Let me take you back, all the way to Dec. 19 of this season.
Before the Dallas Stars took on the Montreal Canadiens, play-by-play man Dave Strader did his usual voice over introduction for the television broadcast. On this occasion, he asked the questions many Stars fans have been asking themselves through this outstanding first half of the season.
"At what point do you become a legitimate contender? When is it time to say your season-long resume is not a fluke? To be considered the best, the Dallas Stars will be required to beat the best."
Of course, that intro was just to set up the game against the Habs, but given the Stars schedule, it could just as well have been for the seven-game stretch that started that night and finishes on New Year's Eve.
In that span, the Stars will have faced four of the top five teams chasing them in the Western Conference - the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators - and the then-Eastern Conference leading Canadiens six times. Before they even play the final two games of that stretch (including the lone game against a non-top team - the Blue Jackets tonight), they have already guaranteed an above 0.500 record in a very difficult run of games.
Including the win over the Canadiens, the Stars are 4-0-1 and two minutes plus a Kevin Shattenkirk miracle save away from a perfect 5-0-0 record (as against-the-grain as one win would have been). They have outscored their opponents 21-7 in that time frame and thrown a pair of shutouts against Central Division opponents, one from each starting goalie just to make it more fun.
The goal differential doesn't tell the whole story, if only because there were three empty net goals in that span (which is quickly climbing up the list of the Stars favorite things to do) and a boatload of third-period goals even with the goalie in net. But even the fancy-stats say the Stars were clearly the best team during this run.
They won the possession battle with 52 percent of Corsi events in all situations. They outscored their opponents 10-4 at even strength (you read that right - four even-strength goals allowed over five games), and were even more impressive when you adjust the numbers for score situation, with around 55 percent of the possession.
The Stars also owned scoring chances, out-chancing those five teams 170-118 and winning the high-danger chance battle 77-49, a 60 percent ratio on both categories. Any way you slice it, the Stars haven't only been dominant on the scoreboard, they've also clearly outplayed their opponents.
It's an extremely impressive little run against the toughest stretch of schedule they've faced all season. And as Robert wrote after Sunday's win over the Blues, they are running out of questions left to answer (other than final point tallies).
They are on a 126-point pace through nearly half the season and, with 26, have six more regulation and overtime wins than any other team in the West (Washington is one behind with two games in hand and the only team with more than 19 ROW in the East). They've reached the point where they could go exactly 0.500 for the rest of the season and still finish with 102 points. The goal differential is an absolutely comical plus-38.
All this with league-average goaltending, the exact thing they lacked last season. As of Monday, the Stars sat 15th in all-situation team save percentage with a 0.915. Fellow contender for best team in the league Washington? No. 1 at 0.927.
(It's also worth noting that all of the top six teams in save percentage are from the Eastern Conference, which may point to some of those quality of competition issues.)
And yet, there's still a tendency to hold back on the enthusiasm for the Stars as a real power. The fan base, not to mention the national hockey media, is once bitten, twice shy (or once scarred by divisional failures, always twitchy, perhaps). The Stars are non-traditional in many ways after all, from the $10.4 million two-headed goalie monster to the generally small-ish blueline to a refusal to stop playing high-octane hockey even when up by one goal late.
Those are all fair reservations for a typical team, and we have seen that teams can go on season-long runs of unsustainable numbers (looking at you, Avalanche and Flames) without meaningful, long-term improvement.
It's the old sports cliche - many remain pessimistic because it's easier when the odds catch up to you. After all, only one of 29 teams finishes the season happy. The others all deal with some degree of failure. And there are more mainstream picks for long-term success, whether that's the equally impressive Washington Capitals or possession wizard Los Angeles Kings.
The Stars have done absolutely everything anyone could have asked of them thus far and more. Their 57 points in 37 games is three more points in one fewer game than the league-leading Anaheim Ducks had starting the morning of Dec. 29 last season. Eventual Cup winner Chicago had 50 points in 36 games. Pittsburgh led the East with a measly 49 points. And Tampa Bay was the only team with more than 20 regulation or overtime wins with 21.
Combine that dominance with the underlying numbers that support the record, and there's almost no reason to continue to doubt that the Stars are among the league's elite this season.
They've done it at home. They've done it on the road. They've done it with defense, with shutouts and with lots and lots (and lots) of offense. Every single metric you look at points to the fact that the Stars are very, very good, if potentially heartburn inducing.
So at what point do the Stars become a legitimate contender? The obvious answer is they already are. It's time to stop looking around for that darn other shoe that's about to drop and start enjoying the ride instead.