Through the first month of the season, one thing that has been very interesting to follow is how the national media reacts to the success so far of the Dallas Stars. With many -- if not all -- expecting the Stars to crash and burn this season you generally get the sense of reluctant optimism from the national media in regards to how the Stars have been winning.
That's why I was paying very close attention to when Jeff Sagarin released his initial rankings on the young NHL season. For those that are unfamiliar with Sagarin's work, he uses statistical formulas to rank teams in college and pro sports based on strength of schedule, wins and losses and points margin.
For now, the Dallas Stars are ranked third in the NHL based on his formulas, which is a synthesis between "ELO CHESS" and "Pure Points". When you use win margin exclusively, the Stars are ranked 6th in the NHL while they are ranked 2nd based on pure wins and losses only. What really stood out to me, however, is the Stars are ranked 23rd in the NHL based on strength of schedule so far this season -- which is a good indicator of how they've been so successful. Against the top ten ranked teams, the Stars are just 1-3-0 so far. The two true tests they have faced, against the Kings, the Stars have played well but lost.
Over the next eight days, however, the Stars are suddenly going to be facing a much tougher test. With games against Colorado, Washington, Pittsburgh and Detroit coming in four of the next five games, the Stars are facing a significant measuring stick in just the second month of the season.
We've talked about this before, when the Stars set off on their West Coast road trip. The Stars came home 3-1-0 in those four games and suddenly people around the NHL were forced to sit up and take notice of a team that many had counted out before the games ever started. Since then, the questions over whether this team is "real" have persisted with many -- rightfully so -- pointing out that the Stars have faced some relatively easy competition so far this season.
That the Stars have gone 1-3-0 against "top ten" ranked teams -- according to Sagarin's rankings -- is a bit of an alarming statistic and should provide a general idea of just where this team stands in the NHL hierarchy. So far, the Stars have proven they belong in the top half of the league (5-3-0 vs. top 16) yet there are still questions remaining about well they'll play, and whether they can be successful, against the best this league has to offer.
The Stars kick off a very tough week tonight against Colorado, a team that has inexplicably struggled to score goals lately and has cooled off after a hot start. Despite their recent struggles, the Avs represent a very real and significant threat for the Stars who have generally struggled in the past against speedy and young teams.
The Avalanche will pose a tough test for these Gulutzan-led Stars, yet it's what is waiting later in the week that will be the true test.
The Capitals and the Penguins are ranked right along with the Stars in the top five and both teams lead the league in their margin of victories. They move the puck extremely well, they put the puck on net and both teams score an extraordinary amount of goals.
The Stars pride themselves as a team that can limit scoring chances and they're certainly going to be put to the test over the next week. Whether the Dallas Stars are a true threat for the rest of the NHL will likely be answered over the next week or so, although we shouldn't consider these games as "make or break" for the rest of the season.
Instead, the Stars can view these games as a test of where they truly stand as a hockey team, whether the Stars can not only play well against top teams in the NHL but also win those games. This is something they've struggled with so far this season -- at least against the Kings -- and the Stars must find a way to win these upcoming games in order to continue to build off the momentum of the first month of the season.
It's unfortunate that the Stars are facing such tough competition after nearly a week off, as the team will be fighting rust while attempting to maintain the momentum and success of what they've done so far this season. The good news is that the Stars have a few "warm up" games against Colorado and Carolina, before the extreme competition takes to the ice.
Not to say the Avs should be taken lightly; the Stars need only to focus on this one game ahead of them tonight. Staring at them right in the face, however, are three teams that will test the fortitude of a Stars team we are all hoping can live up to the expectations they've built over the first month of the season.