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5 things the Stars must improve entering critical month

Can Dallas take lessons from its win over Wild - lessons a month in the making - and have a much better November?

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

The Stars have had a rocky October, posting a 5-8-1 record in a busy month that has included all manner of issues. So what have they learned and what can they do going forward?

Here are five things that can be improved.

 

1. Slow starts


Like many of the inconsistencies on the Stars, this has been different for different games. Dallas has allowed the first goal against on the first shot against four separate times, and also has allowed the opponent to score first in a game nine times out of 14.

That's not good.

On the whole, the Stars have been outscored 10-9 in first periods and have been outshot 136-129, so it's a situation where they can say they have responded well in some game. But that's part of the issue, there is no real consistency, and at times when you think they will come out and dominate a first period, they often just dip their toe in the water and test the temperature.

Because the team wants to be "relentless" and "hard to play against," the start of a game seems like a perfect opportunity to impose their will. You don't have to be necessarily aggressive offensively, but you can be physical, and hard checking in order to infuse energy into a game.

Stars coach Jim Montgomery said the team did the same thing last year, addressed the issue, and was much better starting games in the second half of the season.

"They've got to prepare. Us as coaches can help them to prepare," Montgomery said. "It's something we went through last year and it's something we're going through again."

 

2. Not scoring enough

Video: Practice: Montgomery wants Stars to build off win


The Stars rank last in the NHL in scoring at 2.21 goals per game and 27th in shot generation at 28.4 per game. That's been consistent throughout the young season, as Dallas struggles with getting its top scorers on the board and also with power play success.

So how can that change?

Well, it all seems to be intertwined with the team's inability to create consistent aggression in attacking the offensive zone and getting the puck to the net. Coaches and players have been working to find the right formula, and have had limited success. But when the team was backed to the wall and trailing the Minnesota Wild Tuesday, 3-0, something clicked and the Stars turned desperation into good play.

Dallas had a 28-12 advantage in shots on goal in the second and third periods Tuesday in a game they ended up winning 6-3. While there was a certain recklessness to their play driven by the fact they had to catch up and weren't so concerned with giving up another goal, there were real lessons that should be learned from that stretch of 30 minutes of aggressive play.

"If you go to the tough areas, the breaks happen more often than not," Montgomery said of two goals that deflected in off of Minnesota players. "I think it was the will to win and the will to compete at a higher level."

But can the Stars duplicate that intensity while playing in a scoreless game or while leading or trailing by one?

"I think you can," Montgomery said. "Can you play to that level every period? No. But you should be able to reach that level more often than not."

The players said they hope to learn from the rally and create that kind of hockey on a more consistent basis.

Asked what changed for the Stars on Tuesday, Tyler Seguin said: "Desire, passion, anger, everything."

Seguin added that the team has been frustrated by the lack of offense and lack of results, and that the ability to play the way they did Tuesday is something they can replicate.

"I don't think we were playing that bad of a game. Just saw the same story happening again," he said. "I think there was a switch that clicked in the second - not many battles we lost. A lot of discussion internally the last couple of days, and you saw the result of it out there tonight."

 

3. Top scorers not scoring


For all the criticism that the Stars were merely three top scorers last season, at least the three were scoring. Tyler Seguin finished with 80 points (33 goals, 47 assists) in 82 games. Alexander Radulov had 72 (29 goals, 43 assists) in 70 games. And Jamie Benn had 53 points (27 goals, 26 assists) in 78 games. Even John Klingberg had 45 points (10 goals, 35 assists) in 64 games.

Heading into Tuesday's game, Seguin had six points, Benn five and Radulov four, Klingberg had three points and was a team-worst minus-9.

So when the big three busted out, it was a very good sign. Radulov had three goals and an assist, Seguin a goal and two assists, and Benn had one assist and was a catalyst in the line's play.

While there's no guarantee their success -- or any other from Tuesday -- will continue, it's a sign that they can get back their mojo.

"Those guys when they start to feel it, then they get the confidence going," said Montgomery. "The plays on the power play that we were making; the crisp passes were going tape-to-tape. When you have players that are supposed to get those points and have done it all their careers, when they start to feel it, they really gain momentum for your team the rest of the game."

The Stars are a top-heavy team with some big contracts for players who should be able to score. And when you add veterans like Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to players like Benn, Seguin and Radulov, the Stars should be a dangerous offensive team.

Montgomery said he believes the Stars can be that team.

"If five guys are together in the offensive zone playing offense or forechecking, you can play whatever style and you're not going to give up much and you can create more," he said. "It comes down to work ethic, whether you're playing a system like Vegas or you're playing a more passive style. If you do your system well, and you're working and you're winning your one-on-one battles, momentum builds."

 

4. Power play not succeeding


The Stars weren't great on the power play last season, but they were 11th in success rate at 21.0 percent and 18th in power-play goals at 45.

Dallas has started the season 26th in success rate at 10 percent and 25th in power-play goals at four. That has caused a minor change, as Montgomery is now running the meetings and workouts for the power play, and assistant coach Todd Nelson is assisting. Nelson has been tasked with running the power play since he joined the team last season.

"We're not really changing all that much. It's just that when things aren't going well, the head coach holding players accountable has more effect than it does when it comes from an assistant," Montgomery said. "Todd Nelson is a great coach and he's helping me prepare the whole thing and he's giving me the details that I need to be teaching."

Dallas is trying all sorts of different things, including having Roope Hintz bring the puck up last game. Expect variety to be the norm for the year, as Dallas has a lot of players with power play success in their past.

Still, the philosophy has to be the same as at even strength, with players attacking the net and forcing chaos and carnage in front of the opposing goalie. Montgomery said he hopes having more practice days helps spark the power play going forward.

"I just liked our work ethic and our attitude," he said of Tuesday's effort. "I thought we were shooting the puck more, I thought passes were right on the tape, just converging on net, retrieving the puck, and outworking the penalty kill."

 

5. Not showing poise


Maybe the biggest problem early in the season has been the team's inability to handle key moments in games.

Players have taken offensive zone penalties, have not been able to convert scoring chances or have broken down defensively at bad moments. Even goalies Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin haven't been as crisp as they were last season when they combined for the second best save percentage in the league at .923. They currently sit 17th at .904.

Bottom line, everything can be a little bit better.

Heading into Tuesday game, the Stars had been outscored 19-9 in third periods, so finishing games was as big an issue as starting games. They have shot themselves in the foot way too many times in games.

Now, you can put some of the explanation on a hard schedule to start the season in which they played 11 games in 19 days with travel between all but one game. So when they went 4-1-0 in a recent run that was mostly at home, the schedule excuse really does hold some water. The problem is they are about to go on a four-game Canadian road trip and will have to find a way to navigate that with at least a little success.

The other problem is they are behind the pace to earn a playoff spot, so they will be chasing for some time -- possibly the rest of the season -- to catch up.

To do that, they need to be able to be aggressive and calm, intense but poised.

The Stars had a big meeting before Tuesday's game, and they have talked the issues to death at times. Now, they have to just go play on the ice.

"We have lots of meetings. That's what happened when you're not playing the way they expect for you to play," said Radulov after Tuesday's win. "We've just got to regroup and we're playing one of the best teams in Colorado in their building next one. We need the points -- we know that we just have to carry that momentum from this game to the next one and work hard like we did for each other."

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

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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