The Dallas Stars are living the life so far in the fresh NHL season. Despite some bad performances, the team has rushed out to a 5-1 record and they have started to receive a little bit of recognition for it. But most of us have seen the glaring weaknesses in the Stars game so far this season and the Stars know things are not perfect as well. Now after winning another ugly game in Columbus on Tuesday, the team heads out west for the first time this season to pay a visit to three of their divisional rivals. And if the team continues to play like they have been for at least half of the seasons so far, this trip out west could be a rough one.
The Stars start off the three game swing out west tomorrow night against the hated Anaheim Ducks, then follow it up with a game against the L.A. Kings on Saturday and a stop to see the Coyotes in the desert on Tuesday. What is waiting out there for the Stars is the concerning part. While Dallas has leaned heavily on Kari Lehtonen in basically all of the five games he has started this season, the Stars will see a step up in competition past the Coyotes, Blue Jackets, and Blues they have seen lately. Anaheim and L.A. are both off to “good” starts as well to the season and both were picked before the season by most to make the playoffs and finish far better then the Stars. This is not to say that the Stars can not beat them or that the Stars shouldn’t be able to, but that these are the games where we can finally start to find out how this team will respond.
Night in and night out relying on Lehtonen to steal games or hold a lead against a heavy barrage all third period is not something the Stars can plan to continue doing. While Anaheim has had early issues with scoring (just 2 goals a game early), they have been strong defensively and the Stars know first hand that players like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, and Bobby Ryan will not stay silent for very long. Letting the Ducks take 35-40 shots at Lehtonen tomorrow night will not work out in their favor. Then the next night the Stars face on of the most offensively talented rosters in the Western Conference, even with Drew Doughty out. The Kings can throw three lines strong at you and the Stars already have had issues with them the last couple of years, and they only added Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. They have been picked by many to finally break out this season, and a team like the Stars are really just in their way.
The Stars will need to continue their strong penalty killing into this weekend and try to stay out of the box. The Stars seem to average about six penalties a night, and loading up these talented powerplay units is a recipe for disaster. While the kill has been strong, the powerplay needs to get better immediately. Both of these teams are averaging giving up below two goals a game, meaning that when you get prime chances like a powerplay that you need to bury them to have a chance. A top ten PK unit can keep you in games, but a bottom ten PP can leave you falling short regularly. Another thing the Stars have to do is find more production from the “top-line” of Brenden Morrow-Mike Ribeiro-Michael Ryder. Right now the top line obviously feels like the Eriksson-Benn line most nights, and until the two games the top trio had really been the Stars third best line. Hopefully netting a couple of recent powerplay goals and seeing some pucks go in the net will help, and the gears will start turning. The chemistry has been there in short glimpses, they look like they should work on paper, and it feels promising. But for the Stars to compete against these tougher Western teams, they will need that group to step their play up.
These will definitely be a pair of games to tune into, even if they will require a little bit of late night viewing. After the home-and-home with Chicago to start the season, the level of teams the Stars have played has been less then threatening. Now Dallas will play two straight nights against teams that most would say are more talented then them and two teams that the Stars will have to fight with if they want to be fighting for a playoff spot come March. It may be early in the year but it is time to find out what this pony is worth, and if it can fix its bad habits to win big.