Last week the Dallas Stars lost a head scratcher to James Reimer (again) and the Toronto Maple Leafs, but recovered and took four of four possible points against division rivals Winnipeg and Minnesota.
The Stars were resilient in both division games this week. Against two of the most physical, sand papery teams in the NHL, Dallas showed the ability to capitalize on the mistakes of the Jets and grind one out against the Wild. The game against Minnesota was particularly impressive given the defensive wherewithal of the opponent.
Dallas was out-shot against the Wild but held an advantage in high danger scoring chances. Also, the real Johnny Hockey, aka John Klingberg, showed his big game chops. He held up against a ferocious forecheck of the Jets and put his dazzling skill on display against the Wild. What can't this kid do?
This week, the Stars will play Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres twice and will pay a visit to the Verizon Center in Washington to face the Capitals. Buffalo is nipping at the heels of a playoff spot, and Washington sits five points behind the New York Rangers in the Metro Division. Let's dive in.
Tuesday 11/17/15 and Saturday 11/21/15 - Dallas Stars vs Buffalo Sabres
A home and home set with the young and rebuilding Buffalo Sabres awaits the Dallas Stars this week.
Jack Eichel has not disappointed in his inaugural season in the NHL. He leads Buffalo in goals with six tallies. Offseason acquisition Ryan O'Reilly leads the team in points with 14 (5-9-14). Despite an essentially .500 record (8-8-1, 17 points) the Sabres have been outscored by six goals on the season.
So far this season Buffalo has failed to drive play and dictate the terms of engagement. They have been getting slightly below-average goaltending between Chad Johnson, Linus Ullmark, and Robin Lehner with a combined save percentage of 0.909.
Robin Lehner was expected to carry the load for the Sabres this season, but he suffered an ankle injury in the season opener. He has not yet returned to action, and his initial timetable was 10 weeks for his high ankle sprain. Johnson and Ullmark have taken over the net, with Johnson appearing in 12 games since Lehner's injury.
The Sabres have looked frisky this year, but they are clearly a team still in the middle of a multi-year rebuild. Impressive wins against the Lightning and Islanders represent a team improving on what has been a disaster for years. But a .500 record with a slightly below league average strength of schedule demonstrate a team learning how to compete at the highest level.
Player to Watch: Jack Eichel, No. 15. Many claimed that in any other year, Eichel would have been the first overall pick in last summer's draft. He has delivered on the impossible expectations for the rookie. He has a nose for goal and improves every game. He will probably haunt the NHL for years.
The Caps left the core from last year's team in tact, planning to tinker and improve enough to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. Washington parted ways with Joel Ward and added T.J. Oshie in order to build on last season's seven-game loss in the second round to the New York Rangers.
Washington has been largely overlooked in the Metro Division equation, with most picking the Rangers, Islanders, and Penguins to win the division. However an important fact cannot be overlooked: The Caps have one of the two best goalies and the best player in the division.
So far, goaltender Braden Holtby has been inconsistent with a save percentage of 0.919, but he has been good enough. The Caps also feature 23 year-old phenom Evgeny Kuznetsov who has proved to be quite a playmaker with five goals and 12 assists.
Of course, they still have Alexander Ovechkin. Ovi is leading the Caps in goals with eight. The fact that eight goals through 15 games played is considered a slow start by his standards speaks to his talent for scoring goals.
The Stars will be playing the Caps in enemy territory against what has been one of the biggest home-ice advantages in the league. The Verizon Center is traditionally a tough place to play. Dallas is capable of beating any team in a track meet, but actively pursuing one against the Capitals on the road will be most unwise.
Player to Watch: Nicklas Backstrom, No 19. The guy is a wizard. Maybe it is his number, but he reminds me of Jason Spezza. Backstrom loves to have the puck on his stick.
The Stars were able to take four of four points against the MDK last week, and it will be key to follow up those performances against two Eastern Conference foes. Far worse Buffalo teams have beaten the Stars before, and the Verizon Center has not been kind to visitors. This is a sneaky tough week for Dallas, and the team will look to hold serve against the Eastern Conference.