The Dallas Stars largest opportunity for improvement is no secret coming into the 2010-2011 NHL season. 2.98 GA/G last season proved to be no way to make the playoffs, and that number needs to come down if the club is to take that all important step back into the post-season. While a change has been made in goal, Dallas will (with no changes on the blue line) attack this problem as a team, focusing on details and execution.
That's not a plan that sets anyone's pants on fire, but the pre-season results don't lie. Through 5 games the Stars have allowed 3 or more only once, a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay. Since then they've allowed 6 goals in 4 games with Kari Lehtonen having a stellar pair of performances. He's stopped 56 of 58 shots faced in the preseason and is poised to start in St. Louis on Saturday night.
Putting a lot of stock in pre-season numbers is probably a fools errand but it's all we have for the moment, so roll with it. For comparison, the Stars allowed 22 goals in 7 pre-season games last season. (3.14 GA/G)
The Captain knows where the team must improve, and he talked about it (nearly unprompted to) last night after the game: "A focus of ours is our goals against...Limiting good scoring opportunities. I think we did an OK job of that. It was a pretty sloppy game both ways but the quality chances we gave up weren't as many as we have and when [we did], Kari looked pretty sharp."
The Stars didn't have the puck for long stretches of the first and second periods, a lot of it owed to penalties taken, but the team as a whole limited the dangerous scoring chances. "Bend but don't break" was how I described it last night.
The penalty kill went 7 for 7 Thursday and has killed 28 of 32 opportunities in the pre-season. Or, if you like, they've allowed only 2 goals in 47:56 of PK time. Granted most of this has been against the Colorado Avalanche, but these kinds of numbers are a strong sign.
"I think I was comfortable there," said Lehtonen after the game. "The guys were playing well, especially on the penalty kill, I think we were very strong and didn't give them good chances so that's good."
He seemed particularly pleased with the number of shots he saw last night. "This is a time to get more comfortable and it helps a lot when guys do a good job especially our defensemen...cleaning up the rebounds and keeping the shots under 25. That's rare and that's great."
Coach Crawford had high praise for the penalty killing and goaltending as well after the game, remarking that Lehtonen is going to give them a chance to be "in" games more often than not.
"I also thought as a group they're understanding more now how they have to pressure on the PK. Entries are still somewhat of an issue for us. You've always got an opportunity. You can kill part of a penalty up ice, and if you get some good pressure...we're getting better in that area. In the zone we had a lot of very good reads."
They'll have one more chance to keep those PK numbers pretty on Saturday in St. Louis. For all the success the Stars have had in the last two weeks, winning a road game is something they've yet to do and would be a great exclamation point on the exhibition season.