Sharks vs. Stars: After leaving the Pacific, Dallas got good

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Losers of six of their last eight games, the Sharks will be in tough to get back into the win column tonight against a terrific Stars team that has the misfortune of being in the Western Conference.

Remember that time the NHL announced its realignment plans and Eastern Conference GMs and team executives couldn't stop whining that it was more difficult to qualify for the playoffs in the East than the West? Well, sure, mathematically your odds are still better in the West but in terms of practical application, the opposite is true. If the Dallas Stars were in the Eastern Conference, they'd probably be a top-three team. Instead, they're stuck in the West and likely require a second-half collapse by either the Avalanche or Wild to realistically contend for a spot.

But, make no mistake, if the Stars miss the playoffs for the sixth season in a row it won't be for the same reasons they missed the cut the previous five years (chief among those reasons being that they weren't very good). Since playing their final game in the Pacific Division last April, and even directly prior to that, Dallas received an overhaul on and off the ice. The result is a team that moves the puck as well as any other, is dangerous in transition and, most of all, is exciting to watch.

This season's iteration of the Stars is led by a terrific top line centered by Tyler Seguin, the latest highly-drafted No. 19 the Bruins prematurely shipped out of town following one poor postseason, and featuring newly-named captain Jamie Benn and uber-rookie Valeri Nichushkin on the wings. In the 192 even-strength minutes that trio has spent on the ice together, Dallas has outshot opponents (including misses and blocks) 217-166 and outscored them by a ludicrous 19-5 margin. This is one of the toughest assignments the Sharks' shutdown unit of Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun (joined tonight by Marty Havlat) has drawn all season.

And the fun doesn't end there either. Buoyed by a terrific minor league pipeline, the Stars have offensive weapons interspersed throughout the rest of their lineup as well. In addition to veterans like former Sharks great Ray Whitney and two-way forwards Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverley, Dallas boasts key youngsters Alex Chiasson, Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel. Given that they also have the likes of Alex Goligoski and Sergei Gonchar feeding them breakout passes, it shouldn't be surprising the Stars have actually scored as many five-on-five goals as the Sharks this season and in fewer minutes to boot. Only 4 clubs in the league have scored more five-aside than these two. Dallas also has the underlying numbers to back it up as they're currently a top-ten team in score-close possession.

This is a tough test for the Sharks as they look to right the ship during what's been a rough December for the team. A leg injury to Stephane Robidas, who was the Stars' preeminent tough-minutes blueliner, should allow Joe Thornton and Brent Burns a little more space to operate in their first game without Tomas Hertl but Dallas blueliner Brenden Dillon should see plenty of them and he's no slouch either. If the Couture line and Vlasic/Braun pairing can shut down Benn/Seguin/Nichushkin, the Sharks' depth should win out but that's a big if. Regardless, the Sharks have to be prepared for a tougher out than Dallas has given them over the past few seasons. The Stars are a legit contender this time around. Or at least would be if they weren't buried in a brutal conference.

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San Jose Sharks
17-12-5, 39 points
21-11-6, 48 points
5th in Central
3rd in Pacific

7:30PM PST | SAP Center | San Jose, California
TV: CSNCA-HD | Radio: SJSharks.com, 98.5 KFOX
Know Your Enemy: Defending Big D

Projected Sharks Lineup

Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - Marty Havlat
James Sheppard - Joe Thornton - Brent Burns
Matt Nieto - Joe Pavelski - Tommy Wingels
John McCarthy - Andrew Desjardins - Tyler Kennedy

Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Justin Braun
Matt Irwin - Dan Boyle
Scott Hannan - Brad Stuart

Alex Stalock
Antti Niemi

Projected Stars Lineup

Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Valeri Nichushkin
Ray Whitney - Cody Eakin - Antoine Roussel
Erik Cole - Rich Peverley - Colton Sceviour
Shawn Horcoff - Vernon Fiddler - Alex Chiasson

Brenden Dillon - Alex Goligoski
Jordie Benn - Sergei Gonchar
Kevin Connauton - Jamie Oleksiak

Kari Lehtonen
Dan Ellis

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