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5 storylines that shaped the Stars' 2018-19 season

Over the course of six months, Dallas battled through injuries, adversity and found its identity to clinch a playoff spot

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

The Dallas Stars close out the regular season Saturday against Minnesota and then it's onto the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a long grind to secure that postseason berth -- six months of tough hockey in a league where there isn't much that separates teams on most nights.

And it was a satisfying feeling once that spot was locked up after Tuesday's 6-2 win over Philadelphia.

"I am very proud," said Stars captain Jamie Benn. "You go through a lot throughout a season with this group of guys in here, and it's been a complete team effort from top to bottom, the coaches right down to the bottom. It's fun to come to the rink and battle with these guys and be able to compete and win.

"When you are getting results, it's a lot of fun."

Over the course of the season, the Stars battled through injuries and other adversity, found an identity, overcame issues on the road, found resolve in the third period, and became one of the league's top defensive teams to put together a strong run after the All-Star break.

"It's a long season, and there's going to be ups and downs all the time," said forward Alexander Radulov. "It was a tough season for us, we had some guys hurting, and guys got called up and played well. If you look at the whole season, we grinded it out, we found a way, and I think we deserve to be in the playoffs."

And they rode some impressive goaltending along the way.

Here are five things from the 2018-19 season as the Stars nailed down that playoff spot.


1. Stars ride stellar goaltending

One constant for the Stars this season has been goaltending, and it's been stellar. Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin have been an outstanding duo for the Stars. The numbers tell an impressive tale.

The Stars rank second in save percentage in all situations (.922) and 5-on-5 (.935), and they are first in high-danger save percentage in all situations (.863). Dallas ranks second in goals against (2.47), second in shutouts (nine) and has allowed two goals or fewer in 44 of 81 games, excluding goals absorbed for shootout losses.

Individually, Bishop ranks first in the league in save percentage (.933), second in goals-against average (2.03), first in quality starts (.682), first in goals saved above average (30.29) and a share of third in shutouts (six). Those are Vezina Trophy numbers.

Khudobin ranks eighth in save percentage (.923), sixth in goals saved above average (15.97), and 10th in quality starts (.622).

"It's huge," Stars defenseman John Klingberg said of the team's goaltending. "They're our best two players through the whole year, and they give us a chance to win every night. I don't know what to say more."

Video: DAL@BUF: Bishop turns in third consecutive shutout

You can pick out the stellar performances for both. Bishop was huge down the stretch as the Stars secured a playoff spot, posting a 9-3-0 record with a 1.34 goals-against average and .956 save percentage after the All-Star break. Included in that run was setting the Stars' franchise-record shutout streak at 233:04.

"Ben Bishop has done everything we could ask of him," said Stars coach Jim Montgomery. "He's stopped pucks; he's steered pucks to corners when he can, swallow up the rebounds like he is so good at, and breaking pucks out. Most importantly, I think the team in front of him has been really sound as well."

Khudobin came up big down the stretch as well, posting a 3-0-1 record and allowing seven goals in the four-game run that allowed the Stars to clinch a spot officially. Khudobin had a 49-save shutout in Nashville coming out of the Christmas break and consecutive wins over Chicago and St. Louis where he stopped 87 shots.

"We are not in the playoff position we are right now if we don't have Anton Khudobin," Montgomery said. "You can't measure because he stole points. Early in the year, we had no right to be in games, and he was stealing points for us."

And, as Klingberg noted, the Stars goaltenders give the team a chance to win every night, and that's a nice place to be heading into the playoffs.

Video: CBJ@DAL: Khudobin denies Dubois with unreal pad save


2. Weathering injuries on defense

Early in the season the Stars were in some big trouble on the blue line. Stephen Johns (post-traumatic headaches) and Marc Methot (knee) both were out. So was Connor Carrick, whom the Stars had acquired from Toronto to help cover for the Johns and Methot injuries. And then John Klingberg went out long-term. The Stars blue line was looking pretty thin from Nov. 10 to Dec. 18, a stretch of 18 games.

Esa Lindell averaged almost 25 minutes per game during that stretch, Miro Heiskanen just under 24, and Roman Polak 21.

The Stars also relied on defensemen from the Texas Stars of the AHL like Joel Hanley, Ben Gleason, Gavin Bayreuther, and Dillon Heatherington. Just after the Klingberg injury, the Stars acquired Taylor Fedun from Buffalo for a conditional draft pick to improve the organizational depth and eventually Dallas would call up Fedun to help.

After a 4-3 overtime win in Calgary in late November, Montgomery heaped praise on the patchwork Dallas defense.

Video: DAL@CGY: Bayreuther pots wrist shot through traffic

"They are saving our season. There is no other way to say it," Montgomery said. "They are all raising their level, and it's been inspiring to all of us, but they really are giving us an opportunity to save our season."

Over those 18 games, the Stars went 8-8-2. Nothing to puff your chest out about, but the Stars were able to keep their heads above water and stay within two points of a playoff spot.

Overall, the Stars have used 14 different defensemen this season including five who have been called up from the AHL due to injury issues on the big club.

"Look at all the defensemen that came up here and how well they played," Klingberg said. "Like Monty and others have said, they really saved our season."

Video: ANA@DAL: Polak flips backhander past Gibson


3. Midseason chaos

In late January, as the NHL was returning from the All-Star break, GM Jim Nill noted that the Stars were in a pretty good spot. They were in the first wild-card position in the West and just three points behind Minnesota for third in the Central Division.

"We've been in the playoffs 90 percent of the year, but there seems to be a lot of doom and gloom," Nill said. "I don't think it is as bad; we've been in the playoffs most of the year."

Some of that "doom and gloom" was brought on by the Stars themselves.

In late December, after the Stars came out of the Christmas break with a 2-0 win in Nashville behind a 49-save shutout by Khudobin, CEO Jim Lites went to the media and called out captain Jamie Benn and center Tyler Seguin using some harsh, profane language.

"It's only about performance. It has nothing to do with character," Lites said after those articles were published. "I just don't think our top players are getting the job done. I share that opinion with our owner. These are the third and sixth highest performing players over five years and 38 games into our season they are 57th and 61st in scoring in the league, and we're not getting it done."

Benn and Seguin were diplomatic in their responses the next day. The day after that, Nill said he agreed with the message but not the tone.

Seguin's production has increased since the Lites comments while Benn's has decreased, but their combined total production is about the same when you factor in the five games Benn has missed due to injury and rest. Benn and Seguin were combining for 1.63 points per game before being called out and 1.66 points per game since. As for Seguin's increased production, especially goal scoring, he said it had nothing to do with getting ripped in the media.

Video: Nill says the hockey message from Lites was 'dead on'

"No. No. That didn't affect the pucks going in," Seguin said on Sportsnet's After Hours broadcast recently. "I was getting chances early on; they weren't going in. I was just going to keep sticking with it like I did. I have confidence in myself and trust that the job is going to get done."

As for the team, there were still some ups and downs, and two weeks after the Lites comments, Montgomery vented after the Stars lost consecutive games to Philadelphia and St. Louis.

"Two games in a row where we don't compete at a level that is acceptable," Montgomery said. "It's everybody. Unfortunately, I am very frustrated that I have not been able to gain consistency in our performance and I haven't been able to change the culture of mediocrity."

That talk of a "culture of mediocrity" and the Lites comments a couple of weeks earlier led former Stars executive and current TSN analyst Craig Button to call the team "dysfunctional."

As the Stars were getting ready to gear back up after the All-Star break, Nill said there was only one way to shake those perceptions.

"I don't think we are dysfunctional, but we've got to go out and show that," Nill said. "Like I said, there's been a lot of good things happening here, but it feels like we are in last place. We need to change that. How do we do that? We've got to go show people on the ice."

And the Stars began to do that.

Video: DAL@WPG: Seguin nets PPG for 30th of the season


4. Turning things around after the All-Star break

After the back-to-back losses to Philadelphia and St. Louis, the ones that triggered the "culture of mediocrity" comment, the Stars lost their next two games to push their losing streak to four games, matching a season-high.

There was more frustration after Game 4 of the losing streak, a 2-1 loss to Los Angeles at American Airlines Center. The Stars managed just 11 shots through the first 20 minutes as they dug themselves a 2-0 hole in the game.

"Not enough desperation in our play. We didn't play with enough passion," Montgomery said.

But the Stars stepped it up in the third period and made a game of it and that effort carried over into the next one, the final game before the All-Star break, when the Stars beat Winnipeg, 4-2, and that is where the Stars may have started to turn the corner. They hit the break on a positive and then came out of it with four straight wins to push their overall winning streak to five games, their longest of the season.

"The All-Star break was huge," said Seguin. "We were talking about our identity, but we didn't fully have it. Everyone got to kind of sit back and relax and maybe think a little bit, too. That first day back we met with Monty, the leaders, and came up with our identity and it's been all uphill since then."

And as for that identity.

"I am going to leave some of it in house," Seguin said, "but it is a defensive team that is going to outwork you and be relentless."

The Stars have put together an 18-11-3 record since the break. Among Western Conference teams, only St. Louis and Chicago have better records based on points percentage during that stretch. There was no big boost in the offense; the Stars have averaged 2.50 goals per game since the break. But the goals against dropped to 2.25, second-best in the league over that stretch.

Video: COL@DAL: Radulov finishes hat trick with empty-netter

"I thought that once we started getting going, after the All-Star break, you could see the team starting to form an identity," Montgomery said. "The team and staff were coming together in the way we need to play. I think from then I thought we were building the right way and you could see the confidence growing and you could see the belief in our identity.

"We had some trials and tribulations, and it took us a while to find our identity. We thought we could be more of an offensive team when we first started the season but that didn't materialize, and then we changed things. We've become a real grind-it-out team that is hard to play against."

That all led to improvements in other key areas. The Stars were 9-13-2 on the road at the break and have gone 10-5-2 away from home post-break. They were 1-13-0 when trailing after two periods at the break. Since then they've been able to pick up points in six of 13 games when trailing after 40 minutes (3-7-3).

And the strong post-break run helped the Stars secure a playoff spot.

Their position didn't change much; they were in the first wild-card spot when they came out of the break, and they are still there, but they were able to separate themselves from the teams below them and get a much firmer grip on that playoff position.

"We found our identity after the break," Benn said. "It was good mentally to get away, physically to get away and then to come back and come together as a group, talk about what we need to do to take the next step. We talked about it and executed it on the ice."

Video: DAL@STL: Benn's hat trick leads Stars past Blues


5. Roster overhaul: Welcome, Mats Zuccarello

The Stars roster has undergone an overhaul since the start of the season.

It had to because of injuries.

Johns hasn't played in one game. Methot played in only nine and center Martin Hanzal (back) played in just seven. Those three players were expected to play key roles for the Stars this season and they've been out for most or all season.

Over the course of the season, others have helped fill the void. Forwards Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz have both emerged as key players for the Stars. Hintz has worked his way into the team's top six forwards, and Dickinson has shown he can move up and down the lineup and be a shutdown center.

And then there is Heiskanen, the third overall pick in 2017, who has been everything as advertised and has been superb on the Dallas blue line. He's been one of the top rookies in the NHL this season and has a long, stellar career ahead of him.

Nill went outside the organization for help as well.

Video: PIT@DAL: Cogliano snipes top corner on Murray

Nill acquired defensemen Carrick to help deal with the Johns and Methot injuries and then traded for Taylor Fedun when more injuries hit including one to Carrick. The Stars lost Gemel Smith to waivers in early December.

In January, it was forward Devin Shore to Anaheim for veteran forward Andrew Cogliano and a draft pick to Pittsburgh to re-acquire defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. Then came the trade deadline. Two days before the deadline, the Stars shipped Carrick and a draft pick to New Jersey for defenseman Ben Lovejoy and later that day sent two draft picks to the New York Rangers for forward Mats Zuccarello.

Lovejoy and Fedun have become the third defensive pair for the Stars down the stretch, while Oleksiak has been the seventh defenseman.

Fedun's a great story. He was a frequent healthy scratch with Buffalo's AHL affiliate early in the season and has become a regular on the Dallas defense. Lovejoy has been a solid player and an effective penalty killer. Cogliano has been a fixture in the bottom six where the team is a plus in shot attempts and high-danger chances when he is on the ice.

Cogliano and Lovejoy were brought in for veteran presence and their experience. Lovejoy has won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh and Cogliano has gone on some good playoff runs with Anaheim.

"Professionalism and an everyday attitude of not only of themselves being prepared but helping teammates being prepared," Montgomery said. "Both of them are very, very conscientious pros about their own bodies and how they need to play for us to have success. And they play their roles great."

Video: DAL@CHI: Zuccarello gets goal, assist in Stars debut

Then there was Zuccarello, the big acquisition for the Stars.

The offensively talented, top six forward they've been missing. The Stars haven't gotten a full game out of Zuccarello yet, but he's been as advertised. He was injured in his Stars debut but tallied a goal and an assist against Chicago Feb. 24 before breaking his arm late in the second period and missing the next five weeks. He returned Apr. 2 against Philadelphia, picked up an assist before leaving midway through the third before leaving the game as a precaution.

But his impact on a team that has struggled to score all season was evident in his limited time on the ice. He makes the Stars a much more dynamic offensive team, adds another element to the power play and in the playoffs, where a goal here or a goal there can be a huge difference.

Zuccarello has the potential to be an important piece for a team that has relied on Seguin, Benn, and Radulov to provide a big slice of the offense.  

"[Zuccarello is] the best passer on our team," Montgomery said. "He moves the puck around. He makes everyone around him better. Now we have two lines that can get out and score, and we have a third and fourth line that are hard to play against. It brings balance to our squad."

And the hope is that balance can pay dividends in the postseason.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mark Stepneski has covered the Stars for since 2012. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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