Studying the first quarter of the Dallas Stars’ schedule with its seemingly imposing 13 road games and just seven starts at the cozy confines of American Airlines Center, the team’s fans were fearful that the club’s quest to compete for its first playoff start would be doomed before it could gain some momentum.
But this isn’t your older brother or sister’s Dallas Stars. Coach Lindy Ruff’s squad skated into November like a team on a mission to separate itself from its predecessors that never quite learned how to win when it counted. Judging by their play and results, this is a much more talented and mentally tough Dallas sextet, as a pair of three-game road sweeps to the east and to the west will strongly attest.
In recovering from an unimpressive 3-5 start out of the gate, Dallas has shown a propensity to outwork opponents and win the puck possession “game within the game”. The 11-7-2 Stars compiled an 8-2-2 mark during their recent 12-game stretch, elevating themselves to 5th in the Central Division and 4th in the Western Conference wild card race while preparing to play four of their next five games at home.
One of the keys to their recent success has been the stellar netminding of Kari Lehtonen, who stopped 42 of 43 shots in a gritty 2-1 victory Nov. 17 over the Vancouver Canucks, their sixth straight road triumph that completed a stellar 3-0 Western Canadian swing which included wins in Edmonton and Calgary.
“Thank God we had him,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said of the Finnish workhorse, who is 8-2-2 in 12 consecutive starts since returning from an early season lower body injury. “We’ve seen it a lot this year. We may not start the way we want or finish the way we want, but he’s back there to back us up for 60 minutes.”
“On given nights, your goalie has to be big, and (Kari) was big for us tonight,” said Coach Ruff after Lehtonen improved to 10-3-2 overall while making goals by forwards Erik Cole and Valeri Nichushkin stand up. “You are not going to dominate every period, and if your goaltender can get you through some tough (times), you are going to win a lot of games.”
Even when they lose, the Stars are playing well, and they tend to rebound well following a setback. Following a Nov. 9 home loss to Chicago, 5-2 in which the Stars played well (they led, 2-1 midway through the 2nd period before the Hawks scored when the puck bounced off Cole’s skate and into the net), Dallas whitewashed host Edmonton, 3-0 behind 22 saves by Lehtonen. Forward Rich Peverley’s first period marker stood as the game winner, and empty netters by Tyler Seguin and Antoine Roussel added the icing.
The following evening, November 14, the Stars turned the tables on their recent struggles during the second half of back-to-back games. They’d lost their last three such matches in Calgary by a combined score of 18-10 dating to January 2011, and had not won in regulation in Calgary since 2009-2010.
Seguin netted a career-best four goals and added a helper, and Benn added a career-high six points (five assists and a goal) in a 7-3 triumph in Calgary. After facing just seven shots in the game’s second half in Edmonton, Lehtonen was fresh enough to return and post the victory with 25 saves.
“We’re building confidence as a group starting with (that) last road trip,” said Benn. “We went into some tough buildings in Boston and Detroit, and just continued to play well (on this trip). It’s so important that we’re finding ways to win. Some (games) aren’t pretty, but we’re getting the job done.”
Seguin, acquired from Boston with Peverley for goal sniper Loui Eriksson this past summer, relishes the opportunity to skate on a line with a superb playmaker such as Benn. “We’ve been bonding together — we’re still pretty new to each other, but the chemistry is coming along,” Seguin said. “It’s tough to score in this league, but sometimes you get the bounces.”
The Stars made good use of overtime hockey in their early-November three-game swing through the Northeast U.S., posting overtime and shootout wins in Ottawa, Boston and Detroit. Their 4-3 win at Ottawa on Nov. 3 occurred when Benn netted the only shootout goal after the Sens’ Bobby Ryan tied the score with :10 remaining in regulation.
In Boston two nights later, Lehtonen withstood an early game 15-shot Bruin onslaught, and checking line center Vernon Fiddler lit the lamp on a penalty shot with less than three minutes remaining in regulation. Former Bruins Peverley and Seguin tormented their former club by netting the Stars’ only shootout goals for a 3-2 win.
Forty eight hours later in the Motor City, Dallas showed its mettle by recovering from an early 2-0 deficit. Then, after forward Cody Eakin forced extra time with a goal in the final two minutes or regulation, Peverley struck again with :19 left in the overtime session for another 4-3 triumph.
The 2013-2014 Stars’ longest standing line of Ray Whitney, Eakin and Alex Chiasson ended its run when Whitney was sidelined by an undisclosed injury that placed him on the Injured Reserved list prior to the Western Canadian swing. The second line had been bolstered by Eakin’s recent scoring touch, and Chiasson’s ability to remain among the league’s leading rookie scorers. Chiasson, in particular, has been playing alongside Whitney since his goal-filled NHL debut late last season.
Coach Ruff addressed the recent The Sporting News report that Fiddler had approached the Stars a few weeks ago with a trade request if his ice time was going to decrease. “I’ve had conversations with Vern on where he’s at and where he was at last year,” Ruff said. “Those conversations are really between the coach and the player. It wouldn’t be fair for me to even address the rumors. But I can tell you we’ve had conversations on where I see his role and where it’s going to end up and try to end up. Those have been real good conversations with Vern. He’s been very professional. You have ups and downs, and he’s a guy that just wants to play. And you want that. You want a guy to come bang on your door and say, ‘Come on, I want to play more.’”
The Stars added some forward depth when they acquired Dustin Jeffrey off waivers from Pittsburgh before the Vancouver game. The 6-1, 205-pound Jeffrey shoots left and can play center and wing. The versatile, two-way forward has played ten games with the Penguins this season, registering one assist. The 25-year-old Jeffrey, a sixth-round pick of Pittsburgh in 2007, has played 100 NHL games, scoring 28 points (15 goals, 13 assists). In 10 games with the Pens this season, he has registered one assist. “Dustin is a player our scouts have liked over the last couple years,” said Stars General Manager Jim Nill. “He’s a young player that we think has some room to develop even more. We just think he has a chance to add some depth to our organization. You can never have enough depth.”