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Pacific: Front-office shakeup has sparked Stars to lead

by Doug Ward / NHL.com

Brenden Morrow has been on fire recently, picking up 11 points in his last 12 games.
The 2007-08 season has moved past the quarter pole, and at this juncture, the hottest Pacific Division team clearly is the Dallas Stars.

With 34 points (15-9-4), the Stars have rocketed up the Western Conference standings, and sit just four points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the West’s top spot.

When the Stars blew a four-goal, third-period lead in Los Angeles on Nov. 10, owner Tom Hicks shook up the front office. First, General Manager Doug Armstrong was fired, and replaced by co-interim GMs Les Jackson -- Armstrong’s former assistant -- and Brett Hull, who was in his first season as an advisor to Armstong.

Next, Stars President Jim Lites was reassigned within the Hicks Sports Group, replaced by Jeff Cogen, former president of baseball’s Texas Rangers, also owned by Hicks.

The changes seem to have helped, as the Stars won seven of their first eight games after the changes, and have gone 8-2-1 since the moves.

The Stars have shown a little more offensive firepower than expected this season, scoring 2.82 goals per game. That’s good for 13th in the League, a year after they finished 22nd overall with 2.65 goals per contest.

Brenden Morrow has been on fire recently, picking up 11 points in his last 12 games, while Jussi Jokinen has recorded 10 points in 11 games.

The Stars have gotten strong play out of their goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Marty Turco lately. Smith is 4-1-0 with a 1.60 goals-against average in his last five games. Turco has gone 3-1 with a 1.72 GAA in his last four appearances.

Dallas is 10th in goals allowed (2.50) after finishing third in the NHL (2.35) a year ago.

Saving it for the playoffs? -- The wait continues in Anaheim, where the defending Stanley Cup champion Ducks have yet to kick things into gear and reclaim their place as one of the League’s elite teams.

The Ducks did manage to string together a four-game winning streak in November, but have been able to win back-to-back games just two other times this season. After dropping both games of a home-and-home series to Edmonton, in which they were outscored, 9-1, over the weekend, the Ducks have lost five of their last seven games.

At least part of the Ducks’ troubles can be traced to fallout created by continued absence of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne. Anaheim currently possesses the NHL’s second-worst offense, scoring just 2.21 goals per contest, and the League’s second-worst power play.

A year ago, when Selanne scored 48 goals and Niedermayer had 15, Anaheim finished ninth overall with 3.10 goals per game, while icing the League’s third-most effective power play.

Center Andy McDonald, in particular, has missed Selanne. A year ago, he had 27 goals and 78 points while playing on a line with Selanne. Thus far in 2007-08, McDonald has just three goals and 14 points, putting him on pace to finish the season with eight goals and 41 points.

Defensively, the Ducks have dropped from seventh in the League a year ago (2.42 goals allowed per game), to 16th (2.75 per contest). Anaheim’s penalty killing — fifth in the NHL (85.1 percent) a year ago — is currently 26th in the league (79.0 percent).

Rob Niedermayer believes his team is close to righting itself.

“I don’t think we’re that far off,” Niedermayer told The Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s just something that, it’s a fine line and right now we’re not getting it done.”

It’s still early, just 28 games into the Ducks’ reign as Stanley Cup champs, and with a pair aces still in the deck, the game can change in a hurry. If the season ended today, however, the Ducks would not have the opportunity to defend their title.

Thornton

Who’s hot -- Joe Thornton of San Jose has picked up seven points (three goals, four assists) in his last three games. His 20 assists place him in a tie for 11th among League leaders. Thornton marked the second anniversary (Nov. 30) of the trade that brought him to San Jose from Boston by picking up two goals and an assist in 3-2 win over Colorado Friday.

“Joe was unbelievable,” San Jose coach Ron Wilson said of Thornton’s performance. “He was a force out there.”

Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has posted a 5-1-2 record in his last eight games. Nabokov has record a pair of shutouts while posting a 1.46 goals-against average and .940 save percentage during his recent hot streak.

Not hot -- Dean Lombardi calls them “bridges,” veteran players who can help the young Kings cross to the next level. Lately, however, the bridges Lombardi signed last summer have been burning the Kings. Michal Handzus is scoreless in 10 consecutive games, while Ladislav Nagy has one point in his last nine contests.

Handzus has one goal and three assists in 26 games thus far, which puts him on pace for just 13 points this season. Nagy has five goals and seven assists, and would finish with a mere 18 goals and 43 points at his current clip.

The Kings’ other free agent acquisitions also are off to slow starts. Tom Preissing has just one goal and five assists, while Kyle Calder, the most effective of the four newcomers with four goals and seven points, missed eight games with a fractured thumb.

A fifth free-agent signee, defenseman Brad Stuart, has two goals, seven points, and a minus-8 rating in 26 games.

Willsie

Meanwhile, Kings forward Brian Willsie has been held scoreless in 10 games, while defenseman Jaroslav Modry has not scored in eight games.

The predictable result is that the Kings have lost eight of 10 games and sit tied with Phoenix at the bottom of the Pacific Division. With 22 points in the first 26 games of the season, the Kings lead only Washington (20 points) in the League’s overall standings.

The week ahead -- After closing a four-game homestand Wednesday against Buffalo, Anaheim hopes to find its Stanley Cup mojo when it hits the road for a three-game trip that takes the Ducks to Chicago (Friday), Nashville (Saturday), and Columbus (Monday).

Dallas returns to the Metroplex after a successful six-game roadie. The Stars host San Jose (Wednesday), Ottawa (Friday), and Edmonton (Dec. 10).

The Kings hope playing three of their next four games at home will help them climb out of the division’s basement.

Phoenix hosts division rivals Los Angeles and San Jose this week, then departs the Valley of the Sun for six consecutive road games that takes them from coast to coast. The Coyotes will visit Los Angeles, Long Island, New Jersey, New York City, Philadelphia and San Jose.

Following Monday’s win in Colorado, San Jose next plays at Dallas (Wednesday), and Phoenix (Friday), before hosting Buffalo Saturday.

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