Stars Still Trying to Find Their Identity

The Stars entered this season with so much hope, thanks to the acquisition of Jason Spezza and the dynamic duo of captain Jamie Benn and sniper Tyler Seguin. But the club still struggles to find its identity, playing well and then letting down defensively in alternating spurts.

Their schizophrenic performances beg the question — is the glass half full or half empty for the Dallas Stars at the 24-game juncture of the 2014-15 NHL regular season? The club is situated near the bottom of the Central Division, but is within striking distance of teams who are among the top eight in the Western Conference.

Nearing the one-third pole of this 82-game season that promised so much success, the Stars have suffered through a seven-game winless streak in which they earned just two of a possible 14 points, and a three-game losing streak.

They have waived one defenseman (Kevin Connauton, who was snapped up by Columbus)  with whom they broke training camp, then dealt two others  (Brenden Dillon and the ageless Sergei Gonchar) for Jason Demers and Travis Moen, respectively.

They then responded with three straight home wins over Phoenix, Los Angeles and Edmonton before Thanksgiving after having collected just one in their first 10 appearances on American Airlines Center ice.

So the glass is half full, right?

“We’re getting closer to our game and putting together a full game,” leading scorer Seguin said after lighting the lamp twice in the 3-2 win over the Oilers on Nov. 25. “We are still showing glimpses of not playing our game, but we were happy to walk away with a win.”

Seguin’s uncanny scoring prowess has him on course for somewhere between 55-60 goals. His 18 tallies (highlighted by two hat tricks and five multi-goal games), 31 points and +7 rating are the result of a laser-like shot that can find the net from virtually any angle. Coach Lindy Ruff was effusive after the Edmonton triumph, “(Seguin’s) shooting the eyes out of a rattlesnake right now. When he shoots the puck he’s got one of the best (releases) I’ve ever seen.”

However, with an opportunity to register their first victory of the season over a Central Division opponent, the Stars lost 5-4 in overtime to visiting Minnesota and 5-2 at 28th ranked (out of 30 NHL teams) Colorado in a 24-hour span. Dallas is now 0-7-2 after nearly a third of its games against division foes.

So is the glass half empty?

“We have to find our game,” said Spezza, the centerpiece of this past summer’s acquisitions who is tied with captain Jamie Benn for the team lead in helpers (15 each). The former Ottawa Senator is also the squad’s third-leading scorer (19 points), and has already inked a four year extension to stay with Dallas. “We have to find that aggressiveness and consistency. We don’t do it long enough and we don’t do it (well) enough.”

The Stars are still attempting to find their baseline defensively, and in goal. They didn’t quite turn the trick against Minnesota, falling behind 3-0 midway through the game before rallying for a 4-3 lead. They relinquished that advantage with less than two minutes left in regulation, then further disappointed the home crowd by surrendering a sudden death overtime goal to the Wild.

On Saturday, Nov. 29, they fought to a 2-2 tie after 20 minutes and trailed only 3-2 after two periods before falling to Colorado.The stars had 13 turnovers against the Avalanche.

“I thought we were embarrassed tonight,” Coach Lindy Ruff said after Dallas was outshot by a whopping 47-24 count by an Avalanche squad with whom they are now tied in the Central Division cellar. “What we did with the puck tonight, and how many turnovers we had, that was pathetic.”

One would think that this Stars team is populated with enough veterans – many of whom helped the team to its first playoff berth in six years last Spring – to bring the appropriate attitude and intensity every night, to maintain control of the puck when they have it, and win more than their share of battles for the frozen rubber when they’re attempting to gain control.

But as Benn complained after the loss in Colorado, “tonight was pretty much ‘turnover central’. (We’re not) playing smart. Mentally, we weren’t there tonight, and that’s unacceptable. You can control that. You can always be mentally ready for games, and I don’t think we had that tonight.”

Fortunately, there is some outstanding young talent that has already become part of the team’s core. One example is rookie defenseman John Klingberg, a right-handed shot who many are hoping will fill the void left by Sergei Zubov’s departure a number of years ago.

Klingberg keyed a three goal third period uprising on Thursday, Nov. 20 with his first NHL goal that tied the game, 1-1 early in the third period. The 6-foot-2 Swede whom the Stars drafted in the 5th round in 2010 nimbly skated around a defender and whipped a shot into the top corner from the left wing faceoff circle just 19 seconds after the second intermission to bring the home crowd out of its stupor.

“There aren’t many players that can pull that off,” said Ruff after 3-1 come-from-behind victory that snapped a three-game losing streak. It was also the team’s second win at home and its first since beating Vancouver on Oct. 21. “It’s a special goal, it lit the building up.  It was something the fans needed and something that we needed.  I think the energy we got from our crowd helped us with the next one right away.  I know it’s been disappointing here, but it was good to hear the building erupt like that.”

In addition to Klingberg, fellow rookie backliner Jyrki Jokipakka appears to have made an acceptable contribution. The 6-foot-3 Finnish born Jokipakka, who was drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, has 2 assists and a -3 rating in eight games.

Demers registered a goal, an assist and a -3 rating in his first four games after being acquired from San Jose, while Moen was a -1 in seven games after being obtained from Montreal. Both of those veteran acquisitions are seen as stopgap solutions until additional defensive reinforcements (read: talented youngsters) arrive from the AHL’s Texas (Austin) Stars in the foreseeable future.

The team has been hurt by the loss of 6-foot-3 defenseman Patrik Nemeth, who showed so much promise late last year and in the playoffs. Nemeth had his wrist accidentally cut open by the skate of Flyer forward R.J. Umberger during the Oct. 18 overtime loss to visiting Philadelphia. The team holds out hope that the 2nd round draft choice from the 2010 Entry Draft may return to action by late in the regular season or at least for the post-season – assuming they qualify.

The team’s goaltending has been less than stellar. Starter Kari Lehtonen sports a 9-5-5 mark and a 3.03 goals against average, but the big Finn leaves too many rebounds in the goalmouth and slot, and has been beaten from some very bad angles. Swedish-born backup Anders Lindback, loser of each of his five starts, has a 4.63 GA average and has been victimized by poor defensive play.

The Stars could help their goalies and their defensive unit by achieving a steady and consistent pattern of improvement, just as they did last season when they gutted their way into the post season. Offensively, their 70 goals rank them 4th in the conference, but their 84 goals allowed are the worst in the West. They play only two Central Division opponents this month (Dec. 9 vs. visiting Winnipeg and Dec. 27 at St. Louis), which may be fortunate since they are still very much a work in progress.

“You want to put yourself in position to make the playoffs, and you make the playoffs by being good in your division,” said Trevor Daley, the team’s best defenseman and one of the Stars’ two alternate captains. “There’s more at stake, because when you get the points, (your opponent in that game) doesn’t get any, and that’s going to be big at the end of the season.”