Marc Crawford spoke this summer about how his team needed to become tougher to play against, to be more physical and not be the "pushover" the Stars were the season before. Last year, Crawford's first with the team, the Stars struggled not only to adjust to a different system and playing style but also with being dominated physically along the boards and in front of the net.
The Stars acquired free agent Adam Burish in an effort to further the "culture change" of the Dallas Stars, to bring back some attitude and some aggression to the team. Despite players like James Neal, Nicklas Grossman, Stephane Robidas and Steve Ott on the team, for some reason the Stars just weren't as physical as they had been in the past and there was no doubt that if the Stars were serious about taking the next step then the team would have to learn to use their physicality to their advantage.
Through seven games of the very young 2010-2011 season, the Dallas Stars have certainly shown they're taking this tasking to heart. Yet even with a newfound approach on physicality this season, the Stars are still seriously falling short where it really counts the most: being physical around the net.
A lot of the troubles the Dallas Stars have so far this season have come on the penalty kill. While you could look at a lack of discipline by the forwards along the points as a source of frustration, in reality it's been the Stars' lack of an ability to create any physical presence in front of the net that's been the biggest issue. Kari Lehtonen has had to fight to see through screens and the Stars have shown a complete lack of any interest in making teams pay for camping out in front of the crease.
Now, the Stars have managed to improve on the PK recently but still are showing an inability to become physical defensively where it counts the most. While the the Stars are certainly ready to lay out a big hit along the boards at any moment, as soon as the play reaches the area around Kari Lehtonen it's as if the Stars become scared of any sort of physical play.
Take the lone goal by the Nashville Predators on Saturday night. Nicklas Grossman has arguably been the best defenseman for the Stars this season and has really found a way to use his size to his advantage. He's leading the team in hits and had eight total hits against the Predators. Yet just a minute into the game, when a sizzling shot from the point hit the post behind Lehtonen and sat behind him in the crease, two Predators were able to get behind the Stars goaltender and knock the puck into the net. Grossman was in prime position to knock O'Reilly on his rump yet for some reason seemed more interested in just watching him get position and score the only goal of the game.
Same thing on Thursday night against the Florida Panthers. With time running out and Kari Lehtonen working on a shutout, Jeff Woywitka was the lone defenseman in front of the net and working against Stephen Weiss. Now Weiss isn't exactly a small guy, but Woywitka is a relatively large defenseman. Yet Weiss was able to not once, but twice, get position on Woywitka in front of the net and he put his stick on a simple shot and deflected in the lone goal of the night. Woywitka looked like he was more interested in dancing with Weiss that he was in getting the forward away from the net. The days of the big cross checks in the crease are gone but that doesn't mean that players should forget how to play physical.
The Nashville Predators are a perfect example of how to play on that edge between physical and illegally physical in front of the net, yet also showing us that the Dallas Stars not only need to learn physicality in front of Kari Lehtonen but also on the offensive side as well.
The Dallas Stars were able to create chance after chance against Nashville yet failed time after to time to get to any rebound or second chance opportunities. The Predators were magnificent at physically dominating the Stars around the net, at putting the Stars on the ice when the puck was loose and while some may say that some of their methods bordered on illegal you have to admit it was effective.
The Stars have struggled at times with being physical near the net and many of the goals scored this season have not been of the second chance variety. When the Stars have struggled is when those first chance goals have not come and the Stars must resort to crashing the net and getting to those second opportunities; on Saturday night we witnessed a Stars team that is far from adept and getting position around the net and getting their sticks on the loose puck.
To give the Stars credit, they have shown this season that they are one determined hockey team. Despite the frustrations of the game against the Predators the Stars never backed down and tried even harder. Yet Marc Crawford has preached to his team this season that the Stars must become more adept at getting pucks to the net, at getting players in front of the net and creating havoc around the opposing goaltender.
Consequently, the Stars have to learn that being physical in front of Lehtonen is a must if the Stars hope to be successful this season. The goaltender can only stop so much, can only see through so many screens before the Stars begin to pay from their lack of physicality as the season goes on.
Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric, Stephane Robida...heck, even Matt Niskanen. These are defensemen who have shown a knack for becoming physical -- but not around the net. If the Stars are hoping to truly take that next step as a team this is something the Stars will have to learn before it starts costing them more than just the occasional goal.