After stumbling into the NHL Holiday Break with three losses in four games, the Dallas Stars are soaring yet again on a six-game win streak. And with the way things are going, the question must be posed: where does this Stars team stand and where could they go?
On Wednesday afternoon, with a few hours separating the Dallas Stars from puck drop in their first stop of a four-game road trip, a friend from college and I were texting about the current state of the team.
As the conversation neared its end, he posed the “big picture” question in one text:
“Is this the year?”
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Since the dawn of professional sports, this question has reverberated in almost every fan base. Sometimes, it’s a legitimate inquiry for certain teams. But sometimes, a fan lets a four-game win streak by a team buried in the middle of the standings get to their head and cloud their sense of reality.
At the current moment, however, this is a logical question to ask about the 2019-20 Dallas Stars.
Rewind to Oct. 18, 2019 for a moment. The Stars were in Pittsburgh facing the Penguins and were once again being outplayed. Their offense wasn’t generating enough, their defensive consistency from 2018-19 had yet to show up in the early part of the 2019-20 season, and they couldn’t seem to find a steady beat.
As a result, they lost 4-2 and slipped to 1-7-1 on the season. It was a far cry from where they were expected to be. A team that had fallen one goal short of a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2019 quickly turned into a team destined for a year at the bottom of the standings.
— Josh Clark (@Josh_Clark02) October 19, 2019
Since losing seven games in regulation in the first 16 days of the season, though, the Stars have only lost seven more games in regulation over the past 83 days.
Now, they own a 26-14-4 mark through 44 games on the year. They own sole control of second place in both the Central Division and Western Conference and sit seventh in the NHL standings.
Since the loss to Pittsburgh on the road, they are 25-7-3 and own the highest points percentage of any team in the NHL (.757). They have the second-most wins on home ice in the NHL, have been impressive on the road (11-8-2 overall) after an abysmal start 1-5-0 start, and continue to climb to the NHL standings.
The most recent feat of success? A win streak that reached six games on Thursday night after a 3-0 shutout of the Anaheim Ducks. As odd as it may sound, it was the first game of the streak that did not require a comeback. But that’s become a regularity for the Stars, who have more wins after trailing at second intermission than any other team (7).
Denis Gurianov must REALLY like scoring against the Ducks! 🥳
— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) January 10, 2020
And so, with 44 games under their belt and a recent surge pushing them through the early part of the back half of the schedule, the questions are starting to grow. Just what is this 2019-20 Dallas Stars team? Where are they now? How high could they reach? Could this be the year that they go for it all?
That’s a lot to unpack, but there’s certainly some positivity behind it. And though it might get lost in the six-game win streak, it cannot be forgotten that this team has gone through a lot this season. From the 1-7-1 beginning, to the unexpected firing of head coach Jim Montgomery, to the swarm of attention that surrounded them in the weeks leading up to the 2020 NHL Winter Classic, they’ve had a lot thrown in their direction.
And yet, they seem to find a way to absorb it and grow stronger.
This is a team that is built much like they were in 2018-19. It’s a defense-first mindset that thrives on structure and wearing down an opponent in their own zone, which in turn is expected to lead to offensive chances.
The difference? They somehow found a way to do it better this time around.
Through the first 44 games in 2018-19, the Stars had allowed the seventh-fewest goals against in the NHL (117). This year, they have allowed the fewest at 105. After being in the heat of the Jennings Trophy race through 80 games last season, Dallas is in prime position to contend for it again.
Both Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin found a way to take their impressive 2018-19 showings a step further and currently sit in the top ten in save percentage (Bishop in 5th with a .928, Khudobin in 2nd with a .933) and goals against average (Bishop in 4th with a 2.24, Khudobin in 2nd with a 2.13) among goaltenders with at least 18 games played.
Their defensive game has taken another step forward and is allowing the fewest goals against per games played at 2.34. The next closest team is the Boston Bruins at 2.47. And while their scoring push still hovers in the bottom-third of the League at 2.68 goals per game (24th), it’s a step up from the 2.55 (27th) that they ended the 2018-19 season with.
What’s more impressive about the offense, though, is the “sharing the wealth” factor. Last season, the Dallas Stars had only four forwards crack double-digits in goals scored (Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, and Radek Faksa). This season, five have already achieved the feat, with Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov joining the club.
The Stars have used the same lines in the past five games, with the only change being Joel Kiviranta subbing in for Corey Perry on the fourth line while the veteran serves a five-game suspension. In those five games, the first and second lines have contributed five goals apiece, while the third line has chipped in three goals and the fourth line has potted two.
Contrary to the past two seasons, the Dallas Stars don’t look like a top-heavy or one-line team anymore. While no one forwards may be scoring a lot of goals, all 12 forwards are contributing.
The power play and penalty kill have gone through some tough stretches, but both continue to hold a position in the top half of the NHL ranks and have both caught fire throughout the recent win streak.
Rick Bowness has done an impressive job of transitioning into the head coach role. For spending the first 113 games behind the Dallas bench as an assistant in control of the defense and penalty kill, he’s managed to roll four lines of forwards on a consistent basis and balance his attack. As a result, the Stars are 9-3-1 and scoring 2.85 goals per game since he took the reins.
The Stars are in the midst of their second six-game win streak of the season. The first ran from Nov. 13-25 when Dallas tied a franchise record with seven consecutive victories. They will get the chance to tie that mark again on Saturday in San Jose and potentially set a new record on Tuesday in Colorado. It’s also the first time since the 2005-06 season that the team has won six games in a row twice in the same year.
By all accounts, the Dallas Stars are a good hockey team right now. Not only that, but they are also a confident group that seems to grow stronger with each passing game. They play a style of game that carries teams deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and do so almost to perfection. Every player is playing with determination and confidence, and that’s causing a ripple effect throughout the lineup.
“I think we’re sticking to our game plan,” Bishop said after Thursday’s win. “It was no different tonight. We knew they were going to be a desperate team. I thought we did a good job in all three periods. Special teams was huge and it was the difference in the game there. It’s tough on a back-to-back, but the guys did a great job for 60 minutes. It’s nice to get these two wins.”
But the focus is staying on what’s to come and not what’s been achieved.
“There’s still a lot of hockey left and a lot of things that can happen,” Joe Pavelski said on Monday after practice.
Complacency is a sworn enemy in the NHL, and this Dallas Stars team knows that. They knew it after a 1-7-1 start, they knew it after a 13-1-1 response, and they knew it after their pre-Christmas skid. As a result, they once again find themselves on a hot streak.
This Stars team looks like it could not only finish the season on a strong note, but also make a deep and convincing run into the postseason. Considering that they looked like another failed experiment on this day one year ago, it’s encouraging to see the strides that have been taken, even in the face of adversity.
For now, Dallas owns second place in the Central Division and Western Conference. They are on pace for 48 wins (which would be the second-best total in the past 13 seasons, trailing only the 50-win season in 2015-16) and are playing a style that is hard to prepare for and even harder to crack. Mix that with the confidence and balance circulating through the lineup, and they just might have found a perfect storm to ride in the final 38 games of this campaign.
“It’s nice and it’s been fun to win, but you can’t take your foot off the pedal in this League,” Bowness said. “It’s too tight and the standings are just too tight. You can’t relax, and we won’t.”
Is this the year? There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played and a lot to sort out. But as of right now, the Stars are in a good position and in total control of their own destiny.
And for a team that has been put through the metaphorical ringer a few times this year, there’s not much more to ask for.