When the Dallas Stars landed in Winnipeg for their meeting with the Central Division-leading Jets on Monday, March 25 at Bell MTS Place, much was on the line for the Stars. The team had just wrapped up their poorest home stretch of the season by going 1-3-1, which included a loss to divisional rival Colorado. The standings were also tightening around them, with the Avalanche just a point behind the Stars for the first Wild Card, and the hard-charging Minnesota Wild and Arizona Coyotes just two points back of the cut line. Not to mention that it is currently in late March, a time of the season that has taken a new meaning to Stars fans who suffered through the end of March 2018.
So the stage was set for a Dallas team that was preaching all the right things as they ventured to Canada for a four-game road trip. Preaching is one thing, playing the game is quite another.
Play they did, and the win that eluded them in Dallas came to them in Winnipeg in dominating fashion. The Stars defeated the Jets 5-2, and in the same vein they exorcised demons that have haunted this franchise since 2016, while setting the stage for the rest of this season-defining road trip. The team also followed up their win against the Jets with a huge win 2-1 win against the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night.
Much has been written about the Stars and their road woes since the 2016 season, and rightfully so considering the organization can largely attribute their playoff hiatus to their road game. In fact, heading into Christmas 2018, the Stars held a 6-11-2 road record, continuing a trend in which the Stars had won only 34 games and collected 80 points on the road in the past three and a half years combined. When compared with their home record in the same time period, the Stars had won 58 games and collected 126 points.
That is striking and a real reason to think that something was not clicking for the Stars away from the American Airlines Center.
However, it appears the Stars have done something to exercise these demons and have really turned the corner with their play away from the AAC since Christmas. As was mentioned above, the 6-11-2 record on the road started their season on the road, but since that mark on December 22, the Stars have gone an impressive 12-6-2. Within this new road record for the Stars are wins in tough buildings like Nashville (twice), Minnesota, Winnipeg, Calgary, Chicago, and St. Louis. Consistent wins in tough buildings don’t just happen, they are earned and earned from playing well within the culture of the team and within the team’s structure.
The Stars’ structure and culture bodes well for them as they go into this last stretch of games against good and desperate teams. The Stars are built off of goaltending and defense, and both of those elements travel well for them. Not to say that the offense doesn’t travel as well, but we all know what stirs the drink for this team by now. The key to the road is to ride out the waves in the hockey game, and goaltending and defense makes riding out the waves possible.
Goaltending can have a settling influence when it’s on. Stopping the play, killing momentum with a big save, and making sure that the game is never really out of hand are crucial. Defending sets in as a default for the Stars, which makes sense considering the roster is built from a defensive base. The Stars seem comfortable defending, they know their in-zone assignments, they are not running around, and it allows them to counterattack. This type of game suits them and is a reason why this current roster is becoming a pretty dangerous road team. They have the goaltending to almost always stay in the game and they are a counterpunch team, which vibes with the flow of a road game on most nights.
Through these elements the Stars have finally risen to a 18-17-3 record on the road, and above the .500 mark, which is something Dallas hasn’t seen in years. Given the Stars’ recent home woes, the road game has really been the saving grace for the 2018-19 season. A fact that would be unfathomable in November or early December, and honestly where this team differs from the past editions.
However, the fact still remains that the Stars are in midst of a tight race for the playoffs and there is still work to be done via the road. The Stars have taken care of the first-place Winnipeg Jets on Monday and the top-seeded Calgary Flames at the tough Saddledome on Wednesday evening. That’s a pair of wins that are monumental for a Stars team that has built a culture on the road and is looking to put some distance between themselves and the competition in the playoff race. The Stars have the elements to finish the job on the second half of the trip against the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. Unlike past Stars teams, this roster seems to have the right culture to finally deliver.