Dallas has terrorized the state of Pennsylvania this season, and Friday night was just the latest such incident against the land of William Penn. No, really. Check this out:
10/20 - Stars 2, Flyers 1
1022 - Stars 4, Penguins 1
12/11 - Stars 3, Flyers 1
That's a 12-3 goal differential against the Keystone State. Yes, the Penguins and Flyers have both been somewhat moribund clubs this year, but it's nice to be racking up points against teams that used to burn the Stars in the not-too-distant past.
It's also a pleasure to be riding the crest of the wave, and that's precisely what the Stars are doing right now. Friday night was a bit of a tentative romp at times, but if you've been hungry for signs that the Stars can actual play a controlled game and dominate the other side, this was about as gloriously auspicious an omen as you could want.
From the start, it was clear that the Flyers' gameplan was to get under the skin of the Stars' top guns. Wayne Simmonds led the charge, but Radko Gudas and other miscellaneous cronies did their best to go full Antoine Roussel on Benn, Seguin and Nichushkin (and Roussel, come to that). Philly's plan for their second game in as many nights seemed to be to slow the game down, drag Dallas into a mire of frustration, and get the best team in hockey off their game. Did it work?
No, it did not work.
The Flyers only had 15 faceoffs in the Stars' zone (ZSO), and they spent 12 minutes on the penalty kill. That'll sap your legs on most nights. By the third period, it was pretty evident that this was going to be a "most nights" night for Philly.
There's been a lot of talk about the Stars as some new offense-only team without defensive discipline, but such suggestions really ignore the fact that the Stars are actually a very disciplined team. They don't always execute their defensive zone strategy well (the forwards perhaps more than anyone), but they have a strategy, and they work pretty danged hard to get it done. They don't take all that many penalties, and they drive play at even strength really, really well. It's just the whole "giving up tons of goals in a row to the other team, sometimes" thing that still lingers over what is otherwise a fresh stack of hockey hotcakes.
Before the Flyers went ahead on Shayne Gostisbhere's one-time rocket, the Stars had been pouring it on. After the goal, not a lot changed. Maybe it was the fact that the Flyers were awarded a power play on as laughable a call as you'll ever see (here's a clip of what Cody Eakin got called for); maybe Dallas just smelled blood on a tired team. Either way, the teams stopped exchanging chances pretty early on, and Dallas never looked back. The Flyers goal was a speed bump on the road of domination, and the Stars recognized it and continued on their way.
The St. Louis game Saturday night is going to be a bit of an unfair crucible no matter how you feel about back-to-backs. The Stars have beaten all the good teams they've played so far, and one (hypothetical) loss to anyone doesn't undo all the good of this wonderful start to the year. But man, if you could draw up the first game in the set, wouldn't the Philly game be the template? Close and competitive, but never quite causing desperation that leads to breakdowns. Throw in some power play adversity to prepare them for a divisional rival, and you have a pretty ideal tune-up match. The Stars know their weak points, but this game was a chance to kneel down and look at them up close without having to worry about getting bitten.
Possibly I might sound overly positive here. Niemi was definitely called upon a few times, and he answered the bell. There were some miscues, and for all the puck-hogging the Stars did, this was essentially a one-goal comeback victory. Considering their previous game, maybe that's the easiest way to go for these guys.
If games were relay races, Jason Spezza would always run the first lap. The crowd was getting excited about his puckhandling from early on, and it's no mistake that he got the third star of the game despite not really figuring primarily in either goal. If you want to understand one of the best things about Jason Spezza, just reflect on the fact that the Stars' power play entry strategy is basically just Drop the Puck to Spezza and Watch Him Enter the Zone. There's more to it, but not a lot more.
Unfortunately the Flyers figured that out as well, as they were sending two players across the red line to forecheck Klingberg and Spezza. It caused some hiccups a few times, but once the Stars figured out what was going on, they adapted as well--a double drop!--albeit to little ultimate effect.
The Stars' power play is not designed to feed a Shea Weberian slapshot from the point. Klingberg isn't shy about using a wrister from distance if he can get it from the middle of the ice with some traffic, but this power play runs through Seguin if he's available. The 2-for-3 wakeup against Carolina was good to see; one or two key* power play goals against St. Louis would be especially encouraging. Just like with the zone entries, I'm fine with having one main plan so long as it works often enough to justify it.
*One suspects every goal will be key on Saturday. Just a hockey expert prediction there.
I'd be remiss not to reiterate that Jason Demers is a welcome presence in this lineup. He's clearly feeling just fine, as the Stars dished him up nearly 22 minutes (good for #2 on the team's defense) last night in his return. He and Oduya both started in the defensive zone (on the rare times when it was called for) as the primary shutdown pair, and they performed their defensive duty with aplomb. I really think Demers might just be hexing the Stars when he's out of the lineup to mess with them. It's not the most ridiculous idea I've suggested.
It's fun to win close games, and the Stars have done that. Such games usually lead to empty-net opportunities, and the Stars have converted plenty of them. That's nothing to be ashamed of, by the way. With their dedication to quick breakouts once they turn the puck over in their own zone, this team has found one of the best ways to avoid surrendering goals to a team with six skaters: score. That's usually the Stars' answer for everything; tonight showed that they have a few other answers, too.