The Blue Jackets will wrap up the western portion of their four-game road trip on Tuesday night at American Airlines Center when they take on the red-hot Dallas Stars. The Stars, a trendy pick over the summer with their addition of center Jason Spezza, stumbled out of the gate to start the season. But much like the Jackets, they’ve hit their stride over the last month and are playing the kind of hockey that makes them a dangerous team in the Western Conference.
Tyler Seguin is following up his breakout 84-point season of a year ago with an even better stat line this year. His 26 goals lead the NHL, and his 47 points rank second in the league, one behind leader Jakub Voracek. He has nine points in his last eight games. The other half of Dallas’ two-headed monster is captain Jamie Benn, who has not been roaring along at Seguin’s pace. Benn’s 12 goals and 34 points are behind his 79-point pace of last season, but still second on the team. He’s had two separate scoring droughts of greater than nine games, but he’s showing signs of heating up with the rest of his team with two goals and four points in the last four games.
Despite getting little offense from Spezza this season (only six goals), the Stars are still the fifth-best scoring team in the NHL with impressive depth. The Stars have 14 different players with at lest 10 points, and Antoine Roussel and Erik Cole each have nine goals, with both players coming off a strong week. The Stars' problem has been keeping the puck out of their net much of the season, their 124 goals against tied for third-most in hockey.
Still, the Stars’ offense has outrun those defensive issues. They’re 9-2-1 in their last 12 games, out-scoring opponents 44-30 over that stretch, and climbing to within three points of a wild-card spot in the West.
The Stars dealt Columbus their first loss this season, a 4-2 decision on Oct. 14 that became the Benn-Seguin Show. Dallas jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first seven minutes of the game on goals from both Seguin and Benn. Seguin opened the scoring on a deflection at the side of the net off a slap pass from Benn at 3:36. About three minutes later it was Benn again, this time tight-rope walking along the blue line and away from three defenders before walking to the top of the left circle and ripping a shot past Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Jackets answered in the second period, when Ryan Johansen scored his first two goals of the season on a 2-on-1 wrister and then a tap-in at the front of the net. The game remained tied until the midway point of the third period, when again it was Benn firing from high in the zone and again it was Seguin redirecting it past Bobrovsky. Seguin would add an empty-netter for the hat trick.
Seguin and Benn have pretty much played as one would expect them to play, but with the Stars’ recent surge one would think the goaltender Kari Lehtonen had straightened out some of his early season inconsistencies. That hasn’t quite been the case, as Lehtonen has either been lights out or porous in recent weeks for Dallas. Lehtonen is 11-3-2 in his past 16 decisions, but over that stretch was pulled in a game against Edmonton after allowing four goals, and has allowed four or more goals five times. He’s also recorded two shutouts and four one-goal games in that stretch. The Stars offense is humming along, but will they get the elite version of Lehtonen or the opposite?
Brandon Dubinsky got off the schneid in Denver, scoring his first two goals of the season in his 11th game. It was good news for the Blue Jackets, who need to start seeing some new forward faces in the goal column. Columbus’ leading assist man from last season, Dubinsky is in the midst of a four-game points streak and compiled five assists in three games before the win in Colorado. That gives him nine points in 11 games as he finds his grove after missing the first 26 games of the season recovering from abdominal surgery. The next step in Dubinsky’s recovery should hopefully be his face-off performance, one of the stronger aspects of his game but only at 49.6 percent so far this season. Look for that to be his next step forward.
Shut Down the Two-Headed Monster
The Blue Jackets allowed Benn and Seguin to dominate the game when these two teams last met. That’s not an indictment, as most teams around the league have struggled to contain this dynamic duo this season. Still, the Jackets have a two-headed answer of their own for Benn-Seguin in the defense pairing of Jack Johnson and David Savard. Those two were on the ice together for Dallas’ first three goals in the last meeting, but have been very different players over the last month. They have played very well in containing top talent, including on the penalty kill when names like Ovechkin-Backstrom, Toews-Kane, and Stamkos-Callahan were on the ice together, not to mention Evgeni Malkin. Savard and Johnson should be up to the task of another difficult shut-down assignment. Beyond that pairing, it may be a forward assignment that Dubinsky sees a lot of in a defensive role. The Blue Jackets can bend, but can’t break against the Seguin line without experiencing early season déjà vu.