Though it's not official, the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins should be playing postseason hockey next month. The same cannot be said for the Dallas Stars as they begin a tough road trip that could go a long way toward determining their playoff hopes.
The Penguins look to continue their mastery over Stars on Saturday at Mellon Arena.
While Pittsburgh (38-22-4) and New Jersey will contend for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and likely the No. 2 or 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, Dallas (28-23-12) is currently outside the top eight in the West.
Coming off the Olympic break, the Stars have been outscored 11-2 in home losses to Los Angeles and St. Louis, and that lack of offensive spark also couldn't have come at a worse time. Dallas also will visit NHL-leading Washington and always-tough Buffalo before a season-high six-game homestand.
The Stars had won six of nine before the league-wide shutdown, but coach Marc Crawford said that matters little now.
"We haven't got the ability to say, 'Boy, we were really good before the break,'" he told the Stars' official Web site. "It's what we have right now, and we're dealing with what we have right now. The present is really present for us. ... We've got a huge task that we've got to put all our energies toward."
Dallas now must focus its energies on trying to beat Pittsburgh for the first time in nearly seven years. The Penguins have won four straight over the Stars, outscoring them 16-5, and return home after outlasting a division foe.
"We deserved that one," the Penguins' Sidney Crosby said. "We felt like it was only a matter of time before we were back into it."
Crosby, who scored for Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game against the United States on Sunday, has managed one assist in each of two games since the NHL resumed its schedule, and remains tied with Washington's Alex Ovechkin for league lead with 42 goals.
The Pittsburgh captain scored twice in a home victory over the Stars in 2007, but missed a 4-1 triumph March 1, 2009 in Dallas due to a groin injury.
While the Stars have been struggling to put the puck in the net, they also hope giving oft-injured goaltender Kari Lehtonen his first start in a Dallas uniform over Marty Turco will provide a boost.
Selected second overall by Atlanta in 2002, Lehtonen was acquired from the Thrashers on Feb. 9. He has been on injured reserve four times since 2005, missing 127 games due to groin and back woes.
Lehtonen saw his first action since April 11 on Thursday, coming on early in the second period against the Blues after Turco stopped seven of 11 shots. Lehtonen turned away 14 of 16.
Though Dallas fell 6-1, Crawford liked what he saw from Lehtonen.
"The good thing about last night was that he got to have about 35 minutes of quality start," he said. "The fatigue that sets in when you have the battle in the goal mouth for 30 or 40 seconds, that's really hard, anaerobically for a goalie, so for him to get that intensity was certainly good and I know he's looking forward to his start."
Lehtonen is 6-2-2 with a 2.53 goals-against average in his career against the Penguins, but has dropped his last three starts at Mellon Arena.