The Dallas Stars won the Central Division last season. Many people felt the Nashville Predators had what it takes to unseat them this season.
With the season not even 25 percent finished, it's become clear both teams have a lot of work ahead of them if they're to scale the heights to which they aspire. Only one can get closer when they meet Wednesday night in Nashville.
Both enter off Monday night home wins, Dallas stopping Minnesota 3-2 in overtime and Nashville dumping Tampa Bay 3-1. But the Stars are just 8-7-5 and the Predators are only 8-7-3, leaving them seven and nine points, respectively, behind first-place Chicago.
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However, both teams feel a little better about themselves after playing solid games. Dallas snapped a nine-game overtime losing streak on Jamie Benn's goal 1:23 into the extra period, while Nashville led 3-0 just over halfway through the second period and controlled the action against one of the league's elite teams.
"It felt good. I'm not going to lie," Benn said. "It was nice to finally win one in overtime. I thought we played pretty good. I think we can be happy with that one."
The Predators certainly were happy with their performance, which included good games from their highly touted defense corps. P.K. Subban pumped two goals past Ben Bishop in a 2:40 span of the second period, Ryan Ellis notched three assists and Roman Josi was all over the ice, picking up an assist, moving the puck with skill and drawing a penalty that led to Subban's first marker.
"I think that's the makeup of our defense and the skill set that all our defensemen have," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. "I think good defense is a six-man unit -- the goaltender and all five players working inside of a system and trying to do their job."
That's certainly been the case at home for the Predators. They are 6-1-1 in Bridgestone Arena, having outscored their opposition 25-11. In winning their last four at home, they have permitted just three goals, and Pekka Rinne came within 50 seconds of back-to-back shutouts at home Monday night.
The Stars are only 3-4-3 on the road, but one of their wins came Oct. 18 in Nashville, a 2-1 decision that serves as the Predators' only regulation home loss. Jason Spezza notched the tiebreaking goal at 9:15 of the third period as Dallas outshot Nashville 37-28.
Kari Lehtonen was in net that night for the Stars, but Antti Niemi was in goal on Monday night, stopping 27 of 29 shots behind a revamped defense. John Klingberg, generally considered the team's top defenseman, was scratched after missing a team meeting Monday before morning skate, and Stephen Johns was also a healthy scratch.
Coach Lindy Ruff said the changes also were based on improving puck movement.
"Our play coming through the neutral zone was probably as good as it's been all year," he said. "It was simple and effective."
It will have to stay that way if Dallas is to earn a second win in Nashville against an equally needy team.
"We are in a position where we need all the points we can get, all the wins," Rinne said. "We need to keep building our confidence and keep rolling."