The Neutral Zone: Dallas Stars Fighting For Consistency

The Neutral Zone is a collection of observations and thoughts on the Dallas Stars. Not exactly a formal breakdown or analysis, but somewhere between random ramblings and actual film study.

Don't Forget: Tonight's game starts at 7 p.m. and is not available to DISH subscribers in the DFW area. Plan accordingly.

We're just about a month into the season (we'll have our October review on Monday) and we've come to an early point in the season where we're starting to get a good feel for what this Dallas Stars team is about. When the season was just getting underway, we were uncertain to how this team would play out of the gates under new coach Marc Crawford. While it's apparent the Stars are definitely improving as the season progresses and are growing more comfortable in the offensive system they adapted this summer. Yet there is still one aspect of this team that needs to improve: consistency from game to game.

The Stars are currently 5-2-4 on the young season, a record that could easily have been 8-2-1 if a couple of James Neal shots scored instead of rattling off the pipe. Regardless, it's a far better record than the Stars had at this point last season and fans are starting to get fairly optimistic about this team's chances moving forward. There were many before the season started that questioned whether the Stars were a playoff team in a tough Western Conference. Yet after several big wins over good teams in Calgary, Chicago and St. Louis,  and complete domination of Nashville and Anaheim, the outlook for this team is pretty good moving forward.

Unfortunately, four of those five wins came on the road. The Stars have been Jekyll and Hyde this season; playing motivated, confident and energetic on the road and putting together some fairly uninspired efforts in front of their home crowd.

Tonight the Stars will start a three game homestand, starting tonight as the AAC welcomes Jonas Gustavsson and the Toronto Maple Leafs. These three teams the Stars will face over the next four days have a combined record of 6-19-2; prime opportunity for the Stars to make a run up the standings and separate themselves the pack that is crowding the six through eleven spots. More importantly the Stars will do what they've haven't done since March 14 of last season: put a winning streak together.

The Stars have been a model of inconsistency this season; win one game in impressive fashion and follow it up with a sub-par effort the next. The last three games have been better when the Stars put together a strong third period against Los Angeles to at least get a point out of a game they were at one point trailing 4-1. The first test starts tonight against a Toronto team that went eight games before getting their first win of the season. On paper this should be a game the Stars dominate and get through easily, but these are the games that are the ones that define your identity as a team. Are the Dallas Stars an above-average team that easily dispatches lesser opponents and plays tough against those that are equal or better, or are they an average team that plays down to the level of worse teams and yet gets motivated for the big games?

There's no reason the Dallas Stars should not enter November with an impressive 8-2-4 record, but this team needs to not look ahead. Focus on this game against the Leafs and move on to the Panthers on Friday night.

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With Steve Ott suspended two games, the Stars have recalled Francis Wathier from Austin. I'm expecting lines tonight to be something along the lines of:

Morrow - Ribeiro - Benn
Neal - Richards - Eriksson
Petersen - Wandell - Brunnstrom
Wathier - Sutherby - Barch

Now, these could all get mixed up if Mike Modano is able to play tonight. He skated and practiced yesterday and was able to take a hit, so he's close. If he can go, he'll take the third line center spot and it will be interesting to see who becomes the healthy scratch from among the forwards. Perhaps Wathier, but I really liked what I saw from the kid during his first stint in the NHL.

With Matt Niskanen also close to returning from his head injury, the Stars might actually have two healthy scratches tonight if a defensemen sits. What a concept.

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Brad Richardsis starting to get some national recognition for what he's done on the ice so far this season. It's unfortunate he's been hampered by his groin injury, but when he's played he's nearly unstoppable. His ability to create scoring chances and make tight passes near the net is uncanny, and perfectly compliments his linemates. He's on pace to have more than 80 points this season and when you combine his numbers with Mike Ribeiro, the Stars have a very formidable one-two punch up the middle. This is what the Stars were hoping for when they made the trade in 2008 for Richards, and it's paying off now.

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Finally, one quick thought:

I am so glad the talk about how Alex Auld should replace Marty Turco has gone away, but that's nothing against Auld. This is easily the best he's played since the 2008 playoffs. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Stars now have a capable backup, and Turco is picking up his level of play. Just saying.

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