Expectation and excitement swirled around the Dallas Stars before the first puck drop of the 2017-18 season. Who could blame the fans and even the organization as a whole for being hopeful about a possible return to the top of the Central Division? By the beginning of October, the club had brought in a proven coach (Ken Hitchcock), significant player additions (Alexander Radulov, Ben Bishop, Martin Hanzal, Marc Methot, Tyler Pitlick), and seemed to grasp the problems that plagued them only months before, and had committed themselves to moving in a different direction. However, when the season began and the Stars sat dead last in the Central and 12th (out of 15) after the first 20 games in the Western Conference, it is natural that Stars fans everywhere might have thought that these were the same old Stars.
It’s hard to fault folks for taking that line of thought when the Stars sported a record of 10-9-1, and an 0-6 record against playoff teams in that span. In fact, the Stars were categorically not great in every area of their game over those first 20 games. The stats read eerily similar to the lost season of 2016-2017. The Stars sported 58 goals-for and 67 goals-against, with their goal differential sitting at -9. These numbers are good for a 2.90 GPG% and 3.05GA%. Nobody needs advanced statistics to tell you that numbers like those are not sustainable though and do not lend to consistent, winning hockey in the NHL.
This came to a head after the Stars not-so-easily blew out the Edmonton Oilers 6-3 on November 18 to crawl over .500 at exactly the 20 game mark. There were glimpses of what the team could be when they played to their new Hitchcock-style system, and in wins, the team looked good for the most part. Remember, the Stars were sporting a top-five power play and penalty kill for much of this span. The problems truly appeared though when they were losing, and not only losing, but losing to good teams in the Central Division. A call to action was proclaimed by GM Jim Nill when he spoke to Dallas Stars Senior Digital Correspondent Scott Burnside and said, “Once you hit that 20 game mark, it’s time to get it rolling.”
Message received loud and clear.
The Stars since November 18 appear to have found their identity and, as a result, have found themselves back at the table in the NHL playoff discussion. The question can now be asked: How did they do this? How did the Stars avoid a repeat performance of last season? Taking a look at the numbers from the past three months reveals the answer.
The Stars over their past 37 games have an impressive mark of 23-11-3 and have earned 49 points over this span. Sprinkled in this sample size are two streaks of winning five game and an overall road record that currently has the Stars positioned at two games over .500 for a total of 13-11-3. This resurgence in the most important stat in sports (wins and losses) and is even more impressive when we stack the Stars up against the rest of the Central Division.
If the first 20 games of the season were thrown out, the Stars would find themselves in a first place tie at the top of the division with the Nashville Predators. In the terms of wins, the Stars would rank first in the Central Division with their 23 victories. To go one step further, if the overtime loss points were taken away across the division, the Stars would still sit in first place with 46 “pure” points, and Nashville would trail behind them with 42 points.
While looking at the Stars’ record in the Central Division, they have also gone 8-5 in the division since November 18 - a record which is incredibly crucial for this team as they push for the playoffs. In short, the Stars have started to win hockey games on a consistent basis. This is something that the team could not say before November 18 of this season or even a year ago.
At the beginning of the season there was a strong fear among Stars fans that the offensive game would suffer, but on the flip side that the defense would improve. However, as mentioned earlier, the goals-for percentage sat at 2.90%, while the goals against-percentage sat at 3.05%. The good news is that as the Stars have made this improvement to their record and in the standings, the Hitchcock system they employ each night out is beginning to show positive results. The club in this span of 37 games is now responsible for 117 goals scored, 84 goals against, and a +33 goal differential.
Overall, the averages work out to a percentage of 3.16% in goals per game and a goals-against percentage of 2.47% - impressive. Did I mention that the Stars are defending at a top-five clip with essentially the same roster from a year ago on defense? I didn’t? Okay, in that case, the Stars are a top-five defensive club with the same players on defense from a year ago.
The Stars have pulled these areas of their performance together for a rank of 11th in goals-for and fifth in goals-against over the entirety of the 2017-2018 campaign. These numbers show a large improvement in what are the two most telling statistics after win-loss totals in hockey. The statistics also refute the notion that Ken Hitchcock’s defensive systems have stifled the offense of the team. The Stars have averaged over three goals a game, which has usually led to the win and two points at the end of the night.
At the end of the day, the main component in this turnaround has been the play of the team’s top players. It is easy to chalk up the hardships of the first two months of the season as an adjustment period. This theory could have some validity to it, but in the NHL, points are at a premium from the beginning, and the Stars did not do themselves any favors before November 18. The silver lining is, once the Stars did adjust to the changes made to the club, the team has taken off and the charge is being led by their best players.
Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, and John Klingberg have taken the roster in the right direction over this span of play. Each has had a hand in pulling the team to victories over difficult opponents on multiple occasions. Seguin has posted a stat line of 21-12-33 over the past 37 games, and has shined as a true first line center (such as his OT goal against Boston). Benn has led by example as he put up a line of 10-21-31. There truly isn’t enough time to highlight all he’s done for the team each night. Radulov has been the spark plug for the team, as he’s provided 14 goals and 20 assists for 34 points.
In total, these three players have a combined stat line of 45-53-98. Klingberg has also had a standout season, with 52 points to pace all defensemen in the league. Pairing the Radulov-Seguin-Benn line with Klingberg’s offensive defense, the Stars are more than getting their money’s worth from their top players.
Even with the contributions from the usual suspects in the Stars lineup, the real focus was going to be the goaltending in 2017-2018. The Stars’ two goaltenders did not display a great track record to start the season. Through 19 games started, Ben Bishop allowed 52 goals, posted a 2.62 goals-against average, and a .911 save percentage. Bishop also recorded a 12-7 win/loss record. Not exactly the results hoped for when he was signed from Tampa. Kari Lehtonen wasn’t much better with 15 goals allowed through six games, a 2.89 goals-against average, and .897 save percentage. His record was 2-3-1 - not ideal for a backup goaltender. In essence, the Stars witnessed no real improvement in net statistically through the first two months of the season. However, this would also change for the better.
After the tough start to the season, the goaltenders started an upward trend in a big way for the team. In the same amount of games for Bishop, he allowed only 50 goals, a 2.50 goals-against average, and .924 save percentage. His overall record shifted to 11-8-0. Lehtonen has seen a real improvement to his game as well. In 10 games played, he has allowed only 23 goals, recorded a 1.90 goals-against average, and a .933 save percentage for a record of 10-5-1. These stats show a real improvement in the crease for the Stars, something that the team desperately needed to be successful this season and in the race for the playoffs.
So where do the Stars go from here?
With 24 games left in this season, the Stars find themselves two points behind the St.Louis Blues for third in the Central Division. They have also been the top wild card seed for a some time now. If this 37-game run is any indication, the Dallas Stars are learning what it takes to win hockey games the right way in the NHL. The right way being playing responsibly in your own zone, timely goaltending, capitalizing on scoring opportunities, and owning the details of a hockey game. The culture instilled in the Dallas Stars this season by Hitchcock has allowed the team to make themselves a competitive force each game. This has also kept opponents on their toes with the knowledge that the Stars have become a formidable and dangerous lineup.
The trick is, with every team in playoff positions, to keep this upward trend in motion for the remainder of the season. The Dallas Stars have 24 games remaining on the schedule, including a long road trip on the west coast next week. In my opinion, 100 points should land the Stars safely into a playoff spot come April, but they must do what is expected. Sitting at 70 points, the Stars theoretically need to put together 30 points, which means the Stars would need to win 13 to 15 of their remaining games, or get to overtime to make up points. It’s not an easy task, but completely possible. Truth be told, the NHL waits for no one, and if the Stars want to make the claim that they have arrived this season, they must show it down the stretch.
This season did not start as expected. The alarm bells very well could have sounded if the Stars had lost that game against Edmonton on November 18. However, the Stars won that night and have won 23 games since then. Over this span, the team has had two five-game streaks, a crucial 3-0-1 Eastern Conference road trip in January, and a tangible belief that their players and system give them the opportunity to win each night. The Stars have done what top contenders do up to this point in the year - give themselves a chance to play into late April. However, there is much more work to do, and hopefully at the end of 82 games, Stars fans will be looking on the last 24 contests to examine what the Stars did to propel themselves into the Stanley Cup playoffs.