Bill Meltzer: Stars Gameday: 12/31/14 vs. ARI

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PREVIEW: STARS VS. COYOTES

Winners of six of their last seven games, Lindy Ruff’s Dallas Stars (16-14-5) close out the 2014 calendar year with a New Year’s Eve clash with Dave Tippett’s Arizona Coyotes (14-18-4) at the American Airlines Center. Game time is 7:00 p.m. CST. The game will be televised on Fox Sports Southwest.

This is the third and final meeting of the 2014-15 season between the two clubs.

The Stars own a pair of regulation wins in the first two meetings. On Nov. 11 in Glendale, the Stars skated off with a 4-3 win. Nine nights later in Dallas, the Stars claimed a 3-1 victory. Stars outlook

The Stars enter this game coming off one of their most impressive wins of the season. On Monday night, the Stars halted the New York Rangers’ eight-game winning streak with a 3-2 regulation decision at the American Airlines Center.

Kari Lehtonen (28 saves) outdueled Henrik Lundqvist (24 saves) in a game that saw the teams combine for five goals in the first 21 minutes and zero thereafter. For Dallas, a first-period power play goal by rookie defenseman John Klingberg and an even strength goal by Ales Hemsky helped to forge a 2-2 deadlock at the first intermission. Antoine Roussel put the Stars ahead to stay at the 54-second mark of the second period. Rookie defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka also made what proved to be a critical play, blocking a point blank shot by New York’s Chris Kreider with an otherwise wide open net behind the defenseman.

With an average 3.34 goals against per game, the Stars still rank 29th (next to last) in the National Hockey League in GAA. However, a huge part of the Stars recent surge has been strong goaltending by Lehtonen and improvements in the club’s commitment to two-way play. In recent weeks, the Stars have shaved off about 2/10ths of a goal per game off their season GAA and the club’s win-loss record has improved accordingly.

The Stars are a formidable team offensively when they have their skating legs going and the team stays on-system. The club ranks ninth in the NHL with an average 2.86 goals scored per game. Of late, the club has not had to overrely on its top three forwards to carry the offense. The club has been getting balanced scoring.

As 2014 draws to a close, Tyler Seguin leads the NHL’s “Rocket” Richard Trophy race with 25 goals and, with 43 points, is three point behind Philadelphia Flyers right winger Jakub Voracek in the Art Ross Trophy race. Team captain Jamie Benn leads the Stars with 20 assists among his 30 points. Meanwhile, Jason Spezza’s 11 power play points (one goal, 10 assists) are second to Seguin’s 13 power play points for the team lead in that category. Overall, Spezza has six goals and 25 points.

Trevor Daley, who has scored five power play goals among his eight goals and 17 points, leads the Dallas blueline in scoring. However, his team-worst minus-13 rating at even strength is reflective of the team’s frequent tendency this season to get caught on the wrong side of the puck. Of late, his all-around game has been better.

On the injury front, the Stars are still without Patrick Eaves (ankle), Valeri Nichushkin (hip surgery) and Patrik Nemeth (severe forearm laceration from a skate cut). All three players remain on the injured reserve list. Coyotes outlook

The Coyotes bring a three-game winning streak into this game. On Monday, Arizona earned a 3-2 home win over Philadelphia.

Arizona built a 3-0 lead over the first 50 minutes of the game but then nearly saw the lead evaporate in the latter portion of the third period. The Flyers drew back within 3-2 and came within a spectacular post-to-post save by Devan Dubnyk (30 saves) of tying the game in the final minute. Finally, the Coyotes sealed the win with an empty net goal.

Antoine Vermette, originally credited with a hat trick, had two goals and an assist for the Coyotes in Monday’s game. Shane Doan and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (power play) had one goal apiece.

Offensive defenseman Keith Yandle is second on the Coyotes in overall scoring with 24 points and leads in assists with 20. Two of Yandle’s four goals have come on the power play. Vermette (10 goals, five power play tallies, 25 points) leads the squad in goals and overall scoring. Mikkel Boedker has nine goals and 22 points on the season.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson is widely regarded as one of the finest young two-way defensemen around the NHL. This season, things have been OK for him offensively with nine goals, six power play goals, five game-winning tallies, and 17 points. However, even with a plus-three night against Philadelphia on Monday, he is minus-11 on the season.

Tippett recently told the media that he is committed to the struggling Mike Smith (3.48 GAA, .884 save percentage in 22 starts and one relief appearance) as his number one goalie. However, it is tough to sit the resurgent Dubnyk while he is playing so well and the team is winning of late. For the season, Dubnyk has posted a 9-3-2 record, 2.49 GAA and .925 save percentage in 14 starts and three relief outings.

Joe Vitale missed Monday’s game with a lower-body injury and is questionable for tonight. Recently recalled rookie center Tyler Gaudet played in Vitale’s place on Monday. Defenseman Chris Summers is on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Projected lineups (subject to change)

STARS

14 Jamie Benn – 91 Tyler Seguin – 22 Colton Sceviour

72 Erik Cole – 90 Jason Spezza – 83 Ales Hemsky

21 Antoine Roussel – 20 Cody Eakin – 16 Ryan Garbutt

10 Shawn Horcoff – 38 Vernon Fiddler – 27 Travis Moen

33 Alex Goligoski – 3 John Klingberg

2 Jyrki Jokipakka – 6 Trevor Daley

24 Jordie Benn – 4 Jason Demers

32 Kari Lehtonen

[29 Anders Lindbäck]

Scratches: Jamie Oleksiak (healthy), Travis Morin (healthy), Patrick Eaves (IR, ankle), Valeri Nichushkin (IR, hip surgery), Patrik Nemeth (IR, severe forearm laceration).

Arizona

89 Mikkel Boedker – 50 Antoine Vermette – 19 Shane Doan

10 Martin Erat – 11 Martin Hanzal – 9 Sam Gagner

8 Tobias Rieder – 24 Kyle Chipchura – 18 David Moss

22 Brandon McMillan – 32 Tyler Gaudet – 28 Lauri Korpikoski

23 Oliver Ekman-Larsson – 4 Zbynek Michalek

3 Keith Yandle – 26 Michael Stone

33 Brandon Gormley – 5 Connor Murphy

40 Devan Dubnyk

[41 Mike Smith]

Scratches: Joe Vitale (questionable, lower body), Chris Summers (IR, upper body), David Schlemko (healthy), B.J. Crombeen (healthy).