DALLAS — Two teams on divergent ends of the NHL playoff spectrum, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars, meet Tuesday night at American Airlines Center.
Pittsburgh (38-14-8) sits second in the Metropolitan Division and in great playoff position, but Penguins coach Mike Sullivan would like to see the reigning Stanley Cup champions raise their level of play even further.
“We all have to elevate our games,” Sullivan said after practice on Monday. “I think our coaches have to continue to strive to be better, to prepare this team the right way. I think everybody has to take ownership for what they bring to the table to help this team be successful. When we do that, I think we’re a very good team that can play against anybody.”
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The Penguins, who are 13-10-5 on the road and 12-4-5 against the Western Conference, including a 5-4-1 mark against the Central Division, defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 on Saturday in an outdoor game at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh has already defeated Dallas once this season, 6-2 at home back on Dec. 1.
And with the NHL trade deadline coming Wednesday, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby knows the possibility that a member of the team could be traded doesn’t alter their primary focus.
“Yeah, I think that there’s always a little more tension that time of year. I think the biggest thing is you just need to worry about your game and the way you need to play as a group,” Crosby said. “Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but we all have to do that.”
But it’s not as if focus has been an issue for the Penguins this season, especially recently. Pittsburgh is 6-1-3 over its past 10 games and currently riding a two-game winning streak.
Dallas (24-28-10) saw its minuscule playoff hopes grow a bit thinner after a 6-3 home loss to the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon, putting the Stars’ record against the Eastern Conference at 7-11-4.
The Stars are 17-10-6 in their building but are only 3-7-0 in their past 10 contests overall.
Fourth-year coach Lindy Ruff knows the reigning champions present another huge challenge for his club.
“Yeah, I think it’s an opportunity for our group to accomplish a lot of stuff inside a game because we felt we were right there with them last year — same type of team, a lot of speed, create a lot of chances,” Ruff said after practice on Monday. “We know we’re going to get chances. We’re going to play against some players that can make some special plays.”
Dallas backup goaltender Antti Niemi skated late after practice Monday with goaltending coach Jeff Reese, so it appears Niemi is line to get his first start in exactly two weeks Tuesday.
Niemi’s last start came Feb. 14 at Winnipeg. Kari Lehtonen started the next four games for Dallas.
Ruff feels the time is right to get Niemi back between the pipes.
“Yeah, I think the last couple of practices I’ve really liked. It seems like he’s got himself in a better place,” Ruff said of Niemi. “The goal is to get him back in there, get him playing again. I think he got a little bit out of sync, and all we’re trying to do is get him back in a better place.”
Tuesday also could mark the NHL debut for Dallas rookie forward Remi Elie, who was recalled from AHL Texas on Sunday morning.
Elie, 21, was a second-round pick (40th overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft. He had 17 assists and 25 points in 49 AHL games at the time of his promotion.
“He’s skating well, heavy on the puck, hard to play against,” Ruff said of Elie. “He gets to the net with his speed a lot of times. I think he fits the way that we play.”
Ruff also offered an update on injured forward Ales Hemsky, who has yet to play this season due to hip surgery.
“Yeah, he’s getting closer. There’s a good chance we could see him in the next couple games, not (Tuesday), but after that I think we’d take a chance of trying to get him up and running,” Ruff said. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy for him to have that much time off, but he’s at a place now where I think he’s going to be cleared to play.”
Tuesday’s game could be the last in a Dallas uniform for several players: forwards Lauri Korpikoski and Patrick Sharp plus defenseman Johnny Oduya, all of whom could be dealt prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline.
Ruff admits he doesn’t read any speculation about who might or might not be traded. Instead, he is focused on the task at hand of winning games.
“Veteran guys already know,” the coach said. “They’ve been here, they’ve been through it all before, and it’s usually veteran guys or unrestricted free agents that are involved in it, and they’ve been there and done that.”