Dallas Stars Survive Road-Heavy Stretch to Open Season

Rich Lam

The Stars have held together through what should have been, on paper at least, their most difficult stretch of the season, with a compressed schedule and overabundance of road games.

When the lockout-abbreviated 2013 schedule came out, one of the first things that struck people who looked at the Dallas Stars games was the number of road contests early in the season.

Indeed, the Stars had 10 of their first 15 games on the road and one of the most compressed early schedules, being one of the first teams to reach the 10, 12 and 15 game milestones.

Things could have gone horribly wrong, especially for a team with a large number of changes in the top six and one or two rookies on defense in any given game. And while the Stars certainly have games in their opening stretch they want back (see: at the Minnesota Wild in the second game), they can now say they survived this opening stretch without too much harm done.

Indeed, I think had you asked me before the season if I would have taken a .500 record out of the stretch, I would have said yes, especially given the ongoing status of the Jamie Benn contract negotiations that eventually kept him out for five games.

The Stars managed to do that one better, wrapping up an 8-6-1 stretch with their 4-3 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Friday. That gave them a 5-5 record in their first 10 road games to go with a 3-1-1 record at the American Airlines Center.

While it's far from the most impressive opening stretch in the NHL (hello there, Chicago Blackhawks), it's a significant accomplishment, especially when the absences of key players are considered. The Stars have played just six games with both top centers in the lineup after Benn's contract negotiations and Derek Roy's injury. And they still haven't played a game with their full, on-paper top six as Ray Whitney was lost to his broken foot before Roy rejoined the lineup.

It's a stretch that this team had every excuse to struggle in. And while there are still obvious problems - from the recent injury to Kari Lehtonen to the defensive lapses to the ill-timed penalties - the results they've eaked out have put them on the right side of the league for the moment.

Because of the imbalance in games played and opponents faced, it's tough to put much stock in the standings just yet. But the Stars have treaded water in several important statistical categories. They are 14th in the league with 2.60 goals against per game and 10th in penalty kill percentage at 83.6 percent. They struggled mightly last year on the power play and are much improved, at least by their own standards, with a 17.3 percent conversion rate that puts them 17th in the league.

As far as individual statistics go, Jaromir Jagr hasn't matched the magic of his four-point, two-goal debut, but he remains the team's leading scorer with four goals and 11 points despite missing one game with a back/hip injury. Jamie Benn took a few games to really wind up, but he's hit his stride recently and is a point-per-game player with four goals and 10 points. Michael Ryder and Loui Eriksson are next with four goals and eight points while Cody Eakin and Derek Roy have each contributed eight points but fewer goals, and Brenden Morrow has warmed up after a slow start with three goals and four points.

And then there is Kari Lehtonen, who has been nothing short of astounding in most games. He ranks third among goalies with at least 10 starts with a .934 save percentage, and his goals against average of 2.12 is sixth among that same group.

The downsides of the early stretch have been obvious. The Stars give up the fourth most shots in the leauge at 31.7 per game, often forcing Lehtonen into making brilliant saves, and they have taken the third most minor penalties. With the ability to line-match and a slight bias toward home teams from officiating crews, some of those problems should resolve with the Stars at at the AAC more often. Still, the team has to tighten up in its own end and continue to work on team discipline.

So where does this leave the Stars for the rest of the season? Obviously, with a fairly home-heavy schedule. The Stars will play 19 of their final 33 games at the AAC (about 58 percent of their remaining games) and have completed probably their most arduous single road trip - the one swing through Western Canada they will have to deal with this season. They will also have a few more days off and practices sprinkled in, as they average one game every 2.01 days as opposed to a game every 1.87 days in the opening stretch. That doesn't seem like a lot, but in a compressed schedule, every bit of rest counts.

Finally, they have completed four of their eight back-to-back sets as well, especially nice given the Stars well-documented struggles in those games.

Still, while there are fewer of them, there are still plenty of road games yet to be played (14, to be exact) and four more chances to vanquish the back-to-back demons. The Stars have held together through what should have been their most difficult stretch of the season. Only time, and their play during more favorable circumstances, will tell us if it's something they can ride to greater heights.

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