The Pacific Division race remains tight with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season. That competition may be settled by the time Chris Pronger comes back from his latest suspension.
Having fallen out of first place due to a monthlong slump, the Dallas Stars look to win for just the second time in seven games Wednesday night when they host an Anaheim Ducks team that is trying to make do without Pronger.
Dallas, 1-5-0 in March, fell out of first place in the Pacific early last week. And on Saturday night, the Stars (42-27-5) were leapfrogged by the Ducks (41-25-8) in the standings.
Anaheim, in fourth place in the Western Conference, leads Dallas by one point and is trying to catch Pacific-leading San Jose. The Stars, 5-1-0 versus the Ducks this season, seem to have a good chance to end their slump and jump back into second place in the division, especially with Pronger sidelined.
The five-time All-Star defenseman was suspended for eight games by the NHL on Saturday for stomping on the leg of Vancouver center Ryan Kesler last Wednesday. That ban won't expire until the final day of the regular season.
"We've got our hands full," Anaheim defenseman Mathieu Schneider said. "Obviously we're short-handed without Prongs, but we've got to find ways to get it done. And if it's relying a little bit more on our goaltending at certain times and getting goals from different players to make up for it, that's what has to happen."
Pronger is eligible to return April 6 for the regular-season finale against Phoenix.
In the Ducks' 4-1 victory over the Canucks last Wednesday, Pronger and Kesler were tied up behind the Vancouver net. Before Pronger turned to head back up ice, he stepped on Kesler's leg as the Canucks forward lay on the ice.
Pronger, who has 12 goals and 43 points in 71 games, began serving his eighth career suspension Saturday night. Anaheim was able to overcome Pronger's absence, beating St. Louis 4-1.
The Ducks got a pair of timely goals from Rob Niedermayer, and Schneider did a nice job filling in for Pronger as point man on the power play. Schneider had a goal and two assists, one of them on Teemu Selanne's power-play goal.
Schneider, who has 10 goals and 36 points in 57 games, will fill a crucial role for Anaheim, which has reached the 90-point mark for the third straight year. The Ducks won the Stanley Cup last season even though Pronger was suspended for one game after elbowing Ottawa's Dean McAmmond in the head during Game 3 of the series.
Anaheim won the Pacific last season, finishing three points ahead of Dallas. The Stars went on to lose to Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs.
Dallas was ousted early despite going 12-2-2 entering the postseason. Now, the Stars are trying to end a slump before the playoffs begin.
"Right now, we have to get going in the right direction," Dallas center Brad Richards said. "There are some things we need to clean up. We have to keep concentrating on how little things can change the way a game goes. We have to grab momentum and keep it."
Richards has two goals and nine points since being acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay on Feb. 26. He found the back of the net Saturday night, but the Stars lost 4-3 to the Canucks.
This will be Richards' first game against Anaheim since Dec. 9, 2006, when he had a goal in a 4-3 Lightning loss.
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