If you are a masochist and want to imagine the Stars without their top two centers, just look at the Predators.
Led by the Stars' first-line center from the Dark Days of Olde, Nashville is unabashedly built from the back end on out. Pekka Rinne has put up consistently solid goaltending behind what is only a more fearsome defense as the years go on, and as a result, Nashville has amassed a good assortment of playoff appearances in the past half-decade. Barry Trotz took a budget team and squeezed something yellow that we'll assume was gold out of a hockey stone more often than not. Even if it wasn't the most thrilling hockey to watch, it was certainly effective.
Now Peter Laviolette is (thankfully) finding more exciting ways to succeed, with Filip Forsberg and James Neal lending the Preds a little more lethality than we've seen in years past. And even though Nashville was a fair margin behind Dallas coming into last night's tilt, Montreal reminds us all just how quickly a division lead can evaporate when things go south.
For the first half of the game, it could have been any Nashville game from the past five years. The Stars were getting chances, but Rinne's glove and Nashville's blue line kept the game knotted until the most typical of Nashvillean goals was scored. (Any goal by someone named Craig Smith is a typical Nashvillean goal.) Goligoski stepped up to poke the puck out on a zone entry, which was a good read, but he didn't quite lunge enough to get it out, obviously trying to keep skating so as to not lose his man completely. Well, this game punishes you when you get caught in between, and Mike Ribeiro knows what to do when he has an open teammate.
That could have been the turning point of the game. Nashville scored on their first scoring chance of the period (over 10 minutes into it), and that could have given the Predators a chance to really lock things down and force the Stars to start taking risks. However, two things prevented that from being the case.
First, the Predators may not quite be the stalwart defensive team we've seen in the past. Their goal differential is even, and they're basically average in goals allowed at 101. While they are great at limiting chances--they're near the top of the league in scoring chances allowed, and their overall differential is very good--they don't create many chances themselves, and they have gotten humdrum goaltending this year. So they've been taking it on the chin more than you would expect so far.
Second, the Stars have Jamie Benn. The captain took Mattias Ekholm's fumble, stiff-armed the defenseman aside as though Ekholm is not a professional athlete, and beat Rinne over a sprawled Ryan Ellis. It was top-tier stuff all the way, but we're almost used to it by now. Almost.
From there, the Stars just didn't look back. Jason Spezza stole two pucks when Nashville got a bit loose, and boy howdy, you have to think David Poile's face had the ol' thousand-yard stare going by that point. Here was the Stars' second-line center just dicing your team up, and Nashville just has to be wondering, "If Spezza can do that with Eaves and Janmark, what could he have done here with Forsberg and Neal?" The world may never know.
What the world does know is that the Stars also have a pretty good number one center name of Tyler Seguin, who added two goals of his own just to make sure Nashville knew how things are 'round these parts. Seguin's reviewed goal was fascinating for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the broadcast's suggestion that the NHL basically didn't have access to the one view that conclusively showed the puck's crossing the line until the Stars' video board played it. The various mechanics behind video review are still being fine-tuned, but it is wonderful to see the Stars' gameday presentation crew outdoing themselves yet again.
Seguin's second goal was prettier, though. Jamie Benn broke out of the zone with the puck, and as Razor said, he just "looked everybody off" before a succulent feed to Seguin, who had already gotten behind Shea Weber and Roman Josi somehow. It was two of the best forwards in the world being on the same page, and that might not even have been the best part. As Seguin broke in on the right wing, he looked at Klingberg (streaking to the far post) just long enough to put that thought in Rinne's mind. Turning his face back to the net, Seguin gave away absolutely nothing in his posture that might have hinted at what he was going to do, and that left Rinne helpless. We all know Seguin has one of the best releases on his shot in the entire league; this was a perfect display of it. Rinne flinches, wrongly, when he sees the shot taken, and the five hole doesn't get remotely closed down. That's a goal-scorer's goal if I've ever seen one.
Defense is a five-man job, and the Preds seemed to be three players short of that for much of the night, especially in the first period. Yes, James Neal got a one-timer from down low that Niemi had to be sharp on late in the first, and a Jason Spezza whoopsie in front of his own net also required Niemi to make two fabulous saves on the doorstep. But Niemi has excelled at keeping the Stars in tight games, and his efforts were amply rewarded as the Stars finally opened things up after spotting Nashville one. It felt like the Stars' game to lose from early on, and they made sure that did not happen.
As Erin mentioned the other day, you can't really answer the Playoff Question until April. If you view the regular season as completely irrelevant to a team's win probability come game one of the quarterfinals, then you will only get so excited about things as they stand today. But this team is off to its best start ever--ever--and the start in question has almost become the second half of the season. The Stars' top two centers are the envy of their division and conference, and their team's point total is the envy of the entire league. They're thrilling to watch, and 28-8-3 means a lot more happy thrills than terrifying ones.
This is the best January 1st the Dallas Stars have ever experienced. Happy New Year indeed.