Outside of a laugher against the Columbus Blue Jackets, last week was something of a Prove It week for the Dallas Stars. The boys in Victory Green faced off against the Eastern Conference's second seed, a pesky Calgary Flames squad, and Central Division rival Minnesota Wild. Six from a possible eight points later, Dallas now owns an eight point gap over the Chicago Blackhawks for the Division and Conference's best record.
That the Stars came through the week with flying colors should no longer be a surprise. After all, they've spent the past thirty four games checking off challenges. Nerves are fading, expectations are rising. This is a good thing, and one that should shift fans' focus slightly.
Things like pulling one goal from 36 shots against the Flames matter now, as does the fact Kari couldn't make it through the first period in Minnesota. We know the Stars' identity. What we need to learn now is how the Stars respond to physical teams, to fast teams, to possession teams, and to counter-attacking teams.
If you want to figure out the Stars' chances come playoff time, watch how well they impose their will on opponents over the next 48 games.
Jamie Benn (longest pointless streak this season: 1 game) - So far, Captain Benn has found a way to avoid the prolonged slumps that have dotted his career to-date. Not that another Art Ross is out of the question, but it's long past time to start a serious Hart conversation.
Vernon Fiddler (current scoring pace: 34 points) - Unlike Eaves, Fiddler appears to be well on his way to better last year's point totals, and perhaps even 2007-2008's career high. He's also winning 52% of his faceoffs and playing 2:05 on the penalty kill. He's not even underrated anymore. Fiddler is a full-on sung hero.
Tyler Seguin (current pace for assists: 65) - Smart players adapt too. In Seguin's case, he's punishing defenses too focused on his scoring ability with deft passing. That, in turn, is re-opening his shooting lanes. At this point, even if defenders managed to body swap (Freaky Friday-style) he'd just use their bodies to continue scoring goals. It's a real nice feedback loop, unless you're not the Dallas Stars.
John Klingberg (points-per-game career / season: .72 / .91) - Despite a drop in shooting percentage (7.7% this season versus 11.2% last season), Klingberg is just nine points shy of last year's total. The young defender is also three assists shy of the league lead. That's amazing for a player who has still not completed an entire NHL season.
Patrick Sharp (points by month this season; Oct: 8, Nov 12, Dec 5) - Sharp still has five games left in December, so the totals might look better, but it's been a bit uneven in the scoring department. Good thing all the other departments (lineup flexibility, defensive attention, etc) have been first rate. Guy has been a good fit from day one.
Jason Spezza (current pace for assists: 29) - This season's pace would be about half of what Spezza managed in his first season with the Stars. An increase in scoring counter-balances things somewhat (he's on pace for 58 points versus 62 last season), but it's a minor concern.
Jordie Benn (PIMS: 4) - To play as much as he does in defensive situations (2:01 ASHTOI) without taking more than a pair of minor penalties is astonishing. Elder Benn has also contributed a little bit offensively (8 pts) for a Stars defense we all thought would be much worse.
Jason Demers (current scoring pace: 13 goals) - Demers is one goal and 13 points shy of his career highs (5 and 25 respectively). He plays in all situations (1:36 APPTOI / 2:28 ASHTOI) and he plays a ton (20:36 ATOI). A few nagging injuries have blighted an otherwise marvelous season.
Alex Goligoski (overall goal differential: +15) - Goose's scoring is respectable (14 points in 34 games), he plays big minutes (23:24 ATOI), and in that time his unit outperforms the opposition. This space has always been a fan of his understated effectiveness.
Jykri Jokipakka (games played this season: 23) - It was supposed to be a time-share, or a competition at least. Instead, Jokipakka has solidified himself in the Stars' everyday lineup at the expense of fellow prospects Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth. His contributions are still overshadowed by the rest of the unit (14:26 ATOI), but he's in there. That counts for something.
Johnny Oduya (average change in PK time versus last season: +0:45) - Oduya went from playing with an elite defensive unit (Chicago) behind a pair of all-world defenders (Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith) to a slightly less acclaimed group in Dallas. So far the change has revealed character and quality.
Mattias Janmark (games above 14:00 TOI: 19) - This year's training camp surprise continues to impress. For me, what stands out is how sustainable it looks. His shooting percentage is fine (12.1%), and the fact he hasn't registered a multi-point game means he has found the scoresheet in just about a third of the Stars' games this season. The games are only going to get tougher, but so far so good.
Cody Eakin (current scoring pace: 39 points) - Eakin is trending towards a repeat of last season's career high in points. He's playing evenly on the power play (1:44 APPTOI) and penalty kill (1:41 ASHTOI), and while 47% on the faceoff dot is far from elite, it's serviceable. He's a guy that does good things, on the balance.
Ales Hemsky (average number of games between points: 3) - Throw out a four game streak to start the season and that number jumps to 5. Hemsky has struggled to consistently impact games for the Stars this season.
Travis Moen (games played since October: 2) - Injuries have been an issue, as has the play of the guys ahead of him. It's hard to break back into a lineup when nobody slumps.
Patrik Nemeth (games played: 8) - Nemeth's most recent conditioning stint (14 games) is nearly double his games-played in the NHL. That's disappointing, no other way to say it.
Jamie Oleksiak (games played in December versus rest of season: 4 / 6) - The fact he's played more lately is a good sign, but as with Nemeth, there's no getting around the fact that the Big Rig has only made it into ten games this season.
Kari Lehtonen (16 GP / 2.67 GAA / .910 SV%) - Despite comparable stats, Lehtonen is trailing slightly in the games-played category. Part of that is due to an injury, but there's also the spectre of games like last night's tilt in Minnesota. He can be so very good, and then not.
Patrick Eaves (played 9 of 10 games since Dec 1) - Last season's spike in scoring was never going to be repeated. Injuries have limited Eaves' impact, but he's been healthy lately.
Antti Niemi (22 GP / 2.42 GAA / .912 SV%) - It's a gut thing, but Niemi feels more stable than his colleague. Stable, but quite better to the point where questions about who the #1 goaltender is are being answered.
Valeri Nichushkin (points before / after Dec 8: 6 / 1) - The madness continues. Nuke is, beyond any doubt, a much-transformed player from the kid that struggled through October and November. At the same time, those two rough months make it hard to weather ebbs and flows in his scoring. The good news is that, despite the bumpy ride, Big Val is on pace to match his 34-point rookie season.
Antoine Roussel (games in which Roussel has both a goal and a penalty: 1) - It's the life of an agitator, I guess, but the Stars remain a better team when Rooster is on the ice.
Colton Sceviour (shooting percentage: 2.5) - Sceviour has managed to keep himself in the lineup, which is good, but last season's promising 26 point effort seems like something from an entirely different era.