After spending the first 25 or so games of the 2014 season looking like a hockey team that had completely lost its way, the Dallas Stars have now jumped right back into the conversation in the Western Conference with an 8-2-0 run heading into the New Year.
Three weeks ago we were all doing the math in our head to figure out whether the Stars would have a chance at Connor McDavid; now, the math will start looking once again at the possibilities of another improbable postseason appearance.
Improbable is certainly the right word, despite the hype and expectations heaped upon this team in the offseason, because of what the Stars have had to overcome in just the first few months of the season. Consider that the Stars at one point had the absolute worst defense and goaltending in the NHL, allowed five or more goals in four straight games and at one point had just six wins in 21 games (6-12-3) to fall all the way into the basement in the West.
And then something changed.
It started with a 4-3 win over a hapless New Jersey Devils team that wasn't nearly as close as the score would suggest. The game came after a full three-day break following a disastrous home game against the Winnipeg Jets, perhaps the worst performance by the Stars on home ice in years, which was then followed by another three-day break. That launched into a road trip against struggling hockey teams that the Stars took full advantage of in order to finally find their own game once more.
While the Stars were just beginning on this 8-2-0 run, the caveat was that the wins were coming against "bad" or "struggling" teams and therefore shouldn't be counted as good wins. The trick in that line of thought, however, is that the Stars up until that point could have been considered along the same vein -- a struggling and bad team that just happened to find a good night in a season of bad ones.
How are the Stars doing it? Simple. Defense, goaltending and balanced scoring, the tenets of any good hockey team.
Consider this. Prior to the December 6th game against the Montreal Canadiens, the Stars were allowing 3.62 goals per game while scoring just 2.89 goals per game on their way to a 9-12-5 record. In the 8-2-0 run since that time, the Stars are allowing 2.4 goals while scoring 3.30 times per game, including shutouts of Arizona and Vancouver.
That's a heck of a turnaround, especially when you consider that Tyler Seguin last scored in Edmonton on December 21; since then the Stars have won two close games against the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers and then destroyed the hapless Coyotes with six goals by six different players.
This is the definition of a hockey team that is firing on all cylinders.
So, as the Stars head into 2015 the hottest team in the Western Conference and the second-hottest in the NHL behind only the New York Rangers, let's take a moment and reflect on some key points of this season so far.
Tyler Seguin has gone cold, and that's not a bad thing
Seguin was due to come down to earth at some point, and he has over the past few weeks. The NHL scoring leader has just two goals in his past seven games and went goalless in six of those (2-4-6 overall in 7 GP); the Stars are 6-1-0 in those games.
It's a crazy stat when you look at it, but the ability of the Stars to pick up offensively without Seguin putting pucks in the net at an absurd rate is rather important, and shows that the Stars are indeed capable of depth scoring -- something we weren't quite sure about for most of this season.
Let's not keep that trend up for too much longer, however.
Holy Smokes, this looks like an NHL defense
Last season, this is what the Stars were rolling out with regularly on defense:
Goligoski - Daley
Dillon - Benn
Rome - Gonchar
Patrick Nemeth came in and played very well at the end of the season and was expected to be a big part of the defense this season for Dallas, instead he's out of the year. So...the Stars have this now:
Goligoski - Klingberg
Jokipakka/Oleksiak - Daley
Benn - Demers
Perhaps more importantly than anything else, the egregious turnovers the Stars were making again and again from the blueline out in transition have been drastically reduced, and suddenly the Stars look a bit like we expected them to. Coincidence?
The coaching staff may have finally figured it out
I equate the Dallas Stars coaching job in the first 25 games of the season to have been the equivalent of playing whack-a-mole with a blindfold on. A problem would crop up and as soon as it was addressed, another issue would surface. Or three. And the Stars coaching staff seemed helpless in figuring out how to fix it all.
The players deserve a lot of the blame for the struggles of the season so far, but so do the coaches. Lindy Ruff and his staff made some hasty and, in hindsight, rather poor decisions when it was clear things weren't starting off exactly how they expected. The line juggling was ridiculous at times and mostly frustrating at all others, and it's no coincidence that as the Stars settle into their best hockey of the season the lines have actually normalized a bit.
That the lines now resemble almost exactly what was used to start the season -- well, we'll just leave it at that.
Still, the coaches deserve credit for using those extended breaks between games to "reset" the Stars a bit, refocus the defensive game and rebuild their approach from the goal on out. Instead of being so focused on offense the Stars made it a point to not allow goals; in turn, the offense has started to find it's groove again while the Stars play their best team defense since last spring.
Oh, these rookies are something else
Finally -- let's talk about how the Stars are settling in with a great mix of veterans and a promising and exciting group of rookies contributing on a nightly basis. Consider how many players have finally seen extended NHL time this season, and how that experience is finally starting to payoff midway through the season. Jyrki Jokipakka, John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak, Travis Morin (not really a rookie), Curtis McKenzie and even Colton Sceviour have all become vital pieces of this Dallas Stars team this season and they will only continue to improve as they gain valuable experience.
Perhaps ending 2014 with the NHL debut of Brett Ritchie was fitting, considering how the debuts of other highly-touted young players have gone the past year or so. Klingberg has been dynamic and has settled into a top role on the blueline, Sceviour looks like he could finally have found his spot on the top line, McKenzie is a versatile forward who can play anywhere in the lineup and even Travis Morin has enjoyed some extended success in the NHL this season.
....a long ways to go.
This has been a rather effusive article in its praise of the Stars, but there is still a long ways to go for Dallas this season. Making the postseason is going to be much more difficult than last season, and now the Stars face six Central Division teams in their next nine games -- a division against which they have just one combined win all season long.
So, while this 8-2-0 run has seemingly saved the season from full and total disaster, the unfortunate reality is the Stars can't afford to even approach extended .500 hockey the rest of the season. It's a tall task, for sure, but finally we're starting to see a Stars team play good and fun hockey again -- and that's what matters the most.