Fans of the Dallas Stars patiently waited for their team to reach their current level of play. Coach Lindy Ruff’s squad finally worked out the kinks of their game that had mired them below mediocrity for much of the first two months.
Just in time for the holiday season and New Year, the team’s body of work since early December included two four-game winning streaks and an impressive 9-3-2 (win-loss-overtime loss) slate during which they amassed 20 of a possible 28 standings points and moved to within four points of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot as of Jan. 9.
“This is the best stretch (of the season) we’ve had,” said Ruff. “We’re getting a little more consistent every game. We’re playing better away from the puck. We’ve found ways to win some games, and then we flat-out deserved to win (other) games.”
The Stars also rebounded well from ugly home losses (4-0 to Toronto on Dec. 23 and 4-2 to Columbus on Jan. 6) with solid play in subsequent games, including their first victories over a Central Division opponent (4-3 at St. Louis on Dec. 27). They also earned points vs. division rivals with 5-4 and 3-2 overtime losses at Chicago and Nashville on Jan. 4 and 7, respectively.
“I think that we’re just getting back to what we did last year,” said Stars veteran forward Vern Fiddler. “We are working as a five-man group in our own end, and are a tough team to play against in the offensive zone. I think we’re getting contributions from four lines, (goalie) Kari (Lehtonen) has made some big saves, and (when these things happen) you get a little bit of confidence.”
One of the keys to the Stars’ improved play has been their ability to win faceoffs. Tyler Seguin, in particular, has been starting plays in his team’s favor to go along with his team-leading 26 goals and 47 points. He’s won nearly 49% of the draws he’s taken this season which – he says – is a product doing his homework and repeating what’s worked for him. Teammate Jason Spezza’s 54% success rate in the faceoff circle means the Stars are gaining an advantage in puck possession which, in turn, takes some of the pressure off of their still-emerging defense.
“For me, it’s just (Seguin) being coachable,” Ruff said. “I’m not asking (my players) to be perfect, but I want progress. It started early last year where I couldn’t put (Seguin) in for some faceoffs. Now, I have him in the (defensive) zone for some really important faceoffs, and that’s the reward for getting your numbers going the right direction.”
Seguin admitted that playing center and winning draws in the NHL is a challenge. “It’s in such a different realm from playing center growing up,” said the former Bruin pivot. “There are different tactics and techniques, and so many veteran players. I find that when I play center for a few games in a row, I do get better at it. It’s just been experience.”
Despite the absence of injured second year man Valerie Nichushkin, the top forward duo of Jamie Benn (12 goals, 35 points) and Seguin has remained productive despite a revolving door of linemates, including Colton Sceviour and Cody Eakin most recently.
Spezza (seven goals, 28 points) and Ales Hemsky have been reunited with Erik Cole and are playing well, as is the trio of Ryan Garbutt, Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel, which routinely faces opponents’ top lines.
“They’re a dangerous team,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said after the Blackhawks’ 5-4 overtime victory over Dallas on Jan. 4. “They’re playing their best hockey and they’re as dangerous as anybody off the rush. We tried to stress that today, but they still were effective and generated some scoring opportunities, goals and chances.”
In addition, the Dallas backline has drastically improved and has cut down on opponents’ shots on goals, which has provided increased puck possession for the forwards. Specifically, the Nov. 21st acquisition of San Jose blueliner Jason Demers and the early-November promotion of John Klingberg from the minor leagues have provided a steadying force to the blueline corps.
“I think we are defending a lot better, and our special teams have been good,” Cole said. “I think with all that we’ve helped out the goaltending and we haven’t hung them out to dry quite as much as we were earlier in December and parts of November. I just think we’ve tightened it up a bit, and we are just playing a much better team game. Our strong team defense can sometimes be our best asset and leads to a lot of good things on the offensive side.”
Goalie Kari Lehtonen (17-8-7 with three shutouts) has also improved tremendously, challenging shooters, limiting the rebounds he kicks back into the slot, and allowing three or fewer goals in 11 of his last 13 starts. As a result, his goals against average has shrunk to 2.87 and his save percentage is at a passable .907.
“We are definitely playing better,” said Lehtonen. “I don’t know where the moment was when we found our way of playing. It has been easier for me there, no crazy stuff happening. It also helps that I have been able to make timely saves. It was a nice effort tonight.”