Yes, the season only may be six weeks old. And, yes, no team has played 20 games yet, so much of the season's story remains to be told.
Yet, there was no denying that Friday's matchup between the visiting Dallas Stars
-- the top team points-wise in the League -- and the Pittsburgh Penguins
-- the Eastern Conference leaders -- has a big-game feel full of intriguing storylines.
Even the continued absence of Sidney Crosby
, who had been rumored to make his return from season-long concussion issues Friday, won't tarnish the shine on this East-West heavyweight battle (7 p.m., NHLN-US).
"For sure, these teams like Washington and Pitt, we don't play them very much and they are both top teams in the East and we want to see how we compare to them and prove to everybody that we can play with teams like that," Michael Ryder
, a free-agent addition this summer to the Stars, told NHL.com. "It's going to be a battle tonight and for us, it's a big test. We're excited about it and look forward to it."
"For sure, these teams like Washington and Pitt, we don't play them very much and they are both top teams in the East and we want to see how we compare to them and prove to everybody that we can play with teams like that. It's going to be a battle tonight and for us, it's a big test. We're excited about it and look forward to it." -- Michael Ryder
Ryder, who won the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins
this past spring, knows a bit about big games. He spent more than two months last spring playing one after another in route to a title.
So, if he is embracing the "big-game" line, there is some definite merit to it.
The Stars are 11-3-0 this season for the League's best record. In their last game, they beat the Washington Capitals
soundly, a 5-2 victory that prompted Washington coach Bruce Boudreau
to punish his team with a bag skate.
Now, they face a Penguins team that has shrugged off the continued absence of Crosby, who will not play tonight or Saturday, according to the team, as he comes ever closer to a return from a concussion that has sidelined him since January.
Pittsburgh is 9-3-3 and is just one of three teams in the NHL to have lost just three games in regulation. Dallas is one of the others and the New York Rangers
are the third.
The Penguins, though, were expected to challenge for top honors in the East. They have been a perennial power for the past few years and won the Cup in 2009. Plus, they possess marquee players at every position.
Dallas, meanwhile, is the season's early Cinderella story.
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Glen Gulutzan, a relatively unknown rookie coach, has melded a disparate cast of veterans and young players with a red-hot goalie in Kari Lehtonen
, to make a team that has become extremely hard to beat because of a dangerous combination of work ethic and system discipline.
After 14 games, the Stars believe they are for real. Now, they want to prove it to the hockey world.
"When we looked at this road trip, we marked these games and said it is going to be a good way to test ourselves," said defenseman Alex Goligoski
, who played for the Penguins last season before a late-season trade to the Stars. "It's a tough road trip against some good teams; this game in particular. I think they are leading the East, as usual. It'll be a good test, for sure, and I think for them, as well."
Goligoski will be a key storyline in the narrative Friday. He was traded to the Stars near the trade deadline in February in exchange for James Neal
and Matt Niskanen
as the Penguins tried to shore up their scoring in the absence of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
, who was sidelined with a knee injury.
By all accounts, Goligoski has been very good for the Stars, logging minutes as one of the team's best two-way defensemen and putting up 6 points in 14 games. Neal, meanwhile, has been the Penguins' biggest gun this season, totaling 9 goals and 14 points in 15 games.
But, there are countless other storylines that make this a can't-miss affair.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma
agrees with Goligoski's assertion that Friday will be a challenge for his Penguins. He has had a few days to study the Stars on tape and has been impressed by what he's seen.
"It's a team we don't see very much, but it is a team that is leading the League in points," Bylsma said. They have been playing very well. Their forward lines -- Ryder, (Loui) Eriksson, (Jamie) Benn -- have been outstanding and deserving of the All-Star bids they have gotten. Benn, with his speed and his shot, has been dominant.
"Their defense has been playing very well. (Sheldon) Souray, obviously, has come back and is playing with a vengeance. You see how effective his shot can be, but he is also playing well defensively. Their goaltender has found his groove.
"It's a tough task tonight and we're looking forward to that matchup."