It’s not shocking that the Vancouver Canucks have a commanding lead atop the Northwest Division, but the fact that the Dallas Stars are contending for the Pacific Division title probably is a surprise.
These teams meet three times within the next four weeks, starting with Tuesday night’s matchup in Vancouver.
The defending Western Conference champion Canucks (41-17-8) have an 18-point lead over Colorado in the Northwest and are one point ahead of Detroit and St. Louis in the race for the top seed.
Dallas (35-26-5) was the only Pacific team not to make the playoffs a season ago during which it dealt high-scoring winger James Neal to Pittsburgh.
The Stars, however, are on a 6-0-1 surge and are tied with Phoenix for first place in the division as they look to sweep their three-game trip after wins in Edmonton and Calgary. Kari Lehtonen made 36 saves in Sunday’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Flames.
“These next 16 games now that every point’s important and you can see the parity out there between the two teams and it’s going to come down to that last week, so you’ve got to gather what you can,” coach Glen Gulutzan said.
Loui Eriksson had a goal and an assist Sunday, giving him nine points in the last six games.
“We haven’t been in the playoffs for a couple years,” Eriksson said. “Definitely, we need to step up here. We’ve been playing really well lately. It’s so tight in the conference. Every game is huge for us. We need to win every one here, so we have to keep going.”
Vancouver outscored Dallas 20-5 in winning all four meetings last season, but the Stars won 3-2 in the lone matchup this season on Eriksson’s overtime goal Feb. 26. These teams also play March 22 and March 30.
The Canucks have won the last five meetings on their own ice, where they have split the first two contests of a seven-game homestand.
Roberto Luongo has won all eight home starts versus the Stars with the Canucks, posting a 1.84 goals-against average. Backup Cory Schneider is 2-1-0 with a 1.35 GAA in three career starts against them.
The Stars have indicated that backup Richard Bachman will get his first start against the Canucks.
Vancouver’s Sedin brothers haven’t been productive lately, with one point over the last five games - an assist by Daniel.
Henrik Sedin is having his worst stretch without a point since an eight-game drought Nov. 29-Dec. 20, 2003. He’s got 10 points during the home win streak against Dallas.
With the comfortable division lead, coach Alain Vigneault has begun to experiment with his lines. He inserted newcomer Zack Kassian with Ryan Kesler and David Booth on his second line in Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Buffalo.
Kassian, acquired from the Sabres on Feb. 27, had a goal and an assist for his first points as a Canuck in his third game.
“The only thing I had as far as knowledge of what he could do was what our scouts were saying and they felt really highly that this guy has the potential to be a top-six forward,” Vigneault said. “How long that’s going to take him? I’m not quite sure.”
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