Posted February 28, 2012 on AP on Fox
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Neither the Pittsburgh Penguins nor the Dallas Stars made any trades this week, but a deal they struck before last season's deadline should still be the talk of the rink Wednesday night. James Neal has blossomed into a star since Dallas sent him to the Penguins, but the surging Stars are hoping to spoil his initial return to Texas and claim a fifth straight victory. Alex Goligoski hasn't exactly been a disappointment for Dallas (33-26-4), leading the team's defensemen with 26 points while averaging more ice time than any other Stars skater. But Neal, traded with defenseman Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh for Goligoski on Feb. 21, 2011, has posted career highs with 30 goals and 31 assists while providing a huge boost to a Penguins team that has lacked Sidney Crosby for most of the season. He's already torched his former team once, scoring twice Nov. 11 in a 3-1 win in Pittsburgh - a game in which Goligoski broke his thumb. After contributing just eight points in 27 games including playoffs following the trade, Neal has made such an impact that the Penguins rewarded him with a six-year contract extension worth $30 million earlier this month. "I love everything about what goes on here and how we play the game," Neal said after signing the deal Feb. 19. "I couldn't see myself anywhere else, and hopefully the success continues." The Penguins (36-21-5) hit the road after a very successful homestand during which they outscored opponents 14-3 while going 3-0-0, but they'll visit a Dallas team playing like it's on a mission to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2008. After winning four straight for the first time in nearly four months, the Stars are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They beat one of the West's top teams Sunday, getting a late equalizer from Mike Ribeiro - on a deflection of Goligoski's shot - before Loui Eriksson scored in overtime of a 3-2 victory over Vancouver. The Stars stood pat at the trade deadline, but they should get a boost Wednesday from second-leading scorer Jamie Benn, who is expected to return after missing the last six games with a leg laceration. "I've told the coaches I'm ready to go," Benn said, according to the Stars' Twitter feed. "I think we have the group in here to make the playoffs. The guys have shown they can play with and beat the best." Ribeiro and Eriksson have powered the win streak, with Ribeiro extending his point streak to seven games. Eriksson has a goal in each of the last three, totaling five points in that stretch. Kari Lehtonen has been outstanding in winning three straight starts, stopping 83 of 86 shots, but he's 1-3-0 with a 3.53 goals-against average in his last four against the Penguins. No goalie is eager to see Evgeni Malkin right now. Perhaps the Hart Trophy front-runner, Malkin leads the NHL with 78 points and has 20 goals in his last 20 games, helping Pittsburgh to a 15-4-1 stretch. "We want to catch the (New York) Rangers," said defenseman Kris Letang, although the Penguins remain nine points behind the East leaders. Neal set up Malkin's power-play tally late in the second period during a 4-2 win over Columbus on Sunday. Marc-Andre Fleury figures to be back in net after getting Sunday off. He's won all five career outings versus Dallas while posting a 1.77 GAA, and he's 13-2-1 in his last 16 starts overall.
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