Past editions of the Dallas Stars have developed a reputation, earned or not, of playing down to the competition. Playing a Jack Eichel-less Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night certainly presented such an opportunity.
Instead, Ben Bishop built a wall, the pipes held firm, and Roope Hintz finished a few chances in what was ultimately a pretty nonchalant taming of a Buffalo team that seems to be playing out the string.
Of course, if Bishop is going to keep posting goose eggs, there isn’t much to worry about. This being hockey, that isn’t going to happen. A minute hole will be exploited, a tip from the high slot will find a corner, or a defender’s skate will find a way to ruin the extended blank sheet.
Over their last 10 games, the Stars are 7-3-0, and during that time, they have been the first to score in seven games. During the prior 10 games, however, Dallas scored first in only three of the contests. Solid goaltending helped them to a 5-5-0 record during that span, with the exception of a comeback against the Los Angeles Kings, the worst team in the Western Conference. When the Stars get down, they have a tough time working their way back into a game.
The Chicago Blackhawks game on Saturday was a perfect example. After a solid first period, the Stars found themselves down 2-1, and even with general score effects, they had trouble clearing their zone and found it difficult to generate any sustained pressure in the offensive end.
Zone exits while trailing are a concern, and based on tracking data compiled by Corey Sznajder, John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen are the only Stars regulars who can get the puck out of the defensive zone with possession at a decent rate. Taylor Fedun is adequate, but the rest of the defense is statistically near the bottom of the league.
The bottom line is, goaltending has been spectacular, but the Stars defensive identity as configured is a thin white line. If offense is supposed to come from defense, that means that Klingberg and Heiskanen need to log heavy minutes when the Stars fall behind.
If they get split up, the pair is mediocre at clearing the zone. If they are paired together, it leaves Lindell and Polak together, which means that icing may be the best possible outcome.
Tonight’s game against the Minnesota Wild presents the Stars with a major opportunity. A regulation win puts them five points above their Wild Card competition with a game in hand, plus a regulation/overtime win tie-breaker advantage and a game in hand. It also, potentially, moves them into a tie with the St. Louis Blues, although that would take a Thursday regulation loss by the Blues at the Ottawa Senators.
Stranger things have happened.
The Wild are 7-7-5 since they lost to Dallas on February 1, and that stretch includes a five-game winning streak in late February. Nineteen points in 19 games doesn’t move a team up in the standings, but lest you count them out, the most recent of Minnesota’s wins was a 3-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
There isn’t a way to overemphasize the importance of this game to the Wild. This is the second of a five-game home stand. A loss to the Stars gives them an 0-2-0 start to this vital stretch, and nothing will get easier. Eleven of Minnesota’s final 12 games are against teams currently with a playoff spot in hand.
The Wild last played on Monday night, so expect a well-rested rival that knows that their season is on the line.
Minnesota’s lineup is pretty settled at this point in the stretch. Matt Dumba is skating, but there is no thought that he will be back this season. Likewise, Mikko Koivu has a torn ACL and is out for the year.
Devan Dubnyk has taken the majority of starts in net. Dubnyk has been solid, but not spectacular this year. However, the Wild defense can shut teams down and against a Stars team that struggles to score that combination could be formidable.
Dallas Stars Lineup
Roope Hintz - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov
Jamie Benn - Jason Dickinson- Joel L’Esperance
Mattias Janmark - Radek Faksa - Blake Comeau
Andrew Cogliano - Jason Spezza - Brett Ritchie
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen - Roman Polak
Taylor Fedun - Ben Lovejoy
Minnesota Wild Lineup
Jordan Greenway - Eric Staal - Jason Zucker
Zach Parise - Victor Rask - Kevin Fiala
Ryan Donato - Luke Kunin - Pontus Aberg
Marcus Foligno - Eric Fehr - J.T. Brown
Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin - Greg Pateryn
Anthony Bitetto - Brad Hunt
Keys to the Game
- Everything about this game says playoffs. The Wild are rested and should be in desperation mode. Expect a physical game with tight checking, with the advantage to the team that gets on the scoreboard first.
- Ben Bishop has been on an historic roll. At some point, he’ll give up a goal. Streaks build up, and when a streak ends, it’s easy to have a letdown. Don’t let a single goal steamroll the team commitment to defensive structure.
- Goals have been coming in bunches, but all from play on the top six. The Wild have last change and have the defensive personnel and posture to potentially nullify the top lines. It hasn’t been dependable most of the year, but this is a game where the score sheet needs to show some secondary scoring.
Did you know?
The Wild are 10-14-3 (3-5-2 at home) when tied after the first period.