Stars take on Sharks aiming to gain key ground

( - The Dallas Stars hope to make up some critical ground in the their playoff quest on Thursday night when they play host to the skidding San Jose Sharks.

The Stars are four points behind the Sharks and Los Angeles Kings for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference thanks to a victory in four of their past five games. That includes a big 4-1 win over the hosting St. Louis Blues on Tuesday.

Without forward Tyler Seguin for a second game in a row, the Stars got a boost from Jamie Benn's first career hat trick, with Jason Spezza assisting on each goal.

"I felt pretty good out there tonight," said Benn. "Nice to get this first one in a win when we're fighting for a playoff spot."

Cody Eakin also scored and Kari Lehtonen stopped 27 shots in the win. He was aiming for a second straight shutout, but gave up a third-period goal.

Dallas has recently lost forwards Seguin, Ales Hemsky, Travis Moen and Patrick Eaves to injury. Seguin, who leads the Stars with 29 goals and 59 points, is expected to miss 3-to-6 weeks with a sprained right knee.

San Jose will try to take advantage of Dallas' injury woes and get itself back on track. The Sharks are a mere 2-5-2 over their past nine games, falling a point behind Vancouver for third place in the Pacific Division. They also are losing out on the current tiebreaker with the Kings for a wild card spot, having played two more games.

The Sharks were defeated 5-1 by the Nashville Predators and their netminder Pekka Rinne on Tuesday despite owning a 43-37 advantage in shots. San Jose did go 0-for-3 on the power play and saw the Preds break open a tie game with two quick goals early in the second period.

"He's very tough to beat," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said of Rinne. "The number of saves he made on the power play, where we had a chance to crawl back into the game, he did an exceptional job."

Matt Irwin lit the lamp in the first period and Alex Stalock allowed all five goals on 37 shots for San Jose.

The Sharks have won three in a row over the Stars, including a 5-3 road win on Nov. 8. Brent Burns scored twice and Stalock made 37 saves as San Jose halted a three-game slide in Dallas.

Antti Niemi figures to start tonight for the Sharks and is 9-4-5 lifetime versus the Stars with a 2.28 goals against average, .920 save percentage and two shutouts.

Seguin had a hat trick in the setback and Lehtonen did not get the start. He is 5-7-3 lifetime in this series with a 3.30 GAA and .908 save percentage.