The Dallas Stars’ meteoric rise to the top of the NHL was highly anticipated by their fans and local media last season, a disappointing one that ended with no playoffs.
But when the puck was dropped to begin this season, the pieces were finally in place. What a difference better goaltending, defensive play, and a winning presence from multiple leaders in the locker can mean for a hockey team’s fortunes.
And the fans in north Texas are simply beside themselves with joy.
The Stars’ 27-7-3 record gave them an NHL best 57 points atop the NHL heading into the last week of 2015. Their performance is a tribute to the presence of three-time Stanley Cup winner Patrick Sharp (with Chicago), the emergence of twin Finns Antti Niemi (acquired from San Jose in the off-season) and holdover Kari Lehtonen between the pipes, and reliable defensive play by newcomer Johnny Oduya, for one.
Blueliners such as Jason Demers and John Klingberg (both at +16), Oduya (+15) and Alex Goligoski (+14) are playing steady hockey inside their defensive zone, which makes life considerable more bearable for their goalies. Niemi has compiled an impressive 15-5-3 Win-Loss-OT loss mark to go with three shutouts and a 2.28 goals against average, while Lehtonen is no longer overworked, a big reason for his 12-2 Win-Loss record and a 2.48 GA average. He also posted his first shutout of the season, 3-0 over St. Louis on Dec. 27.
Offensively, the Stars are a well-balanced scoring squad, led by Jamie Benn (49 points), linemate Tyler Seguin (47), Klingberg (32), Sharp (30) and Jason Spezza (25). Although their power play can be somewhat inconsistent, the penalty kill is effective thanks to veteran forwards like Vernon Fiddler and Cody Eakin.
“We are trying to become a more consistent team……we’ve worked really hard at it,” said Coach Lindy Ruff. “These guys are very coachable. For me, it’s an awesome group of guys. You’re going to have some tough periods and some tough games. There’s stuff that we need to work on.”
Falling behind is something that Ruff detests, which the Stars did, 2-0 in Minnesota on Dec. 21. They rallied to win that game (the second time they’ve done so in the Twin Cities this season), then whitewashed Chicago the next evening at American Airlines Center.
“(Beating a club like the Blackhawks) is all part of the growing process for our team,” said Spezza, who is in his second year with the Stars after being acquired from Ottawa the summer of 2014. “I think everybody seems to bring their best to us every night. Chicago is Chicago. They bring fans with them, they bring an intense atmosphere, and they’re always exciting games. I thought we handled ourselves pretty well tonight. I think it’s good. It’s all about learning through the regular season, getting better as a team, getting ourselves in situations, up goals, down goals and just trying to be comfortable in it.”
In addition, Dallas has rebounded 10 times this season from a regulation or overtime loss to post a win in its next game. Their latest “comeback” was the 3-0 win over the visiting Blues one night after they surrendered a goal late in the third period and lost the ensuring shootout in St. Louis.
“I think (the reason for that is) confidence,” said Fiddler. “We know we can play the right way and when we do play the right way, we’re successful. When we steer away from that, we’re not so good. Over the course of the year, you’re going to have ups and downs, but at the end of the day you have to find a way to respond after a loss and we’ve been doing that this year.”
“It’s a big win for us for a lot of reasons,” said Sharp after scoring one of the team’s three goals in the win over St. Louis. “(They’re) a (Central Division) opponent, a team that’s beaten us twice at this point, and a team that’s tough to play against, whether they’re at home or on the road. We didn’t give up a whole lot. Our goaltender played well and we didn’t give up chances. Special teams could have been the difference for us tonight.”
In addition to Sharp’s presence in the locker room, Spezza credits the emergence of Benn not only as scoring leader, but as a team captain and a conscientious leader in the locker room.
“He’s our leader, there’s no doubt about it,” said Spezza. “He senses the urgency when the team is dipping. He’s got a great temperature for the room, as well as the skills to back it up. He can take over games at certain times.
“He’s grown even since I got here, as a leader, and his confidence has (escalated),” Spezza added. “The guys listen to everything he says. He’s got all the traits of a great leader and we just try to support him and be there for him when (the team) needs us (to respond).”