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PREVIEW: Dallas Stars take aim at playoff run vs. Panthers

Mar 25, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Stars left wing Roope Hintz (24) and center Joe Pavelski (16) and left wing Jason Robertson (21) and defenseman Miro Heiskanen (4) celebrates a goal scored by Pavelski against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 25, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Stars left wing Roope Hintz (24) and center Joe Pavelski (16) and left wing Jason Robertson (21) and defenseman Miro Heiskanen (4) celebrates a goal scored by Pavelski against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After getting off to a late start to the season due to a COVID-19 outbreak that saw 17 players test positive in training camp, the Dallas Stars find themselves seven points behind fourth-place Chicago and the final Central Division playoff spot but with four games still in hand entering Saturday night’s home game with the Florida Panthers.

And thanks to Thursday night’s 4-3 victory over defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay, the team’s first win in five games against the Lightning this season, the Stars also have some much-needed momentum heading into the key weekend back-to-back with the Panthers.

With a little over six weeks left in the regular-season, Dallas coach Rick Bowness said his squad, which lost to Tampa Bay in last year’s Stanley Cup Final, needs to get on a roll if it hopes to return to the playoffs.

“We’ve played really well against Tampa all year,” said Bowness. “We have, and it’s nice to finally get two points against them because we feel we have played a lot better than the record indicated.”

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Dallas improved to 1-3-1 in five meetings with the first-place Lightning, with one of the losses coming in a shootout and another by a 2-1 score on Tuesday.

“We had to go finally beat them, which we did, but more important than anything, we needed two points tonight,” said Bowness. “We need to get back in that conversation for that final playoff spot.”

Roope Hintz broke a 3-3 tie with 1:21 left in the third period and Jake Oettinger made 24 saves as Dallas snapped Tampa Bay’s five-game winning streak and also its 12-game regular-season point streak (9-0-3) against the Stars. It also ended a 12-game winning streak by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“It was a good win,” said center Joe Pavelski, who had a goal and two assists. “We needed to get those guys. It’s been a little bit too long this year. We gotta keep building off that.”

After facing the third-place Panthers on Saturday and Sunday, Dallas hits the road for six games with back-to-backs against Nashville, Carolina and Chicago. The Stars still have four games remaining with Chicago, all on the road — including the final two games of the regular season.

“We need to beat the top teams,” Bowness said. “We have three more with (Tampa Bay), we have five more with Florida and four more with Carolina, so we have to find ways to beat the top teams because we have a lot of games against them coming up.”

Florida comes in after getting swept in two road games by the Blackhawks, including a 3-0 loss on Thursday. The Panthers still hold a seven-point lead over Chicago for third place with a game in hand, but are just 1-4-0 in their last five games, scoring just eight goals in the process.

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Florida was blanked by the Blackhawks despite firing 41 shots on rookie goaltender Kevin Lankinen.

“We definitely had some chances to get on the board, which probably could’ve helped us get back in the game,” said Panthers coach Joel Quenneville. “It didn’t materialize. We probably got a little bit too much on the outside as the game went on, which isn’t what we’re looking for.”

Despite a three-game losing streak, Florida is still just six points behind first-place Tampa Bay. And there’s a chance that the Panthers could get captain and top scorer Aleksander Barkov (lower-body injury) back this weekend.

“It’s never the worst thing facing (adversity) to see how you get out of it, but you want to make sure that you stick together,” Quenneville said. “We’ll see what happens, if Barky plays this weekend or not, but for the guys that are playing it’s a great opportunity. Everyone is getting more quality, better chances to make a contribution and enhance their position here.”

–Field Level Media