April 27, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Gregg Krupa

Stars seek to play spoiler role to Red Wings' playoff hopes

The Red Wings and Dallas Stars split a pair of games early in the season at Joe Louis Arena, but the Stars look a lot different now. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

Detroit -- The Red Wings played the Stars twice at Joe Louis Arena in the first 10 days of the season, losing 2-1 and winning 4-1.

Since then, the Stars have dramatically altered their roster, dealing four leading veteran forwards (Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Morrow, Derek Roy and Michael Ryder) and gathering prospects.

The result was an impressive five-game winning streak that nearly delivered them into the playoffs. But it was followed by a 1-3-1 stretch, including a 3-1 loss to the Blue Jackets on Thursday, eliminating them from the postseason for a fifth consecutive year and matching the Jets and Flames for the longest droughts in the NHL.

Rumors are swirling, again, about the status of general manager Joe Nieuwendyk and coach Glen Gulutzan.

The young, upstart Stars may feel pride is at stake, and that beating the Red Wings on Saturday night and possibly eliminating them from the playoffs would restore some sparkle to their season.

"Since the trade deadline, I have been very proud of this group … how hard they've competed," Gulutzan told The Dallas Morning News.

Cultivating youth

The Stars, in effect, are handing leadership of the team to Jamie Benn, 23, the third-year left winger signed to a five-year extension in January. Benn has responded with 33 points (12 goals), including eight points (four goals) in 13 games in April.

Plus, young players Alex Chiasson (seven points, six goals), Cody Eakin (24 points, seven goals) and Antoine Roussel (14 points, seven goals), got more ice time in March and April.

And forward Ray Whitney, who will be 41 in 11 days, seems eternally young.

A constant has been goaltender Kari Lehtonen (.916 save percentage, 2.66 goal-against average), the No. 2 overall pick in 2002.

But, Lehtonen's goals-against average was up about a half-goal per game in his past five appearances. He allowed 13 goals and went 1-3-1. So, his status for tonight's game will be determined.

Whether the Red Wings face an inferior backup goaltender might be hoping for too much. But Richard Bachman's stats (.880 save percentage, 3.28 goals-against average) are similar to those of Predators goaltender Chris Mason, who played against the Red Wings on Thursday instead of Pekka Rinne.

The Red Wings would not object. The Wild and Blue Jackets, still in the playoff hunt, might.

Change in a week

Lehtonen was terrific in the first game in Detroit, where the Red Wings managed one goal, by Damien Brunner, with 3.4 seconds left in the third period.

Jimmy Howard had a good night, too, with 30 saves, including 16 in a particularly strong second period.

After the game, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, "I thought we were fine in the first. Then we started turning the puck over all over the place in the second.

"We weren't mentally sharp all night. I think we looked like we were out of gas."

A week later, the Red Wings drove Lehtonen from the game.

Valtteri Filppula scored twice, converting deft setups by Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg and Brunner also scored.

And Jordin Tootoo was in two fights.

"I just expected him to get out and forecheck, but he took it upon himself to have a couple of bouts," Mike Babcock said of Tootoo, who has scored and assisted on the last two winning goals.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com