Preview: Wild vs. Stars

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — The NHL’s three-day Christmas break meant different things to the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild leading up to their meeting on Wednesday night.

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For the Stars, it was a time to bask in the glow of back-to-back wins over divisional opponents, including Saturday’s come-from-behind, 4-3 shootout win over Nashville in Dallas.

“We are trying to improve every day with every game,” Dallas captain Jamie Benn said. “It’s important for us to keep winning in our division if we want to make up some ground.”

With 43 points, the Stars (20-14-3) sit fourth in the seven-team Central Division standings, five points behind first-place St. Louis but four points ahead of Minnesota and Chicago, which are tied for fifth.

Two nights after making 24 saves in shutting out the Blackhawks 4-0 for coach Ken Hitchcock’s 800th career win, Stars goaltender Ben Bishop surrendered a pair of goals on Nashville’s first four shots.

But Bishop recovered to stop 27 of the next 28 shots he faced, five of them in overtime when Dallas had to kill off two penalties, including 31 seconds of a 5-on-3 disadvantage.

“You just have to battle through,” Bishop said. “The guys did a great job, made some big plays there on the penalty kill and then you get into the shootout, and obviously anyone can win in the shootout.”

The Stars improved to 5-3 in games that have gone beyond regulation, including 3-1 in shootouts. Dallas boosted its record to 6-8-0 against the Central Division with its first win in seven games this season over one of the three teams (St. Louis, Nashville and Winnipeg) it trails in the division race.

“That’s great whenever you get a division game and win, that’s pretty much four points and that’s gonna build great confidence for us right before Christmas,” said Stars center Martin Hanzal, who scored his first even-strength goal of the season on Saturday. “We beat Chicago and Nashville, they’re great, great teams. So it’s great for our group and we’ve got to build on that.”

Conversely, the holiday hiatus gave Minnesota (18-15-3) a respite from a stretch of four losses in five games capped off by an 0-for-Florida weekend.

After the Wild allowed three third-period goals on consecutive nights in 4-2 and 3-0 losses to the Panthers and Lightning, respectively, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said the break came “at a good time where they can recharge and get their energy back together again.”

Minnesota blew a 2-1 third-period lead to Florida on Friday and played the league’s top team to a scoreless tie with under three minutes to play on Saturday before the Lightning scored three times in the game’s closing moments. The Wild’s 50 third-period goals allowed this season is matched only by Arizona, the league’s worst team.

“Every team, it’s peaks and valleys,” Wild winger Daniel Winnick said. “You try and stay at the peaks as long as you can and the valleys as short as you can and, hopefully this is just a short valley for us.”

Minnesota goaltender Alex Stalock, who made 28 saves against the high-powered Lightning, will start against Dallas on Wednesday. It will be Stalock’s seventh straight appearance, and sixth consecutive start, since taking over for the injured Devan Dubnyk on Dec. 14, one period into the Wild’s 2-0 win over Toronto.

“He’s just been awesome for us,” Minnesota center Matt Cullen said. “We have so much confidence in him and love having him back there. He’s played great and he deserves better.”

Stalock and the Wild will have their hands full with Dallas’ Tyler Seguin, who scored twice against Chicago and added another goal against Nashville to give him 17 on the season, and defenseman John Klingberg, who has four assists in his last three games.

While center Eric Staal has eight points in seven games and 23 in his last 23, the quartet of Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu have combined for just five goals in the team’s last 13 games.

“We can regroup and move on to the next one,” Koivu said. “Obviously there are things that we need to do better here, starting with myself, starting with everyone. We’ve got to be better. That’s the bottom line. It’s a matter of being consistent and we haven’t done that so far this season.”