The Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets have both surged into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. A win Saturday could prove pivotal for either team.
Already riding their longest winning streak of the season, the Stars will aim for their fourth straight victory when they visit the Blue Jackets, who are seeking a three-game winning streak of their own.
Thanks largely to the emergence of rookie goaltender Steve Mason, Columbus (24-20-5) has pushed into a three-way tie for fifth place in the Western Conference with 53 points - two ahead of Dallas (22-18-7).
Mason earned his league-leading seventh shutout in Friday's 1-0 home victory over Ottawa, making 18 saves and lowering his NHL-best goals-against average to 1.98.
With Mason leading the way, the Blue Jackets - the only current team to never reach the playoffs - have gone 10-4-1 in their last 15 games overall and have won 10 of their last 12 at home.
"The most important thing for myself is getting us in a playoff position. And we did that tonight," said Mason, who has never faced Dallas. "Obviously, we just want to keep moving forward with it. Shutouts are nice to get on a personal note, but they don't really mean anything in the end."
Photos: @ Stars (12-18-08)
Video: @ Stars (12-18-08)
Until a recent turnaround, the play of Dallas netminder Marty Turco had been as disappointing as Mason's has been impressive.
Through his first 41 starts this season, Turco allowed 126 goals - nearly matching the 140 he gave up in 60-plus games in each of the past two seasons. His 3.13 GAA was nearly a full goal higher than his career mark of 2.24.
In his past three contests, though, Turco has stopped 74 of 77 shots to lower his GAA to 2.98. He made 22 saves in Thursday's 4-2 victory in Detroit - the fifth win for the Stars in their last seven games.
"He's just like the rest of our team," Dallas coach Dave Tippett said. "We started slow but he's been coming on. ... I think the biggest difference was that we played better in front of him."
Despite giving up five goals in each of the last two meetings, Turco has a 12-1-2 career record against the Blue Jackets.
The Stars are also getting strong production these days out of their top line - Mike Ribeiro, Jere Lehtinen and Steve Ott.
Ribeiro has a team-leading 42 points, including eight in his last five games. Lehtinen has three goals and four assists in his last seven, while Ott is coming off consecutive two-point efforts.
Seven of the last 11 meetings between these teams have gone to overtime, including both previous matchups this season. The Stars took a 6-5 shootout win on Dec. 18, and the Blue Jackets earned a 5-4 overtime victory in the Oct. 10 season opener. Both games were played in Dallas.