Dallas Stars December Outlook: Bright Christmas Could Drive Twinkling Stars Back Into Playoff Race
So far, the 2014-2015 season has not gone according to plan for the Dallas Stars. However, a favorable December slate could be the boost they need to push themselves back into playoff contention.
Twelve games. Starting tonight in Toronto, the Dallas Stars will play an even dozen games during the month of December. On the surface, it's a good stretch. Two games fewer than November, and only one team (the St. Louis Blues) that could realistically be considered a Stanley Cup contender. Even better, the Stars will not face a single back-to-back. There's a day off, minimum, between every game.
This is a stretch of games the Stars can use to put their season back together. It has to be. A sputtering November (5-8-1) has left our bold heroes on the Western Conference's bottom rung. Despite boasting the league's leading goal scorer, Big D trails Winnipeg by five points for the Conference's final playoff spot, or as the pessimist might point out, the Stars sit seven points ahead of Edmonton for dead last.
With so much on the line, it's worth taking a look down the schedule. Where will the points come from, which games are traps, and what on earth should we expect from the boys in Victory Green?
Toronto Maple Leafs (Away - Dec 2 and Home - Dec 23)
The Stars and Leafs bunch both of this season's meetings in the month of December. If we go by Toronto's well-publicized struggles, that's a good thing for Dallas. Too bad their troubles are a touch overblown. At 12-8-3, Toronto is the league average, and while you might think Dallas' offensive stars would shine brighter (97 points from their Top 5 scorers), the Leafs actually enjoy a more balanced attack (107 points from their top 5 scorers).
Detroit Red Wings (Away - Dec 4)
Next up are our old friends from Detroit. Since re-alignment, the Dallas Stars don't see quite as much of the Winged Wheel. As such, you'd forgive Stars fans for thinking age was finally catching up to the Wings. Nope. Detroit's point percentage (.688) is good for seventh in the entire league, and their goals per game (3.04) is a staggering fourth. Dallas, for the sake of comparison, ranks 23rd (.479) and 10th (2.88) respectively.
Montreal Canadiens (Home - Dec 6)
In Carey Price, Les Habs boast one of the league's premier netminders. Their ace stopper carries a .922 Sv % and 2.34 GAA into December. That's 2% and .7 goals better than Kari Lehtonen thus far this season. Thankfully, there are some warts. Most notably a 13.2% power play, which seems almost absurd when you consider P.K. Subban is on the squad. Coach Michel Therrien has also seen fit to give former Star Sergei Gonchar 19:07 a night in ice time. That's good news, right?
Winnipeg Jets (Home - Dec 9)
Finally, a pop-gun offense. The Jets have managed only 56 goals so far this season, well behind Dallas' 70. A 12.05% power play helps, as does the fact supposed stud (and occasional object of trade speculation) Evander Kane has only managed 4 goals so far this season. Circle this one on the calendar, folks. Winnipeg is a divisional foe, and one of the teams Dallas will need to jump to get back into the playoff race.
New Jersey Devils (Home - Dec 13)
The uncharacteristically porous Devils have made waves this season by starting goaltender Corey Schneider in 23 of their 28 total games. On the balance, Schneider has been up to the task (.915 Sv% / 2.59 GAA). If the team in front of him could score (58 GF) they might be better than 9-11-4. The Devils offense, if you can call it that, is paced by former Stars Jaromir Jagr (15 points) and hopefully former Star-killer Mike Cammalleri (14 points).
Vancouver Canucks (Away - Dec 17)
This is a weird one, isn't it? Vancouver was supposed to be a hot mess. Their new goaltender (Ryan Miller) was fresh from underwhelming in St. Louis, their heart-and-soul (Ryan Kesler) had demanded a trade, and both Henrik and Daniel Sedin were subject to injury and age speculation. Kesler did leave, but Miller has three shutouts, and both Sedins are over the 20 point mark. Elsewhere on the roster, Nick Bonino has been a pleasant surprise (19 points) while Radim Vrbata remains a criminally underrated offensive asset (10 goals). Did anybody expect the Canucks would be a top 10 team at this point?
Calgary Flames (Away - Dec 19)
The other big surprise this season. Calgary's 32 points put them ahead of both the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks. That's rarefied air for a squad expected to be among the league's worst for just a little while longer. Young forwards Sean Monahan (16 points) and John Gaudreau (13 assists) might be the next wave, but right now they're being complimented ably by fellow forward Jiri Hudler (11 goals). Defensively, they've received 46 points from a pair of blue-liners: T.J. Brodie (6 G / 15 A / 21 Pts) and top-scorer Mark Giordano (6 G / 19 A / 25 Pts).
Edmonton Oilers (Away - Dec 21)
Did you know the Oilers have actually given up fewer goals this season (82) than our beloved Stars (84)? Defensive generosity was expected to be an issue for Edmonton, but the real shock has been their offense. As of this writing, no Oilers have cracked double digit goals or 20 points. Improbably, this will be the weakest offense Dallas faces during the month of December. A weird bright spot might be Edmonton’s 15th-ranked penalty kill (80.5%), which is better than Dallas’ 78.6% marker.
St. Louis Blues (Away - Dec 27)
Where do I even start? The Blues currently lead arguably the toughest division in the NHL. Vladamir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Jori Lehtera have been so good they’ve been named (the "STL" line), and even a recent injury to sort-of-starter Brian Elliott (.931 Sv% / 1.82 GAA) just means more ice time for promising rookie Jake Allen (.918 Sv% / 2.16 GAA). The one blemish on their resume as potential champ might be a Stars-esque 79.17% penalty kill.
New York Rangers (Home - Dec 29)
Paced by a resurgent Rick Nash (16 G / 10 A / 26 Pts), last year’s runners up have struggled this season. The culprit, strangely enough, has been defense and goaltending. The typically all-world Henrik Lundqvist has just a .905 Sv% and 2.70 GAA in 19 games played. That’s sub-standard for anybody, let alone one of the league’s elite netminders. Before you get snarky, yes, those supposedly poor numbers are the same (.905 Sv %) and worse (3.03 GAA) than what Dallas has seen from Lehtonen.
Arizona Coyotes (Home - Dec 31)
Hopefully it won’t be true by the turn of the calendar, but the Arizona Coyotes are currently in a very similar position as our Dallas Stars. With 23 points, the ‘Yotes sit sixth in the Pacific Division. The desert dogs were expected to be much better this season behind stout goaltending, a pair of elite blueliners, and commitment to coach Dave Tippet’s system. Stop me if this sounds familiar, but their goaltending has struggled (Mike Smith: .894 Sv % / 3.19 GAA / 19 GP), their D has been uneven (Oliver Ekman-Larsson: 4 G / 7 A / 11 Pts), and a flashy off-season acquisition is faltering (Sam Gagner: 2 G / 7 A / 9 Pts).
Then comes the New Year, and hopefully with it, a brand new outlook on our favorite team. The thing to keep in mind is that the NHL has intentionally skewed towards parity and condensed standings. Division-heavy schedules and the introduction of the shootout mean points are available, ground can be made up. With this team, a streak of some kind is always around the corner. They just have to pick what kind of streak they want to go on.