And so it starts.
Learning a new system, dealing with a decimated defensive group, and trying to find a team identity. All things that have happened over the first half of the season. And here, for once, the NHL schedulers helped out the Dallas Stars. Of the first 42 games, only eight have been against Central Division rivals.
For the rest of the season, that means that more than four out of every 10 games will be potential four-point swings. Since realignment, Dallas has made the playoffs twice. Both times in the years when they have had a winning record within the Central.
The gauntlet starts this evening in Winnipeg against the Jets, the team not only at the top of the division standings, but also the team that has beaten the Stars with the most consistency over the last few years.
Not that it’s all bad news. The second game of the season brought on a 5-1 home win. The three stars on the top line all scored, and Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin twice. With that type of output, secondary scoring was a secondary issue. The possession game looked strong and Ben Bishop looked solid in net.
It certainly hasn’t been a straight line from that game on October 6 to the game tonight, but the Stars find themselves entering this crucial part of the season sitting in a playoff spot, having picked up points in seven of their last nine.
Forty-two games should be enough time for a team to understand what they need to do to be successful. If they have, divisional games present an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and Colorado and Minnesota. If not, they are going to find themselves in a divisional fight that historically has not gone their way.
Winnipeg enters the game tonight having lost three of the last four. Putting the puck in the net has been the biggest problem, as they have only scored one goal or less in four of the last five.
Friday night in Pittsburgh, the Jets not only got shutout, but early in the game, they also lost first line left wing Nikolaj Ehlers to an upper body injury. With Ehlers out, the Jets went physical, but had trouble generating quality chances.
Winnipeg also finds themselves without Dustin Byfuglien, who went on injured reserve with an ankle injury on December 30. He is expected to be out at least through the All Star break.
Unexpectedly, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor saw their December possession and scoring numbers plummet. Expect head coach Paul Maurice to mix his lineup a bit to try to extract a bit more offense. With Ehlers out, Connor saw the bulk of time as first line left wing, and if that continues, it will shake up the rest of the lines as well.
Winnipeg Jets Lineup
Kyle Connor - Mark Scheifele - Blake Wheeler
Mathieu Perreault - Bryan Little - Patrik Laine
Andrew Copp - Adam Lowry - Brandon Tanev
Brendan Lemieux - Jack Roslovic - Mason Appleton
Josh Morrissey - Jacob Trouba
Ben Chiarot - Tyler Myers
Dmitry Kulikov - Joe Morrow
Dallas Stars Lineup
(updated with confirmed lineup) - Nichushkin out, Ritchie in
Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov
Blake Comeau - Radek Faksa - Tyler Pitlick
Devin Shore - Jason Spezza - Erik Condra
Mattias Janmark - Roope Hintz - Brett Ritchie
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen - Roman Polak
Julius Honka - Taylor Fedun
Keys to the Game
- The Stars had their “off game” during the last 40 minutes against Washington. Until that point, their shooting numbers were well above the season average during the homestand. Dallas can not regress and expect to keep banking points while on the road.
- The captain is back in the lineup. Winnipeg always plays a physical game, and any lingering effects from last week’s hit on Jamie Benn will be evident early.
- Anton Khudobin stole a win against Washington. In the third period against New Jersey, Ben Bishop put up a wall after giving up four in the first two periods. Solid netminding could frustrate a Winnipeg team that has been struggling offensively and is missing some weapons.
Did you know? Patrik Laine had the league’s worst relative Corsi for the month of December.