The Dallas Stars picked up another two points last night in the desert by defeating the Phoenix Coyotes, and in doing so kept their hot start in tact as the team now comes home to Dallas for three straight at home. The early season Pacific division leaders are piecing things together and finding ways to win games. While the Stars did have their winning streak snapped Saturday, the effort in the loss was one of the team’s best this year and the Stars got right back to business last night. And the Stars return home brings them back to the AAC, where they are undefeated so far this season.
What is promising about the Stars start to the year is that they have stacked up points and wins while at times not playing excellent hockey, and against Western conference foes. Early on the team has relied heavily on Kari Lehtonen in the crease, and Kari has shown that he is capable of carrying this team. It has been obvious that the Stars have allowed a larger amount of shots and relied up Lehtonen a little too much, but the team is starting to turn it around a little. After being outshot in all of their first four games, they have responded by finally outshooting their opponents in three of the last five games and playing better defense all around. While it will be something to constantly monitor with this team, the defense is slowly coming along and when they are allowing shots a lot of them are coming from the outside parts of the defensive game.
Another reason for optimism right now is the state of the penalty kill. An area that has been of constant concern the last few seasons with this team has now become one of the team’s strengths. Glen Gulutzan has brought a system and a way to go about killing penalties that has immediately improved the team’s PK unit and is providing the Stars with something that can be a key part to a successful season. As Razor has pointed out on the broadcasts, a team can have a good powerplay and still miss the playoffs, but a team with a top ten PK is more likely to win close games and be a playoff team. A huge part of the PK unit of course has been Lehtonen, but the team is doing it as a whole. Stephane Robidas, Nicklas Grossman, Trevor Daley, and new addition Sheldon Souray (when he is not the one in the box) have done an excellent job and having someone like Vernon Fiddler who can take faceoffs and be a strong penalty killer has helped as well.
Looking forward, the Stars will need to continue to grow and learn as the season moves along to make this hot start turn into a great season. The powerplay unit is of course a concern moving forward, and will need to improve against tough opponents in the West. When a team makes mistakes or is willing to take penalties to slow your team down, you have to be able to make them pay and find offense when you have strong chances to create it. Souray’s heavy blast from the point can help, as we witnessed last night, and the Stars are still waiting a little for Michael Ryder to find a groove on the “top” unit with Morrow and Ribeiro. Part of the reason the powerplay and it finding a little bit more consistency could be a factor is obviously the possible lack of offense.
\While I am not mentioning the name of anyone that left and I do not believe him leaving means this team can not be offensive, the Stars had problems at times even with him here. The Stars are right now 20th in goals per game, with an average of only 2.2. While Lehtonen could be stepping up and showing he is a top-tier goalie, there will still be nights were the Stars will need more then two goals to win games. Even good goalies have off nights and there will be times when he needs a night off. The pieces are there for the Stars to at least have an average offense, but so far it has been hit or miss each night. The only consistent line most nights for the Stars has been the Jamie Benn – Loui Eriksson line with Steve Ott being the normal third member. The “second” line all have at least seven points in nine games and most nights have been the best line for the Stars. Now the focus needs to be in finding offense consistently from the “top line” of Morrow-Ribs-Ryder and some offense from the lower lines. The Stars will have to do it as a team and rely on offense from throughout the roster, but we all knew that coming into the season. They have defensemen in Souray, Daley, and ice-time leader Alex Goligoski that can move the puck and be a part of the offense in the attacking zone as well. So like I said, the pieces are there. The issue now is consistently creating offense from more then just one line half of the nights.
But taking all things into consideration, the Stars are off to an excellent start and come home with a 7-2 record that is impressive. Now they get another stab at the Kings on Thursday night before hosting a couple of intriguing teams in the Devils and the Avs. Taking another four out of six points here could have them rolling along into November with attention and publicity starting to pour in once they are the only local sports team playing every two or three nights. The beginning has been magnificent, now let’s see if they can keep it going at home and into the meat of the first half of the season over the next 4-8 weeks.