Stars seek sweep of Coyotes

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Maybe the Dallas Stars aren’t as good as they were while winning 10 of 13 games during a confidence-building stretch that ended last week. But they certainly know they’re not this bad.

A 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on home ice just before the All-Star break. A 3-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on home ice just after the All-Star break.

Maybe that’s why the Stars are looking forward to a visit to an arena where a lot of teams manage to break out of slumps: Gila River Arena, home of the last-place Arizona Coyotes.

The Stars (28-19-4) go for a three-game season sweep of the Coyotes when they meet Thursday night, in Arizona’s first game since a 2-1 loss at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets last Thursday. The Stars beat the Coyotes 3-1 in Dallas on Oct. 17 and then again 5-4 two days later in Glendale.

Stars coach Ken Hitchcock very much liked how his team was playing at the end of December and then through most of January. But those last two games, when the Stars combined for only one goal in 120 minutes in their own arena?

“That’s two games in a row. That’s a concern for us,” Hitchcock said. “The game before the break (against Toronto) a team came in and checked us hard and we had no response and then (Tuesday), the same thing. That’s the concern. How do we respond to getting played hard? Instead of getting excited and digging in, we go the other way.”

The Coyotes (12-29-9) have gone the other way most of the season but, despite six losses in the last eight games, coach Rick Tocchet likes how it’s going now. The Coyotes gained points in six of those eight games, and they’re playing every game competitively — something they didn’t always do during the season’s first three months.

The Coyotes are 3-3-4 in their last 10 — a stretch that includes two wins and four losses in overtime or a shootout.

“The way we played (in January), we got some traction,” Tocchet told the team’s website. “Guys that haven’t been playing well are starting to play well, and some guys that are playing well are continuing to play well. We’re almost there in a sense that we’re getting guys to buy in, in the sense of the way we’re playing. We’re close.”

If only the Coyotes could get rookie center Clayton Keller going again. The 19-year-old leads them with 14 goals and 36 points, but he didn’t have a goal in nine games in January and he has only one goal since Dec. 22.

Left winger Brendan Perlini has picked up some of the scoring slack, getting a point in four consecutive games.

The Coyotes will be going against Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen, who will start for the 13th time this season. He’s 5-2 while making each of his last seven starts on the road, with a 1.98 goals-against average. Against Arizona in his career, Lehtonen is 14-4-4 with a 2.05 goals-against average.

“He gives us a chance every night, especially on the road,” Hitchcock said.

Arizona is expected to start Antti Raanta (8-13-5), who has allowed two goals in each of his last five starts. He was injured and missed the two previous games against the Stars, but is 2-1 with a 1.84 goal-against average in three career games against them.

The Coyotes are 6-15-3 on home ice and are 3-7-2 against the Central Division. The Stars are 11-11-3 on the road and 9-4 against the Pacific Division. After Thursday, Dallas returns home for two games while Arizona goes on the road for three.