Two more stops separate the Dallas Stars from the end of a tough four-game road trip. And while the Stars will try and salvage points out of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia after starting the swing 0-2-0, each stop presents its own set of specific challenges.
There is plenty that can be said about the Dallas Stars as they stare down an unexpected 1-6-1 start to their 2019-20 regular season. But while a lot can be said, not much of it is positive.
It’s the third-worst start to a season in Stars franchise history and their worst mark through eight games since moving to Dallas in 1993. Their offense sits last in the NHL in scoring with an average of 1.88 goals per game. The Dallas defense is averaging over 3 goals per game (3.13) for the first time in what seems like forever. The Stars’ power play is producing at an atrociously low clip, sitting at 1-for-24 (4.2 percent) through eight games. They are starting games slow and have yet to build a consistent and winning formula.
To top it all off, their star players aren’t contributing at the expected level, they have yet to win a game on home ice or in regulation, and injuries have turned the lineup into a revolving door of prospects and players trying to earn full-time spots.
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If there has been a bright spot to the first 15 days of the season, though, it’s been the strong starts of Roope Hintz and Miro Heiskanen. Both are looking sharp in the early part of their sophomore seasons and should play an impactful role with the Stars moving forward.
Other than that, it’s been night after night and game after game filled with frustration, uncertainty, and panic (primarily within the wide world of Twitter).
On paper, this Dallas Stars team is one of the best in the NHL. It showed as the team advanced to Game 7 of the second round in the 2019 playoffs. It showed in another aggressive offseason centered around adding talent to the lineup. It showed in the preseason Stanley Cup odds.
This Stars team is supposed to be good and very much still has the ability to be good. But after gaining three of a possible 16 points to begin the year, it’s clear that there is plenty that needs fixing before they can be good.
That’s become remarkably prevalent over the past eight days. Since Oct. 10, the Stars are 0-3-1. They watched a 2-0 lead against the Calgary Flames evaporate and turn into a 3-2 shootout loss last Thursday. Two nights later, they put their sloppiest and weakest effort of the year in a 4-1 trouncing at the hands of the Washington Capitals.
And then came the current road trip. Dallas opened the four-game swing on Monday against a young and talented Buffalo Sabres team that was riding a five-game point streak (4-0-1) to start the year. Things didn’t look much better in the Stars’ end, and it resulted in a 4-0 loss.
Wednesday night showed the best version of the Dallas Stars in the past week as they battled it out with the Columbus Blue Jackets and looked like a much better team. It still wasn’t enough, though, as they fell 3-2 in Ohio and added another notch to the losing skid.
And so, here the Dallas Stars sit. They are 1-6-1, which is good enough for second-to-last in the NHL standings (ahead of only the Minnesota Wild, who are one point behind with one game in hand). The hopes and dreams of winning a Stanley Cup seem to have quickly transformed into a hope of finding their way into the playoffs.
They have dealt with a grueling schedule that includes 10 games in the first 17 days (including seven of them coming away from home). New players are still trying to gel and get comfortable with the Dallas system. The lineup is being shuffled on a regular basis in hopes of finding some chemistry. There are a lot of moving parts that are helping apply pressure.
But in the Dallas locker room, there is still a sense of hope and resilience despite the rough patch to open the year.
“As frustrated as we are right now, we still have 90 percent of the season left,” Stars goalie Ben Bishop said after the loss in Columbus. “There’s still time to fix this ship, but there has to be more urgency from everybody.”
“It tells us we have a lot of games to win,” added Stars coach Jim Montgomery. “We know the hole that we’re in and what’s happened, but we also know we can string together a lot of wins like we did last year when it mattered. It matters right now, but we did it at the right time last year.”
If there is anything that this Dallas Stars team is good at and known for, it’s being resilient in times of crisis. Through a near-.500 start that took them into the NHL Holiday Break last year, to the team CEO publicly lambasting Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, to fighting through various injuries to key players, the 2018-19 Stars never lost their resilient edge and it carried them to double overtime against the St. Louis Blues in a winner-take-all Game 7.
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There’s no reason that same resilience can’t carry this current Stars team back into good graces, but there is plenty of work to be done. That work starts with the final leg of the current road trip.
After starting the trip on an uninspiring note, Dallas has two more stops to roll through before returning to American Airlines Center for a four-game homestand. Both stops fall in Pennsylvania, with the Stars visiting the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday and following it up with a contest against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.
When considering that the team’s expectation was to get three wins on the trip before it commenced, these final two games will be all the more magnified on their radar.
And in both games, the Dallas Stars have a unique set of challenges on their plate. That’s what makes the next 36 hours so interesting.
Let’s start with Pittsburgh.
The Penguins (5-2-0) are currently riding a three-game win streak against the Stars. Dallas hasn’t defeated Pittsburgh since Feb. 9, 2018 when Tyler Seguin scored the game-winning goal in the shootout at American Airlines Center. On top of that, the Penguins also own a three-game home win streak against the Stars. The last time Dallas won a game at PPG Paints Arena, it was Oct. 22, 2015 and Antti Niemi was in the crease.
This is also a dangerous Penguins team. While consistency has been one of their strongest traits over the past decade, it’s holding true through the first seven games of 2019-20. Pittsburgh currently boasts the second-best offense in the League with 4.00 goals per game and have scored 7 goals on three different occasions. They are doing so without five of their top nine forwards, which further reinforces the “dangerous” title.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has four goals and 12 points this season. Their power play and penalty kill percentages both sit in the top half of the NHL ranks, which could make for a tough time on the Stars’ special teams units. They play a high-flying style that thrives on offensive pressure and doesn’t give up a lot in their own end. That clashes with the Stars’ philosophy of being hard to play against and wearing down the opponent with a structured, defensive style, so that could make for some friction.
Pittsburgh will arguably be the toughest opponent that the Dallas Stars face on this road trip, so the Stars will need energy and a structurally sound effort as well as a fast start out of the gate if they want to hang with the Penguins.
Less than 24 hours later, Dallas will be in eastern Pennsylvania to take on the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers (2-2-1) started the season with two wins in a row, but have since cooled off and are riding a 10-day winless streak. With that being said, however, they are keeping pace in a crowded Metropolitan Division filled with teams trying to prove themselves.
Like their streak against Pittsburgh, the Stars have struggled with finding the win column at Wells Fargo Center over the past few seasons. Their last win in Philadelphia came on Oct. 20, 2015 (Niemi was once again brilliant and Jamie Benn scored the game-winning goal), and they are 0-2-1 since.
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The Flyers lead the League in face-off win percentage (55.5 percent), give up the second-fewest shots against in the NHL (28.0), and sit third in shots for per game (35.8). They are riding a red-hot power play that is cashing in at a 30 percent mark, which could spell trouble for a Stars PK that has stumbled over the past week. To top it all off, it will mark the second night of a back-to-back for the Stars.
Each of the final two stops in the trip presents the Dallas Stars with different tasks and challenges. They are playing in arenas that haven’t offered them much success in the recent past against two opponents that are rolling along in the early portion of their 2019-20 campaigns.
Meanwhile, the Stars are still trying to find a consistent and winning identity within their game. Wednesday looked like a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t enough.
With all of the doubt surrounding Dallas, it can be easy to forget both where this team is coming from and where they could still be headed. Twitter will tell you that significant change is needed, while interviews and scrums in the locker room will tell you that there is a lot of season left to be played. Both are true to an extent, but the time to get back in the driver’s seat is right now.
That’s what makes the next two games so important and intriguing. Can the Dallas Stars capitalize in the home stretch of this road trip? Can they finally get results? Can they return home on a victorious note and use a homestand to propel them back near .500 before the end of October?
It’s going to require effort, energy, chemistry, and structure. It’s going to require fast starts and finishes to games. It’s also going to require the Stars turning their luck around in some unfriendly buildings against some good opponents. Can they make it all happen?
“I think it’s going to start turning next game,” Montgomery said about the positives shown by the team after the loss to Columbus. “That’s when I think it’s going to start turning into wins. We’ll stick together and we’ll keep fighting together.”
On to Pennsylvania.