A couple of weeks ago the Dallas Stars traveled to Colorado for their first true test of the season. After three very impressive and dominating wins at home against the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Phoenix Coyotes the Stars were off on a three game Western Conference road trip. Against Colorado, the second game in two nights and the third in four days, we felt at the time that this would be a true test of the Stars' ability as a team and the first indication of how this club might have grown since last season.
Perhaps it was the tired legs, playing three games in four nights. Perhaps it was the thin mountain air of Denver, Colorado. Whatever the reason, the Stars were embarrassed to the tune of an uninspired 0-5 throttling. The defeat was the first of three road losses on the West coast and the Stars limped back to Dallas with questions surrounding whether this was truly a legitimate team. After all, if the Stars can't win on the road against Colorado, Los Angeles and Anaheim then what chance exists for any realistic push for a playoff spot.
The common element in all three losses was how the speed and youth of the opponents completely overwhelmed the Stars at times. While the losses to the Kings and Ducks were much closer games -- lost in the final period in both cases -- it's become obvious that the Stars struggle with teams that posses speed at the forward position and in particular youthful speed.
Starting tonight, the Dallas Stars must find a way halt the trend that's emerged the past few seasons: an obvious weakness against speed.
Speed alone is not a recipe for success. Just because a team has speed among their forwards -- and in particular the defensemen -- does not guarantee a team will instantly start piling up the wins. It's about using the speed in the right method at the right time in a game and in the right system. It's simple to state, but a team has to maintain discipline and not just speed up the ice with every chance that arises.
Teams try to build with speed as the NHL evolves into a more aggressive league but the best teams are the ones that have been able to find a balance between defensive discipline and speed and aggression on offense. Teams like the Kings and the Avalanche in the Western Conference have embraced this concept over the past few seasons and have started to really build success off it; the Kings in particular have emerged as one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL.
Consequently, teams such as the Kings, Avalanche and Blues have become the Dallas Stars toughest opponents. While they are certainly tough for any team they face it's amazing to see just how different the Stars play when facing these teams versus facing the rest of the NHL.
Since hiring Marc Crawford last summer, the Stars have started the process in following the examples set by these teams. A system built on youth that preaches aggression and speed while maintaining defensive stability, while relying on an above-average goaltender to mop up the messes that inevitably occur going back the other way.
For the Stars, this meant trying to evolve to a new system with the players from the old. The Stars, until this season, were not youthful and were built with large, powerful forwards that relied on physicality and an aggressive forecheck for success. Last year it appeared that Crawford tried to force his team into the system he was trying to create and the end result was what you'd expect; an inconsistent team that fell short of the playoffs.
This year the Stars made a conscious effort to continue their "youth movement" while also changing the culture of the organization a bit. The Stars still want to use aggression and speed to their advantage but have taken steps to be "hard to play against" and a team that is far from the pushover the Stars were last season. This was about molding the system to fit the players and while the results are still a bit inconsistent, the Stars certainly appear to be a much more stable and comfortably team this time around.
Unfortunately, through the first six weeks or so of the season, the same issues from the past have plagued this team. The Stars have shown an ability to effectively clog the neutral zone and use defensive positioning and gap control perfectly; yet when faced with a team with aggression and speed they seemingly forget the system they're attempting to embrace.
It's in games like this that the Stars' shortcomings on defense are made readily apparent. The Stars have a young defense that is working hard to improve but are susceptible to making critical mistakes if forced into a decision in their own zone. Teams like the Kings and the Avalanche use this advantage of their to perfection and the Stars have generally not only lost to these two teams the past few years but have been grossly outplayed. The Stars just have no ability to keep up with the style of play the Kings and Avs wish to attempt to settle into in the course of a game.
The Stars don't have the speed to keep up with these teams and they don't have the defensive ability to make up for any mistakes that might occur against such speedy opponents. The Stars' method of success relies upon an aggressive attack at the net, a physical forecheck and a defensive group that is aggressive in holding the line and jumping into the offense at times. Yet when faced with a team with powerful counterstrike abilities, the Stars abandon the system they've been successful in and find themselves facing considerable deficits.
Marc Crawford and the Stars must find a way to maintain the aggressive style that has worked while also countering the speed and attacking ability these teams possess. The defensemen must find a way to maintain their positioning, to not be caught reaching or chasing and and the Stars have to stay convinced that their system will ultimately be successful.
This is a talented team with more than enough ability to make the postseason. Yet they've already failed one test against the speedy teams of the West and another one is ahead of them, starting tonight. If the Stars truly wish to take that proverbial "next step", then a convincing win tonight against Colorado would be the perfect time to start.