stretch since opening the season with a record of 11-3-0 through the first week of November.

With a solid start to the season, the Stars were the team of feel-good surprises, with Eric Nystrom's hot first half leading to the highest goal count and point total of his career (16-4-20 pts), to Sheldon Souray's successful return to the NHL, to the performance of Richard Bachman who went 5-2-0 with a .911 save % and a GAA of 2.70 in 7 starts in replacement of the injured Kari Lehtonen.

In their recent surge to the top of the Pacific, the head-liners have carried the workload.  Michael Ryder, a 30-goal scorer for the first time since 2007, has seven goals and twelve points in the last 13 games. Loui Eriksson, who leads the Stars in scoring, has seven goals and 15 points in that same stretch. Jamie Benn continues to emerge as one of the games best, with 57 points in 61 games, the best of his young career.

Kari Lehtonen is 8-1-1 in his last ten starts, with a GAA of 1.60, a save % of 0.95, and three shutouts.

The Coyotes have struggled since the calendar turned to March, their 3-5-2 run including two losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets, two to the Calgary Flames, and a shoot-out loss to the Minnesota Wild. 

The Coyotes have manged only 25 goals in their past ten after scoring 35 in 12 games in February. Radim Vrbata, the teams leading goal scorer, has not scored since February 21st. Shane Doan has one goal in his last eleven. Mike Smith, among the NHL's best goaltenders entering March, has surrendered four goals in four of his nine starts this month, winning three.

Ray Whitney continues a terrific season. The 39 year-old has three goals and nine points in the past ten games, pulling him to within seven points of 1,000 for his career.

The Stars' loss to Chicago on Friday night was their first regulation home loss since February 19th. They have won two of the five meetings this season with the Coyotes, with the Coyotes taking the last three.

The teams last met on February 18th, a 2-1 shoot-out win at home.

The teams trailing the Coyotes and Stars will meet tonight as well. The Sharks and Kings will face-off at the Staples Center at 10:30 ET on NBCSN following the tilt in Dallas. The Kings have won seven of their last ten and four in a row, while the Sharks have continued to struggle with only 3 wins in the last ten after falling to the Ducks Monday night, blowing another opportunity to. overtake Dallas.

San Jose has won two of the three meetings this season, with neither team winning on the road.

The Pacific Division will not be decided tonight, as no horse in this race is a sure-fire bet. But by the end of the night, the Kings, Coyotes, or Sharks could find themselves sitting third in the West, while the Dallas Stars could be at the bottom of the playoff picture.

Ten games remain for these teams, nine for Phoenix. Forget about the Washington Capitals, this will be the mad-dash scramble to captivate our attention for the next three weeks. Which team will rise to the top to take the Pacific?

More realistically, which team will be riding the right streak at the right time?

Post-game Update

The Phoenix Coyotes overcame a two-goal defecit on the road to force overtime, but that wasn't enough as the Dallas Stars prevailed 4-3 in the shoot-out. Dallas now stands alone in first place in the Pacific Division.

The Stars got two goals from Michael Ryder (32) in the second period to jump ahead 3-1, but Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored his fourth goal in five games (12), a shorthanded tally half-way through the third. Ray Whitney's 23rd of the season, on the powerplay, tied the game with 5:02 to go in the third period.

Mike Ribeiro had the lone goal in the shoot-out to give Dallas sole possession of first, after Kari Lehtonen made this stop on Oliver Ekman-Larsson to save the game in overtime.

The LA Kings defeated the San Jose Sharks 5-2, the Sharks' tenth loss in their last twelve road games.

The Kings' win, coupled with the OT win for Colorado and the shoot-out loss for Phoenix, will boost the Avalanche into seventh and move the Coyotes and Kings into a virtual tie. With only 73 games played, Los Angeles now holds eighth place in the Western Conference. Phoenix falls to ninth and San Jose will remain in 10th ahead of Calgary by virtue of one game in hand.

It wasn't easy, but the Stars had the statement game they needed at home to lay a firm, legitimate claim atop the Pacific. The challenge is not over yet, as they will face Vancouver and Calgary twice apiece over the next five games.

The Kings did their job too, winning their fifth straight, and will also face a stiff challenge in the coming week. They will face St. Louis, Boston, and Vancouver in a span of five days.

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