Bill Meltzer: Stars Gameday: 12/13/14 vs. NJ

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PREVIEW: STARS VS. DEVILS

In a battle of two struggling teams, the Dallas Stars (10-13-5) will play host to the New Jersey Devils (11-14-5) on Saturday night. Game time at the American Airlines Center is 7:30 p.m. CST. The game will be televised on Fox Sports Southwest.

This is the second and final game this season between the inter-conference teams.

The Stars prevailed at the Prudential Center in Newark, 3-2 via shootout, on Oct. 24.

Tonight’s game marks the conclusion of a three-game homestand for the Stars, who have been at home in Dallas since concluding a three-game road trip on Dec. 4. The team will have three nights off after tonight before playing in Vancouver on Wednesday to start a three-game road trip through western Canada.

New Jersey is playing for the fourth time in six nights and is in the second game of a three-game stretch of away games. The team looked fatigued in its last game. However, this is not one of the team’s more taxing road trips in terms of distance traveled or in terms of turnaround times between games. The Devils played in Philadelphia on Thursday and will be in Long Island on Monday with a day off between each game. STARS OUTLOOK

The Stars have had three days to regroup after an ugly 5-2 home setback against Winnipeg on Tuesday. Mission number one right now is for the Stars — who by far have the NHL’s worst goals against average per game at 3.54 — to start playing better team defense and get more consistent goaltending.

Over their last six games (1-4-1), the Stars have yielded five goals in five of the six games. The lone respite from hemorrhaging goals was a 4-1 win over an extremely fatigued Montreal Canadiens team that was at the tail end of a stretch of eight out of nine games on the road and playing the second half of back-to-back games. On that night, Dallas limited its opponent to just 17 shots.

Otherwise, things have been very ugly for the Stars of late. Dating back to Nov. 15, the Stars have a record of 4-7-1. In that 12-game span, Dallas has yielded four goals once (5-4 win over Los Angeles), five goals in six separate games (0-5-1 record) and six goals twice (0-2-0).

The list of things that are going right for the Stars of late is a short one.

National Hockey League leading point and goal scorer Tyler Seguin (four goals and six points in his last five games) has remained on an offensive tear. He has gotten some point-producing support from Jamie Benn (four assists in his last five games) and Jason Spezza (one goal, three points in his last four games) but the team could use more from its other two big guns as well as the supporting cast.

Rookie defenseman John Klingberg has been a revelation. In 14 games since his callup from the AHL’s Texas Stars, the Swede has piled up nine points (four goals, five assists) and is a plus-six at even strength while averaging 21:35 of ice time per game.

However, even the team’s standout players have sometimes stood out for the wrong reasons of late.

Klingberg looked as bad as the rest of the Dallas defense in the game against Winnipeg, and it worth noting that he skated just 13:27 in the Montreal game after having some issues in the previous match against Detroit. All rookies, but especially defensemen and goaltenders, experience a learning curve at the NHL level. The road is usually bumpy at the beginning, and Klingberg has hit his first bump after a tremendous running start in his first few weeks. It will be a good test for him to see if he can right back on track.

As for the top three forwards and key defensemen Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski, they are as much part of the team’s defensive problems — Spezza more than Benn and Seguin and Daley more than Goligoski, but all five at different times — as anyone on the team. There have been too many turnovers off low-percentage plays with the puck and too many critical times in games where tone-setting Dallas players have put themselves on the wrong side of the puck in trying to generate offense. These things tend to filter right on down the lineup.

Acquired in the trade that sent Brenden Dillon to San Jose, defenseman Jason Demers has produced four points (one goal, three assists) in his first eight games with the Stars. However, he is also minus-seven and a combined minus-13 in 28 games with the Sharks and Stars this season. He’s thrown one huge and oft-replayed clean hip check on LA’s Jarret Stoll, but the Stars have really missed the physical presence and size that Dillon brought.

Right now, between the Dillon trade and rookie Patrik Nemeth’s season-ending injury back in mid-October the collective Dallas blueline lacks muscle and physicality. Head coach Lindy Ruff noted after the Winnipeg game that his defensemen were getting manhandled down low in the defensive zone.

The issue wasn’t just lack of hitting to knock opponents off the puck, it was a glaring lack of muscle. Even when Dallas defenders attempted to pin Winnipeg players to the boards to allow teammates a chance to dig out the puck, the Jets players simply fended them off.

The only way to work around that is do a better job as an entire team — forwards as well as defensemen — at taking away space and time. The Dallas forwards need to do a better job on their end of applying back pressure, winning board battles and not turning over pucks. Ruff noted yesterday to the media that his system is based on having all five skaters back as the opposing team reaches the blueline. That detail of the game has been accomplished far too infrequently.

Starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen had been a rock of consistently good play throughout his Dallas tenure heading into this season. However, the big Finn is not having a good 2014-15 season by his standards, regardless of what’s going on in front of him. He’s run too cold-and-hot sometimes within the same game let alone being inconsistent from game to game.

Lehtonen has had a season-long issue with sealing off the short-side post and over-committing himself to the point of getting caught hopelessly out of position. The hopeful sign for the Stars is that they know Lehtonen is capable of getting on a roll for weeks at a time — he’s done so many times before in his Stars’ tenure — and there have been games this season where he’s been the team’s brightest spot.

The backup goaltending for Dallas has been abysmal overall this season. However, Jussi Rynnäs did a very solid job in the third period against Winnipeg last game, and that is something that perhaps can be a building block for him.

Checking forward Ryan Garbutt has been suspended by the NHL for the second time in less than a month and has been disciplined by the league four times (three suspensions and a playoff fine) in a 14-month period. Tonight, he will serve the first match of a three-game suspension for slew footing Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien in the third period of Tuesday’s game.

A healthy scratch for the last two games, Ales Hemsky will rejoin the Dallas lineup on Saturday night. He will skate on the right wing of Cody Eakins’ line, flanked by left winger Antoine Roussel.

Dallas has four players out of the lineup due to injury: Patrick Eaves (ankle) and Travis Moen (upper body) are on injured reserve. Right winger Valeri Nichushkin (hip surgery) is out until the stretch drive of the season. Nemeth (severe forearm laceration from a skate cut) is out until next season.

With Garbutt suspended and Moen out with injury, the Stars recalled Travis Morin from the AHL’s Texas Stars on Thursday. He was leading the Cedar Park-based farm team in scoring and ranked in the top four offensively in the AHL with 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) through his first 23 games of the regular season.

Ruff indicated that Morin would get second unit power play time for the big club, working the half-boards. At even strength, he will center a line with Erik Cole and Curtis McKenzie (his regular linemate at the AHL level).

Struggling rookie defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who has periodically been a healthy scratch and whose ice time against Winnipeg was limited to 8:59 and ended with a bad pinch in the offensive zone that led to a breakaway, has been assigned to the AHL’s Texas Stars. Rookie Jyrki Jokipakka will be back in the lineup.

Goligoski, who has been nursing nagging lower body injuries and taking frequent maintenance days from practice but dressing in games, participated in yesterday’s practice per Stars Inside Edge. Devils outlook

The Devils are 2-3-1 thus far in December. Head coach Pete DeBoer’s club has posted a 4-7-3 record in the last 14 games.

New Jersey enters this game coming off a sluggish performance in a 4-1 loss to the Flyers on Thursday. Martin Havlat’s second period power play deflection goal stood as the Devils’ lone tally.

Former Stars right winger, age future Hall of Famer Jagr recently secured fifth place in the NHL’s all-time scoring list (1,772 points). The Devils’ scoring leader this season with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) is one assist away from tying Steve Yzerman’s 1,063 assists for seventh on the all-time charts.

Mike Cammalleri leads the Devils with 11 goals and five power play tallies among his 15 point. He suffered a skate cut last game and is battling through a pulled gluteal muscle. Adam Henrique (eight goals, eight assists) is one point behind Jagr for the team scoring lead.

Veteran forwards Dainius Zubrus, who sustained a laceration to his lower left leg in Monday’s game and missed the team’s games against Chicago and Philly, is also questionable.

Defenseman Adam Larsson was diagnosed with mumps earlier this week and is not with the team. Team captain Bryce Salvador remains on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, along with forwards Ryane Clowe (concussion), Travis Zajac (mumps, has resumed skating) and longtime New Jersey standout forward Patrik Elias (groin).