Challenging January Should Test Resurgent Stars

A bright December pushed the Dallas Stars back into the playoff conversation. The month of January will give the team ample opportunity to make a serious statement. Whether that statement is "too soon" or "look out" remains to be seen.

Six points. After all the mistakes, the bad goals, and general gnashing of teeth, the Stars find themselves three wins out of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. Furthermore, with a pair of games in hand, they could see that deficit drop to a single win. This is big news for a team that looked lost for most of the season’s first half.

December did not start well. Dallas dropped three of their first four (decisions against Toronto, Detroit and Winnipeg) by a combined score of 15-7. Coach Lindy Ruff’s calls for a System Reboot sounded bitter and misguided. Nothing worked. At least, until most everything worked. Dallas proceeded to win seven of their next eight. The Stars capped their month with three straight wins against a Stanley Cup contender (St. Louis), last year’s beaten finalist (New York), and an old Western Conference foe (Arizona).

So where do they go from here?

Six points is still a huge gap, and games-in-hand only matter if you win them. January presents a 13-game test of character. Those divisional games the Stars missed earlier are suddenly everywhere: Minnesota and Nashville once, Winnipeg and Chicago twice. As if that wasn’t enough, both games against the Blackhawks are the second in a back-to-back set.

We’re going to learn an awful lot about how far this team has come, and we’re going to learn as early as this weekend’s Wild/Blackhawks double-header. Another winning month probably puts the Stars inside the tournament. Too many losses could see them fall out of the chase entirely.

On the Schedule

Minnesota Wild (Home – January 3)

Dallas kicks off the month of January with their fourth game against the Minnesota Wild. To say the season series has not gone well, to-date, would be something of an understatement. The Wild have won all three games by a combined score of 11-6, with Dallas’ only bright spot an overtime loss on November 28th, but times, as they say, are a-changing.

Minnesota staggers into Dallas with a 3-4-3 record in their last 10 games. The fact they’ll play Toronto on Friday isn’t going to help. Ryan Suter is all-world, but still only has one goal thus far on the season. Zach Parise leads the offense with 29 points (14 G / 15 A) in 30 games.

The Wild are one point behind Dallas, with a game in hand. Welcome to the playoff sprint.

Chicago Blackhawks (Away – January 4 / Away – January 18)

The turd in Dallas’ January punchbowl. Dallas gets the red-hot Hawks not once, but twice to start the New Year. Both games will be in Chicago, where the Hawks are (12-4-1), and on the second night of a back-to-back, where the Stars are 0 for about their last million.

As a team, the Hawks have a website-must-be-broken +38 goal differential (one of the best measures of true team quality), and trail only Tampa Bay in goals scored (119 vs 127). They’re also a single point behind Anaheim for the overall NHL lead. Patrick Kane (41 points) and Jonathan Toews (32 points) are good at hockey, and front a versatile, talented forward group.

Dallas started the season with an outstanding, though ultimately losing, effort against these same Hawks. To replicate that success they’ll need depth, goaltending, and big performances by star players. Also, Antoine Roussel.

Columbus Blue Jackets (Home – January 6)

An Eastern Conference foe, the Blue Jackets dropped a 4-2 decision to Dallas way back in October. They also currently sit beneath the playoff beltline, nine points back from the New York Rangers (35 vs 44). They own a -21 goal differential and can only boast a pair of double-digit goalscorers (Nick Foligno has 17, Ryan Johansen has 10).

But remember, January sucks. The Blue Jackets are actually hotter than Dallas, at the moment. They’ve won two straight, and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. Sure, some of this comes against a questionable Metropolitan Division, but after facing Minnesota and Chicago in succession, this smells like a big time trap game.

Nashville Predators (Away – January 8)

Who would score? Was Pekka Rinne really healthy? Filip, really? Unfortunately for the rest of the Conference, the Predators have pretty much obliterated any reasonable expectations for their season. They are currently a single point behind the Blackhawks and riding a 7-2-1 streak. Old Stars Mike Ribiero (30 points) and James Neal (13 goals) are having tidy seasons, as is the man-mountain called Shea Weber.

The real story, however, is runaway Rookie of the Year Filip Forsberg (14 goals, 21 assists, +22). I have a buddy who loves the Washington Capitals, so I’ll go ahead and remind everybody the Preds flipped Martin Erat for Forsberg.

Colorado Avalanche (Away – January 10)

Last season, the Avalanche bucked all of their underlying numbers en route to a startling playoff berth. Oh the difference a year can make. This season, the regression monster has struck and #fancystatsed the Avs into the Western Conference’s basement.

Alex Tanguay leads the team in points (12 goals, 13 assists, 25 points) as well as number of "oh crap, he didn’t retire!?" comments. On any given night, the likes of Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog can cause problems offensively, but it’s seldom been enough to offset rocky team defense.

Ottawa Senators (Home – January 13 / Away – January 18)

Another twofor. A disappointing start cost coach Paul MacLean his job at the start of December. The Senators carry a 5-3-2 record into January and a 15-14-7 record overall. For a team that is aggressively meh, that’s about right.

Bobby "Sleepy" Ryan (10 goals, 25 points) and Erik Karlsson (25 points, -11) are as close to elite as this bunch gets, though Kyle Turris (24 points) seems to have found a comfortable home in Canada’s capitol. Craig Anderson (2.41 GAA / .927 Sv%) can be fantastic, but is prone to getting shelled behind a fairly accommodating defense.

Winnipeg Jets (Home – January 15 / Away – January 31)

The current eight seed squares off against our Stars twice during the month of January. In December, the Jets humiliated our Stars 5-2, so go ahead and throw that onto the motivational pile. These should be a pair of huge, quasi-playoff showdowns between two desperate Western Conference rivals.

Stopping the Jets will mean dealing effectively with a trio of forwards. Andrew Ladd (14 goals, 15 assists), Blake Wheeler (11 goals, 17 assists), and Bryan Little (14 goals, 13 assists) epitomize the Western Conference’s physical, offensive style. Ondrej Pavelec still won’t be mistaken for an elite stopper, but a 2.40 GAA / .911 Sv% split is perfectly acceptable, unless recent callup Michael Hutchinson (1.87 GAA / .937 Sv% in 15 games) earns a crucial start.

Recent results show a team not quite ready for primetime (5-3-2 in their last 10, 2 straight losses). The Jets are also a bit odd in that they’re better on the road (11-4-4) than at home (8-8-3).

Washington Capitals (Home – January 17)

Welcome home Matt Niskanen! The lively Caps started January with a Winter Classic victory over the Blackhawks. We all know about Alex Ovechkin (18 goals, 14 assists, +8), and most of us have heard of Nicklas Backstrom (12 goals, 26 assists, +4). However, John Carlson (4 goals, 23 assists, +13) is quietly in the middle of a standout season on the blueline.

The Caps are a good team in their own right (+12 goal differential), but this game will be made trickier by the fact it’s a day before the Chicago Blackhawks come to town. Will Dallas be able to handle breaking down Barry Trotz’s squad and still have enough left in the tank for a crucial divisional showdown, or could points slip?

Boston Bruins (Home – January 20)

You have to think Tyler Seguin has this one circled. This version of the Bruins find themselves currently outside of playoff contention (9th place) and in the midst of an uninspiring 4-3-3 run. A big part of their struggles can be chalked up to Zdeno Chara’s early season injury (19 games played), but he’s back in the lineup now.

Offensively, there’s a lot of balance. Sixth leading scorer Reilly Smith (9 goals, 11 assists) is just seven points behind team leader Carl Soderberg (8 goals, 19 assists). There is no elite line, but everybody can put the puck in the net, which makes Boston an interesting sort of dangerous.

Special teams could be critical, as Boston is a top 10 squad when it comes to total times shorthanded. At 78.6%, their penalty kill should struggle against the Dallas power play.

Montreal Canadiens (Away – January 27)

The current fourth seed out East, Les Habs are 7-3-0 in their last ten games. One of those losses was a 4-1 shellacking at the hands of our beloved Stars. At home (13-4-1), they’re going to want to get their duke back in a big way.

P.K. Subban leads a surprisingly troubled power play (14.7%), but the Canadiens also enjoy substantial offense from Max Pacioretty (14 goals, 14 assists), Alex Galchenyuk (10 goals, 15 assists), and Tomas Plekanec (10 goals, 13 assists). Due respect, though, the name to know is Carey Price (2.19 GAA / .928 Sv%). The gold medalist is as tough a matchup as they come.