Panthers-Stars Preview

Having missed the playoffs in a franchise-worst five consecutive

seasons, the Dallas Stars are looking to veteran coach Lindy Ruff

to lead a resurgence.

The Florida Panthers, meanwhile, are hoping Stanley Cup-winning

goaltender Tim Thomas can help them return to the postseason.

Ruff will make his Stars debut in Thursday night’s visit from

Thomas and the Panthers.

Ruff won 571 games – 12th-most all-time – in his 15 seasons in

Buffalo, and another 57 in the playoffs, including a controversial

Cup finals defeat to Dallas in 1999. Before bringing in the

longtime coach, the Stars (22-22-4 in 2012-13) hired Jim Nill as

their general manager.

Nill acquired former No. 2 overall draft pick Tyler Seguin from

Boston in a seven-player deal in July that sent Loui Eriksson to

the Bruins. He also signed another Cup-winning player in Sergei

Gonchar, the active leader in points (775) and assists (558) among

NHL defensemen

“Five years without playoffs is a long time,” veteran forward

Ray Whitney said. “I think the organization has made that apparent

to us with the moves they’ve made.”

Jamie Benn takes over as team captain and will try to rebound

after scoring just six goals in his final 28 games last season. He

finished with 12 goals in the lockout-shortened season.

“Coming into this season there have been a lot of changes,” Benn

said. “I want to come in and do my part and be a leader. I’m not

much of a talker, but I want to be a leader on the ice.”

Thomas will try to stop Benn and the Stars from getting off to a

strong start in his return from a brief hiatus. The 39-year-old

goaltender previously spent all eight NHL seasons in Boston and was

the playoff MVP during the Bruins’ title run in 2011.

The two-time Vezina Trophy winner, though, chose to sit out in

2012-13 and was traded to the New York Islanders in February. He

did not play a game for that franchise and signed with Florida last

Thursday.

The Panthers (15-27-6) could use his help after giving up an

NHL-worst 3.54 goals per game last season while earning the fewest

points (36). They allowed an average of 2.63 en route to winning

their only division title in 2011-12 to end a 10-season playoff

drought.

“(Thomas) brings a lot of leadership and a lot of big-game

situations where we’re going to need some big saves at big times,”

forward Kris Versteeg told the league’s website. “That’s a big part

that a young group needs. We need big saves in big times, and

that’s what Timmy is going to bring.”

The Panthers hope Jonathan Huberdeau can bring more scoring

after an impressive rookie season. The Calder Trophy winner had 14

goals and 17 assists last season, but the offense still struggled

as Florida tied Nashville for the fewest goals per game (2.27).

A rash of injuries hardly helped, and Versteeg played in only 10

games after scoring a career-best 23 goals in 2011-12. Tomas

Fleischmann, though, appeared in all 48 contests and had just 12

goals after scoring 27 in his first season with the Panthers.

“I think we all pretty well know that we don’t want to have

another disaster like last year,” general manager Dale Tallon said.

“Guys are professional. They should be able to figure it out and if

they don’t figure it out, I’ll figure it out for them.”

The Panthers are facing the Stars for the first time since a 6-0

win in Dallas on Nov. 15, 2011. Florida has won in each of its last

three visits.