- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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The words "good morning" were barely spoken Wednesday, as Marc Crawford couldn't contain himself at the other end of the phone line.
"Huge, huge game," the Dallas Stars' coach told ESPN.com, matchups and game-day strategy no doubt racing through his mind. "This is a big one tonight. You want to win and you want to win in regulation."
No doubt Vancouver-Detroit is the marquee game of the evening, but Anaheim-Dallas is the dogfight matchup of the night. Both clubs are tied at 85 points, but the Ducks delicately hold the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference by virtue of the ROW (regulation plus overtime wins) tiebreaker.
The playoffs before the playoffs tonight at American Airlines Center?
"Oh, absolutely," Crawford said. "Just watching all the games lately, you just see the intensity. You know when you see it? When people score. There's no small goals at this point. Every goal is like, 'wow.' The celebrations after, you see it reflected in peoples' faces. That's been the case here, too."
Two months ago, you would have never thought the Stars would even sweat out a March 23 game. But that longtime lead atop the NHL's best division vaporized with a 2-10-1 run from Jan. 21-Feb. 22, which opened up the Pacific to hard-charging San Jose, not to mention Phoenix, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
The Stars have since rebounded from that nightmarish stretch. They've gone 7-2-3 in their past 12 games to keep pace in the crazy Western race.
"We've played a great clip here," Crawford said. "We're over .700 [winning percentage] for the last 12 games, but we're not even in the playoffs. It really has been a terrific race."
As if Wednesday night's game didn't mean enough, the rub is the Stars next head off on a grueling five-game road trip with stops in Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
"Our next games are all teams that we're chasing," Crawford said. "We've played really well on the road. All year we've played well on the road. Sometimes I think it's easier to play on the road because you're not trying to do too much."
The task got tougher with the injuries to blueliners Nicklas Grossman (sprained knee) and Karlis Skrastins (cut to the leg). Grossman played the fourth-most minutes per game among the Dallas defenders.
"It's not as bad as first forecast, but it's going to keep him out a week to 10 days. Hopefully he heals quick," Crawford said.
"Lukowich coming back into the NHL, that's almost exactly why you sign him, just in case we get into [injury] trouble," Crawford said. "He has veteran depth, and we desperately need him here tonight, and boy, he's excited to be here."
Crawford also said All-Star winger Loui Eriksson is expected to play tonight after missing two games with concussion-like symptoms.
The Stars need all the help they can get to hold off the red-hot Ducks, who despite the absence of All-Star goalie Jonas Hiller, have gone 8-2-0 in their past 10 games. Dark horse Hart Trophy candidate Corey Perry and Norris Trophy contender Lubomir Visnovsky have led the way.
"Randy's teams are always real hard to play against,'' Crawford said of Ducks coach Randy Carlyle. "They pursue the puck real well. They're a team that covers above the puck extremely well, and therefore there's not going to be a lot of open ice. They try to control the game in front of both nets and you have to be prepared to pay a price when you play against them."
15hScott Burnside and Craig Custance