Dallas Stars: November Outlook

A strong October has the Stars soaring. A good November could see them start to put some distance between their Central Division rivals. Will the Stars stay consistent, was October a mirage, can they handle a seemingly-innocent showdown against the Wings?

Did you know the top five teams in the Western Conference all hail from the Central Division? That's insane. It's also an interesting bit of perspective. Yes, the Stars have 18 points, and sure, those 18 points are better than all but the near-perfect Montreal Canadiens. They're also just six points north of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in 8th place. A.K.A not safe, not by a long shot.

While October was undeniably excellent, November sets up perfectly for the Stars to make a major run. Nine of thirteen games are against Eastern Conference opponents, and predominantly struggling ones, at that. There might be one nasty four-game road trip to start with, but the Stars also get a pair of three-game stints in the American Airlines Center. In years past, a pair of back-to-backs might be problematic, but this is the Kari Lehtonen/Antti Niemi era. The Stars goaltending was literally built for such moments.

A good Stars team takes care of business against Toronto, Carolina, and Buffalo. A contending team sends messages against Winnipeg and Minnesota. Here's how the schedule breaks down, dream away.

Toronto Maple Leafs (Nov 2 & Nov 10)

The Stars open their month with as close to a gimme as is provided by the modern, cap-driven NHL. Pick a statistic, and the Leafs are terrible. Regulation wins? One, last in the league. Goals for? 20, behind only Anaheim. Goals against per game? 3.30, ahead of only the Blue Jackets and Flames. Their special teams are particularly horrible, with a gruesome 20%/74% PP/SH split. Yes, the Leafs brought in marquee coach Mike Babcock over the summer, but they also jettisoned the dramatically under-appreciated Phil Kessel.

About the only cause for optimism I can find is the fact that their Nov, 2 tilt is the first night of a back-to-back. With the Bruins looming on the 3rd, there's a chance the Stars could take this match-up lightly and get punished. More likely these two match-ups present an opportunity for the Stars' depth players to shine, and for the team in-general to bank valuable points.

Boston Bruins (Nov 3)

Things get tricky for the Stars after Toronto. The 6-3-0-1 Bruins (13 points) are currently 6th in the Eastern Conference, and ended October on a four-game winning streak. In their conference, only the Montreal Canadiens (45) can top the Bs tally of 39 goals. David Krejci is a big part of Boston's offense. Seemingly-recovered from an injury riddled 2014, Krejci (15 points) is currently leads the non-Stars portion of the league in scoring, and there's no better power play than the Bruins (35.3%). Throw in the typically superfluous Tukka Rask and this screams "trap game," doesn't it?

Only maybe not. Beneath their six wins, the Bruins are actually a remarkably hospitable team. After the season's first month they're 1-3-1 at home, and are 26th in the league in goals-against per game (3.10). Goaltending has, so far been a problem. Despite his reputation, Rask's first seven games have produced a .889 SV%/3.29 GAA split, albeit with a shutout. That's not good, and you have to think it will lead to the Bruins aiming for a grind-it-out kind of result against a (they hope) tired Stars offense.

Carolina Hurricanes (Nov 6)

The parade of already also-rans continues two nights later against the Carolina Hurricanes. While the Stars have been spoiling fans with the league's first (Jamie Benn) and second (tyler Seguin) leading scorers, the Canes have been punishing theirs. Not that Justin Faulk is a bad player, but he's a defenseman with seven points. That's a big reason Carolina is averaging 2.09 goals per game (26th) and striking on only 9.8% of their power plays. Once upon a time Eric Staal would have been counted on to boost his team's scoring, but with just three goals those days seem like a distant memory. Jeff Skinner, similarly, seems more like the player that scored 31 points in 2014 than the 33 goal-54 point threat from 2013.

Which is a shame, because defensively, the Hurricanes haven't been terrible between the pipes. Much-maligned Cam Ward isn't setting the world on fire, but a .912 SV%/2.25 GAA is not a problem. Really, that's more or less what the Stars are getting each night.

Detroit Red Wings (Nov 8)

The .500 (at October's end) Detroit Red Wings are a familiar foe in an unfamiliar place. They're 5-5-1, 2-3-0 at home and 3-2-1 on the road. The Wings have scored 28 times and been scored on 30 times. Their goaltending has been good: Peter Mrazek is 3-3 with a .921 SV% and 2.67 GAA with co-starter Jimmy Howard is 2-2-0-1 with a .928 SV%/2.21 GAA split of his own, but the offense hasn't quite kept the pace. Despite Henrik Zetterberg's 14-point throwback, the Wings score a paltry 2.55 goals per game.

Overconfidence could be an issue. The Stars face the Red Wings in the middle of a stretch against relatively poor Eastern Conference teams. A slip against Toronto, a blip in Carolina, and suddenly this is a worrisome matchup. It could also be a stat-padder, but given Dallas' history that feels like the least likely outcome.

Winnipeg Jets (Nov 12)

Under different circumstances (read: the Stars not winning), the hockey universe might be paying more attention to the Jets. At 7-3-1 the Jets have 15 points, just three back from the conference-leading Stars. They have a top five offense (35 goals-for T-3rd), a top fifteen defense (2.55 goals-against per game), and the second-best goal differential (plus-7) in the conference. Under any circumstances that's a tough match-up, but there's also some history here.

Last season, the Stars managed only a single victory in four attempts against the Jets. It was part of a season-long Central Division slump that conspired to keep the Stars out of the post-season. That's going to need to change this year. This will be the second game of a three-game homestand, so travel fatigue shouldn't be in play as an excuse. This is exactly the sort of game contending teams circle on their calendars.

Minnesota Wild (Nov 14 & Nov 28)

Another Central Division foe kicks off a November home-and-home two days after Winnipeg leaves town. Last season's version of the Wild stunned the hockey world with a Devan Dubnyk-inspired run to the playoffs. Minnesota went on to ink the previously-inconsistent goaltender to a six year extension during the offseason. For their money, they've received nine games of .898 SV%/2.59 GAA play. Bad, huh? Thing is the Wild have won seven of those starts, including a shutout. Overall, Minnesota is a part of the five team jumble atop the Western Conference.

So they're not terrible. They may be pretty good. It helps that Minnesota is currently a top ten offense (3.18 goals per game). They also allow the sixth-fewest shots against on a per-game basis in the entire league (27.4). A middling road team, the Wild might not present a huge issue on the 14th, but on the 28th the Stars will have to overcome both Minnesota's perfect 5-0 home record and their own weary legs (the Stars play Vancouver the night before).

Buffalo Sabres (Nov 17 & Nov 21)

Jack Eichel, everybody! Really, what else is there to talk about? Only dumpster-fire seasons in Anaheim, Toronto, and Columbus are keeping the Sabres from propping up the league so far this year. Defensively, the Sabres a mess. They allow more than three goals per game (3.09 to be exact) and nearly 30 shots against (26.9). Those totals might be survivable with elite goaltending, but Robin Lehner is hurt. That leaves Chad Johnson (.881 SV%/3.16 GAA), and he has so far been far from enough. The offense isn't great either. Ryan O'Reilly poses a threat (4 G-9 A-13 Pts), but no other member of the Sabres has reached double digits in points.

Even the schedule lines up well. The Stars will get two full days off prior to traveling to Buffalo for their first game, and then get the Sabres at home during a relatively non-taxing Thursday-Saturday-Tuesday stretch. The Stars should be focused and ready to take the full four points.

Washington Capitals (Nov 19)

In-between showdowns with Buffalo, the Stars will visit Alex Ovechkin and company. The game should be explosive. Washington has picked up points in 80% of their games (8-2-0), is scoring 3.40 goals per game, and generating nearly 30 shots on goal each night (29.6). At the other end the Caps' penalty kill is a staggering 87.9%, and while we were all sleeping, Braden Holtby turned into legit business between the pipes (.924 SV%/1.90 GAA).

So far this season the Stars have peppered the likes of Anders Nilsson, how are they going to do against the league's upper echelon? Furthermore, how will they cope with one of two teams (Montreal is the other) that can better their plus-10 goal differential (Washington is plus-11)? Beyond Holtby, two other names stick out. Alex Ovechkin (5 G-7 A-12 Pts) is obvious, but there's also Evgeny Kuznetzov (5 G-8 A-13 Pts) to worry about. This should be a good one.

Ottawa Senators (Nov 24)

One team features an absurdly talented Swedish defenseman, the other is the Dallas Stars. The Ottawa Senators suffered through an uneven October (5-4-2) that has left them on the edge of the Eastern Conference's playoff hunt (ninth, 12 Pts). The goals have been there (33 total, ighth in the league), driven by a collection of names with varying Q-Scores. Mark Stone (13 pts) and Kyle Turris (12 pts) lead the way, but Erik Karlsson (11 pts), Bobby Ryan (9 pts), Mika Zibanejad (8 pts) and Mike Hoffman (8 pts) are chipping in as secondary sources of offense.

The Stars face the Senators in the middle of a three game homestand, after two full days off. They also get two full days after Ottawa. That sort of rest is critical as the game totals begin to mount. It can also, at times, produce rust. The version of this year's team that surrendered three goals against Anaheim could find itself in an insurmountable hole against a team like the Senators. That's something to watch.

Vancouver Canucks (Nov 27)

A perfect 3-0 last season, already 1-0 this season, Dallas has to like seeing the Canucks come up on the calendar. Vancouver is probably a bit better off at month's end than most expected. Five wins and 14 points is good for seventh in the conference. As an added bonus, so far none of the roster's aging centerpieces has succumbed to injury.

Things could look a lot different by the end of the month. Different could be better (Daniel Sedin is shooting 7.3%) or it could be worse (Ryan Miller might be due to regress from his .923 SV%/2.16 GAA start). At any rate it seems worth remembering the Stars' first victory was of the overtime variety, after they fell behind 3-1.