Most NHL coaches agree that it has never been harder to score during 5-on-5 play and that special-teams play -- penalty kills and power plays -- can make the difference in most games.
The Montreal Canadiens
, who are vying for first place in the Eastern Conference, lead the NHL in power-play success, scoring on 24.2 percent of their man-advantage situations. The Dallas Stars
are best at penalty killing, stopping opponents' power plays 86.1 percent of the time.
Savvy hockey analysts like to combine a team's penalty-killing and power-play success numbers. Teams that have a combined rating of more than 100 percent generally enjoy success.
The Philadelphia Flyers
, second-best with a 22.5 percent power play, top the NHL with a 105.8 overall rating. Montreal is next best under that system, earning a 105.5 rating. The Detroit Red Wings
, who have been the NHL's best team all season, are third with a 104.8 rating. The Stars, who led the Pacific Division until recently, are fourth-best at 104.2.
"Our penalty killing has been up there for most of the year," coach Dave Tippett
said. "Our numbers have been pretty strong in the main statistical categories for most of the year. That speaks to how consistent your team is; consistency in getting the job done with and without the puck. Those are things that we preach a lot in our plans and special-teams preparation.
"We have an excellent group of assistant coaches who really dig into the finer points and have our players well versed in what they need to do to be successful.
"As games have become tighter and tighter, there's an ever smaller margin of error. It's very important to have a strong special-teams structure because they can have a huge bearing on a game. With the number of penalties in games now and with how hard it is to score 5-on-5, you have to be strong in the special-teams area."
That Dallas is one of the better squads at special-teams play is no surprise. Tippett built a solid reputation in this area as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings
. And the Stars have been good ever since Tippett was hired in 2002. In his final season in Los Angeles, 2001-02, the Kings led the NHL with a 20.6 percent conversion rate on the power play and were third in killing 86.6 of their shorthanded situations.
Since Tippett took over behind the bench, Dallas has won two Pacific Division titles and qualified for the playoffs the past four seasons. The Stars have the NHL's third-best record since 2002-03 and the second-best home record.
Although his club has struggled in recent weeks, the Stars still have the sixth-best record in the Western Conference. The team has the eighth-best record in 5-on-5 play, so special teams have made a difference.
Tippett discussed the Stars' special-teams play with NHL.com, stressing the role individuals have played.
Dallas has been without its power-play quarterback, Sergei Zubov
, since mid-January and Philippe Boucher
, another good offensive defenseman, has missed more than 40 games.
Defenseman Stephane Robidas
has stepped up to play the left point on the power play and has filled in very well.
|With power-play quarterback Sergei Zubov out since mid-January, the Stars' Stephane Robidas has been successful at filling in during his absence.
"Since Zubov got hurt, Robidas has taken a lot of those minutes," Tippett said. "You can't replace Zubov. He's one of those special players in the game, but we make do without him. Robidas has made that a lot easier for us. He's taken over in a lot of situations and lifted his game.
has been very good at penalty killing," Tippett added. "He takes away time and space. He has a quick stick and he's not overly physical. He makes good reads and he's hard on loose pucks. Daley protects well down low and is willing to sacrifice his body to block shots. His strength is his quickness. He's fast when he gets going, but his lateral quickness is very strong."
Most teams would be in deep trouble with their two best offensive defensemen shelved, but Dallas drafted well in recent seasons and has developed three rookie gems who have made a big difference this year.
"The three kids, Matt Niskanen
, Mark Fistric
and Nicklas Grossman
have played much more than anyone expected this season," Tippett said. "Niskanen surprised us in camp. We knew he was good but he wasn't on our radar for this season. He came to camp and saw we had some injuries. We kept pushing him into a bigger role and he grabbed it and ran with it."
"I remember asking the GM about a month into the season: 'Should we tell this kid to get a place to live?' I wondered if he would be able to sustain what he had done. Matt's an efficient skater.
"In reality, Fistric also got his opportunity because of injuries, but he's another guy who has taken advantage of an opportunity. We first looked at him as a fill-in defenseman getting six-to-eight minutes a game. Now, he's over 10 minutes a game and has fit in well with our group.
"We told Grossman that one thing we'll always hold to here is that our standards are very high. We expect to win whether we are using 22-year-olds or 32-year-olds. It puts pressure on kids, but they have done very well with it."
Dallas has enjoyed power-play success with center Mike Modano
playing the right point on the first unit. Despite injuries to others, Tippett chose to leave Modano at the point and it has worked out well.
has done a great job at the right point on our first power-play unit," Tippett said. "He and Zubov were very good together. Now, it's Robidas on the left with Modano. We're using Daley and Niskanen at the points on our second unit. When Zubov gets back, we'll return Daley to be our primary penalty killer and Niskanen will probably stay on the second power-play unit."
The forwards on the first power-play unit are Mike Ribeiro
centering left winger Brenden Morrow
and right winger Antti Miettinen
. The latter, a seventh-round pick in 2000, is in his fourth and best NHL season. He has made remarkable progress in his confidence and effectiveness this year. He has very quick hands and moves the puck well.
is a give-and-go kind of player," Tippett said. "When we drafted him, our scouts told me how strong he was in the corners. He's not out there standing around. He beats people to spaces and moves the puck quickly. He creates space for himself, and others, with his movement. I think he is finally getting to a point where he is more comfortable playing with top players. He's not afraid of the opponent and he's very competitive every night.
is having a great year and I think that's just maturity on his part," Tippett said. "The change of scenery was also good for him because he was able to put all his energies into playing the game. Being from Montreal, when he played for the Canadiens, I think he might have used a lot of energy on his life off the ice. He looks mature and focused this year and he's doing the best he can every night. Mike has recognized the effort and commitment he needs to be a good player and he tries to do that every night.
"He's a crafty guy and he's never before been in a position where the other team focuses on him. Now they do, so the next step is to get your points at the right time -- when they matter the most.
continues to evolve into a strong offensive player," Tippett said. "There was a time when he was classified more as a puck chaser. He has added good offensive skills and he's finding ways to score around the net. He plays a good give-and-go game with Ribeiro. They complement each other very well."
It only seems like Stu Barnes
has been playing in the NHL since the Original Six, yet he's as effective as ever and his intangibles are off the chart, Tippett said.
The No. 4 pick of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, Barnes has been playing in the NHL since 1991. He played in his 1,100th NHL game Jan. 5 against the Detroit Red Wings
. He is a faceoff specialist and during a recent stretch, he won 66 of 97 faceoffs, a 68 percent clip.
continues to do fine on penalty kills," Tippett said. "He's like a glue guy on our team who anchors our bottom-six forwards. He's like the captain of that group, making sure everyone is in the right element. Stu is a real quality person. Everything about him, from a coaching standpoint, makes him the kind of player you love to have on your team.
and Niklas Hagman
have both been strong contributors; workers who don't get the attention, but you need them. They are both strong on the penalty kill.
has blossomed as a penalty killer the last half of the year. He's been a very valuable player because he has a lot of spunk and energy and he's a guy who is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. In clutch situations, Ott can get it done. He's finally been healthy for a long stretch. Steve missed most of last year with an ankle injury and it took him awhile after training camp to get his footing. When he got comfortable, he started to play well for us. The better he played, the more situations he got into and thrived in."
The Stars added Brad Richards
-- who won a Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Tampa Bay Lightning
in 2004 -- at the trade deadline. Richards has struggled since his first Stars' game, when he had five assists. He's had two goals and two assists in eight games since then. This week, Tippett put Barnes between Richards on the right wing and Modano on the left side.
is still in a mode where he's trying to find his niche," Tippett said. "He was such a big factor on the team he left and change is not easy. It's even tougher when it's someone of Brad's status. He wants to do so well and his expectations are so high. I know he was sad to leave the other team. It's a transition we'll get through slowly. He's had some strong games and some others where he's trying to find his way a bit."