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As Stars look to new season, start and defending are key

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

After an offseason of big moves that brought in forward Patrick Sharp, defenseman Johnny Oduya and goaltender Antti Niemi, there is a lot of optimism surrounding the Dallas Stars. A lot of buzz. The Stars have been down this road before, and it was a bumpy one.

There was a lot of buzz and optimism one year ago after some big summer moves and the season didn’t go as expected with the Stars missing the postseason for the sixth time in seven years. So, what has to be different this season?

Let’s ask Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski.

“Our start,” he said.

And center Cody Eakin.

“We have to have a good start,” he said.

The Stars dug themselves into a hole in the first third of the season, winning just 10 of their first 28 games (10-13-5). The 25 points in the first 28 games left the Stars nine points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, and they ended up playing catch-up the rest of the season.

“It’s pretty hard to make up points in the second half,” said Eakin. “A good start is huge.”

How hard is it to make up points? The Stars went 31-18-5 over their final 54 games for a .620 points percentage (102 points pace over 82 games) and still finished seven points out of the final playoff spot in the West, making up two points despite a pretty good run.

“[We learned] how hard a league it is and how you can’t afford to have slow starts or long droughts,” said center Jason Spezza. “I think we got into too many stretches where we lost five or more games two or three times, and you really can’t recover from those. We played good hockey in the second half of the year, but it was too little too late. You hope you learn your lessons and become a more consistent team night in and night out.”

A good start isn’t the only area of emphasis for the Stars heading into the 2015-16 season. We’ll turn to forward Patrick Eaves for thoughts on another key area.

“We just have to take care of our own end. That’s the biggest thing,” Eaves said.

The Stars ranked second in the league in goals for at 3.13 per game, but they were near the bottom in goals against at 3.13 per game.

“We gave up too many goals for our expectations, and we are going to have to get that down,” said captain Jamie Benn. “We have a couple great goalies now and a good group of defensemen and it’s a big job, but it is up to us as forwards to play a better defensive game and not try to outscore teams 7-6 and 6-5 this year.”

There were goaltending issues last season, but team defense problems were an issue as well. Better defense was a factor in the Stars turning things around in the second half, and it’s something the teams wants to continue and build on this season.

“I think Lindy did a good job of explaining the systems to us and the tweaks we had to make. I thought we responded well to it,” said Spezza. “Now, it’s just a matter of bringing that mindset right from the get-go, and consistency has to be a big thing for us.”

And there is a belief that better defense could be a boost to that other area where the Stars excelled last season.

“When you look at the skill up and down our lineup, we are going to score goals. We might even score more by playing better defense,” Goligoski said. “We just need to concentrate on that. Everyone knows that, and everyone is on board.”

Defenseman John Klingberg said he buys the you can get more offense from playing better defense theory.

“That’s what I think, too, because if we play good defense we can still score goals,” he said. “If we play good defense we are going to have so many good rush opportunities and that’s what we are good at; we are really good in the transition game, putting up the pucks to our forwards and go from there.”

And Stars GM Jim Nill said that commitment to team defense and a good start go hand-in hand.

“To have a better start we have to play better defense,” Nill said. “There is really the only way to play. You have to be good defensively. It doesn’t take away from your offense. We had a young team, and they had to learn that and go through it. Now, they are more experienced and know that.”

Notes: Benn, Hemsky update

Stars GM Jim Nill said the team will be careful during camp and preseason with forwards Jamie Benn and Ales Hemsky, who both are coming off hip surgery in the offseason.

“We’re going to monitor them. They’re on their schedule; they are feeling very well, and they are starting to do full practices,” Nill said. “They will practice down there (in Cedar Park), and we’ll play it by ear as far as scrimmages and exhibition games. Very doubtful they’ll play the first four or five exhibition games. We are hoping to get them in the last couple games, which is the best-case scenario. We are going to play it by ear. We’ve gone this far, it’s a long year, and we are going to make sure they are 100 percent before they play.”

*Stars players will undergo physicals and do some media work Thursday and then head to Austin. The first on-ice session is Friday morning at Cedar Park Center.

*The first pre-season game is next Tuesday at Florida. The first home preseason game is Saturday, September 26 vs. Tampa Bay.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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