2014 comes to a close tonight as the Dallas Stars look to make it "eight of ten" with a potential win over the visiting Arizona Coyotes.
The Stars have been working on turning the page to 2015 on a positive note all December long after a disastrous start to the season had them seemingly out of the playoff picture altogether, and they've taken advantage of their schedule of late before statement wins against the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers.
"I think our competitiveness needed to be at a higher level," Ruff told media after Monday's win, "and I think we've raised that level. There's pressure among the players to push each other harder and they've answered the bell when it comes to fighting our way back into it."
The way back into it part is up for debate. Last New Years Eve the Stars thrilled fans with a win that put them into the top eight of the conference, foreshadowing the hope and eventual success the New Year would bring.
This year the best they could do would be to jump Minnesota (the Wild would have games in hand) and climb a little closer to the plethora of teams in front of them- But with a better January than last season, it could play out similarly in the end.
Perhaps just as important as looking up, they can fend off an Arizona team that is trying desperately to catch them from behind.
The Coyotes recently suffered a five-game losing streak on the way to dropping 10 of 12 overall in an abysmal stretch, finally hitting rock bottom losing 7-1 in Vancouver to the Canucks. 11-18-4 at that point.
Since, however, they've notched three straight wins and enter Dallas on a bit of a roll after cruising to a 4-2 win over the visiting Philadelphia Flyers at home Monday night. They've allowed just four total goals in the three-game streak, getting back to their stingy, successful ways.
7 of their 14 wins have come on the road, but three of the last four have been in Edmonton over those hapless Oilers. They own the league's second best road power play percentage at a blistering 25.0, and the third most road power play goals in the league at 13.
They kill penalties at a pretty average clip of 77.3% on the road, so the Stars have their work cut out for them if they're to win the special teams battle or at least leave it even, which has been key for them of late.
At .71 goals-for/goals-against, the Coyotes are one of the league's worst 5-on-5 teams, and at 3.14 goals against per game, their defense and goaltending have not been much better than Dallas'.
Dave Tippett epitomized Coyotes hockey after the win over the Flyers- "We were able to get a lead on a fortunate goal and we capitalized on some opportunities and defended pretty well."
They counter-punch when the opportunities present themselves (neutral-zone turnovers come to mind...) and otherwise defend, defend, defend. That's when things are going well. They've been unable to on a lot of nights this season, and that's led to the 9th highest shot-attempt against per 60 minutes at 56.2.
Their possession numbers in their three wins entering tonight: 40.5%, 46.4% and 49.1%- Often times misleading for a team content to let you shoot from the outside.
Yes, it would appear for the moment that Dubnyk has the hot hand in net. He was in goal for all three of those wins, stopping 91 of 95 shots in the process.
Mike Smith has one win in the Coyotes' last 23 games- A 25-save performance in Edmonton on December 1st. You have to go back to November 7th to find his previous win, and he's only won back-to-back games once this season.
They have only one double-digit goal scorer (10) in Antoine Vermette, who leads all Coyotes with 25 points. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is second with nine goals, and five of them are game winners.
Their leading shot takers? The defense. 110 from Keith Yandle and 109 from OEL, so keep an eye on those points as Arizona tries to create havoc in front of Kari Lehtonen through rebounds.
There should be very little, if anything, different about the Stars lineup. Jordie Benn missed practice with a maintenance day, so it seems he's dealing with something minor, but he's expected to play. Kari Lehtonen should be in net.
From Stars PR:
Wednesday's New Year's Eve tilt marks the first time the Stars and Coyotes have squared off on the final night of the year. Dallas has posted wins in two consecutive New Year's games and has gone 4-1-0 in its last five, with a record of 17-6-2 in their last 25 games on New Year's Eve, outscoring opponents by a total of 89-58. The Stars are 10-4-2 since moving to Dallas, and hold an 18-12-3 record all-time on Dec. 31. Forward Erik Cole scored two goals in last season's New Year's Eve contest, and now has seven career points (5-2=7) when playing on Dec. 31. Tyler Seguin notched two points (1-1=2) in last year's New Year's Eve win over Los Angeles, having now recorded three career points (2-1=3) on the final calendar day of the year.
A note from the Dallas Morning News of interest: This organization has not swept the Coyotes' organization since the Minnesota North Stars swept the Winnipeg Jets in 1991. Evidently sweeping these guys is pretty difficult- Can they do it this evening?
Let's go find out tonight, but do be safe. It's amateur night out there.