Sharks-Stars Preview

The Associated Press

The Dallas Stars have been nearly perfect over the last two weeks in climbing to the top of the Pacific Division.

Their remarkable ascent has been aided greatly by the San Jose Sharks' sudden free fall.

In a matchup of teams heading in opposite directions, the Stars look to win for the eighth time in nine games Thursday night when they host the Sharks, losers of nine of 11.

San Jose (33-24-8) owned a three-point lead over second-place Los Angeles on Feb. 15 in its quest for a fifth straight Pacific title. Dallas (36-26-5) was an afterthought in the division race at that time, sitting nine points out of first, but has taken advantage of the Sharks' 2-7-2 slump to vault into the lead.

The Stars are 7-0-1 in their last eight, moving them two points ahead of Phoenix and three up on San Jose and Los Angeles.

"Everything's kind of come together at the right time and the biggest thing is just hard work," backup Richard Bachman said after making 29 saves in a 5-2 win over Northwest-leading Vancouver on Tuesday.

Mike Ribeiro scored twice and Loui Eriksson and Stephane Robidas each had a goal and an assist as Dallas swept a three-game trip through western Canada.

"You can't ask for more," coach Glen Gulutzan said. "We got six points out of this thing that we desperately needed. We just got to keep moving forward."

If Dallas can continue its stellar defensive play, Gulutzan's team should be in good shape to earn its first playoff berth since 2008. The Stars have allowed two or fewer goals in each of their last seven victories and have killed 23 of 24 penalties in the last eight games.

That may not bode well for the Sharks, who have totaled four goals in four games and have scored two or fewer in eight of 10. Logan Couture, who has a team-high 27 goals, has been in the middle of San Jose's offensive woes with a five-game goal drought.

"You definitely have to work your way out of slumps like this," captain Joe Thornton said after a 3-2 shootout loss to Edmonton on Tuesday. "All we can do is keep working and hopefully the hockey gods will be kind to us the next few games.''

The Sharks are opening a four-game trip in Dallas after losing the final three contests on a four-game homestand. They've lost six of seven road games.

"Our mettle's being tested, there's no doubt about it,'' said coach Todd McLellan, who returned Tuesday after missing three games with a concussion. "We'll dig out of it and eventually find a way. You've got to really work your way through this before you're going to win. I think we're getting close and we've got to keep going.''

San Jose has won five straight over the Stars - including this season's three meetings by a 14-5 margin - but these teams haven't played since Feb. 2, and much has changed since then.

Antti Niemi has posted a 1.50 goals-against average in winning his last four starts against Dallas, but he's 2-5-2 with a 2.79 GAA since Feb. 12.

His counterpart, Kari Lehtonen, didn't appear in any of the season's first three games with the Sharks. Lehtonen has gone 5-0-1 with a 1.45 GAA in his last six starts.

With Lehtonen leading Dallas' defense, Ribeiro has powered the offense with five goals and 10 assists in his last 11 games.

"It's a team concept right now and everybody's doing the right thing," said Ribeiro, who has two goals and an assist against San Jose this season.

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