<
>

Coyotes, Stars on outside looking in ahead of clash

DALLAS -- When the Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars square off at American Airlines Center Friday night, it will be a matchup between two teams on the outside looking in of the race for a spot in the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Arizona (21-31-7) will be looking to complete the back-to-back in positive fashion after losing 6-3 at Chicago on Thursday night. The Coyotes are now 8-17-4 on the road and 4-9-0 against the Central Division.

"It was a poor game right from our goaltender out," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said postgame in Chicago.

In that loss, the Coyotes trailed 3-1 in the opening period, but stormed back to make it 3-3 after 20 minutes.

However, Arizona allowed three unanswered goals over the game's final 40 minutes to lose by three to the Blackhawks.

"It's tough to win in any rink like that (with a bad start) -- especially this one," Coyotes center Ryan White said. "It's our lesson for the group. We have to get it out of our heads and get ready for tomorrow."

But Dallas (23-27-10) also has something it could be battling, rust, since this will be the Stars' first game since a 4-3 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning last Saturday.

The Stars, who are 18-9-3 at home but just 3-7-0 in their past 10 games.

Dallas is 8-3-2 against the Pacific Division, but currently sits eight points behind Calgary for the second and final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.

And Dallas captain Jamie Benn knows time is running out if he and his teammates are to start a surge toward an improbable second consecutive playoff appearance. The Stars finished last season with the best record in the West before losing to St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs in seven games.

"(We've got to) take it one game at a time," Benn said after practice on Thursday afternoon. "We got to win every game pretty much. It's do-or-die for this team."

Due to their bye week, Dallas had the last five days off before resuming practice late Thursday afternoon.

And the Stars will hit the ground running after the break, hosting Arizona on Friday, practicing Saturday and then hosting Boston early Sunday afternoon, a game with an 11:30 start local time.

This schedule, one that saw Dallas practice at 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon instead of in the morning as they normally do, has Stars coach Lindy Ruff contemplating cancelling morning skate Friday or at the least making it optional.

And yes, rust and how to avoid it after five days off is on Ruff's mind.

"The one thing that I worry about is teams with time off, the hands, the passing and the execution part, suffers. We realize that the last nine bye teams have lost games and I think you can't control a lot in those four days," Ruff said. "Some players will skate on their own, some don't, but some of it is just not being out there as a group working together. That little bit of time away obviously has hurt all the teams."

One plus to come from the break is that injured Dallas defenseman Johnny Oduya (lower body), out the past 14 games, is closer to returning.

Ruff offered an update on Oduya, who last played Jan. 17 at the Rangers, after practice on Friday.

"Johnny skated all week and practiced today (Thursday)," Ruff said. "We'll get him another real good skate tomorrow (Friday) and see where he's at. He's a possibility probably as soon as Sunday. He won't be in tomorrow."

Oduya, who was part of two Stanley Cup championship teams in Chicago, is one of three Stars veterans who could be traded prior to the March 1 NHL Trade Deadline.

Forward Patrick Eaves, who has set a new career-high with 21 goals, could also be on the move, especially since Eaves is an unrestricted free agent at season's end.

And fellow forward Patrick Sharp, who also played with Oduya in Chicago, is also a candidate to be traded although Sharp has a partial no-trade clause in his contract, blocking a deal to 10 teams.

But who could be traded or who stays put is of little consequence to Benn and his teammates, who continue to cling to the slimmest hopes that they can still make the postseason, a push that started with their first practice in nearly a week on Thursday afternoon.

"I think the main focus (in practice) was get our speed back and do everything quick out there on the ice," Benn said. "We had five days to rest and kind of mellow out, so we need to get our brains going, get our feet moving again."