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Stars head home hoping identity comes into focus

Extended time at American Airlines Center might help Dallas find out what kind of team it is after a tough road trip

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

DENVER -- The Stars really don't know who they are yet.

That was evident Saturday night, as they were awful at the beginning of the game, dominant in the middle, and not good enough in the end.

The result was a 6-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche to end a winless four-game road trip and drop Dallas to 16-14-3

It was a sobering night for a lot of reasons.

One, the Avalanche were coming off a loss in St. Louis the night before and had been chewed out by their head coach Jared Bednar. That might have explained their fantastic start in taking a 3-0 lead that included two disallowed goals and a hard post. It could have easily been 6-0 in the first period.

Two, Dallas continues to lose ground on teams ahead of it in the Western Conference with losses to Vegas, Anaheim, San Jose and Colorado.

And three, the Stars had a day off Friday for travel, were resting in Denver, and very much wanted to show they had learned from three road losses.

Video: Montgomery breaks down tough loss in Denver

And yet …

"We had an awful start and we just need to be better," said defenseman Roman Polak. "We need to prepare better, especially when we know they traveled from St. Louis. For some reason, we weren't ready. … It's on us. I look up and they had 20 shots and we had three, that's unacceptable."

The players spoke up in the dressing room, and that provided momentum for a strong comeback, as Dallas tied the game at 4-4 with six minutes left. The Stars threw 20 shots on net in the third period and looked like a team that could possibly get a trademark win. But as it has happened a couple of times this year, the comeback didn't even give Dallas one point in the standings.

"It shows that we have a lot of fight in us," said Stars head coach Jim Montgomery.

"You like the way that everybody was battling. But every time we started to gain momentum, we took unnecessary offensive-zone penalties, and that to me was really the thing that hurt us down the stretch."

The Stars are struggling sometimes with the details of the game, and that also adds to the lack of identity. They are among the best defensive teams in the NHL, ranking third in GAA heading into the game at 2.72 and fifth in penalty-killing success.

But so much of that has been built at home, where the team has a 10-3-1 record, and not on the road, where it slipped to 6-12-2.

Video: Benn shoulders blame for loss to Avs

On the good side, Dallas is finishing a stretch where it played 11 of 14 on the road and now it heads home where it will get 13 of the next 18 at American Airlines Center.

Clearly, that will help, but there are still so many question marks about this team. With Montgomery the third coach in three seasons and coming in with no NHL experience, there have been expected growing pains. He has been honest in his assessment, and when asked what kind of team he has, he paused for a second.

"That's a good question," he said. "I can't say we know what type of team we are."

Captain Jamie Benn was asked the same question and said the team he would like to be is: "One that's hard to play against, one that plays a full 60 minutes and brings a strong effort from top to bottom every night."

And so far, he said, this team hasn't.

The Stars are definitely a team that relies on the top line, and that was clear Saturday. Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov struggled in the first period and then led the comeback with a combined six points. Seguin broke a six-game goal drought by scoring twice, but he added that he wasn't happy with the performance.

"Our start was pretty embarrassing, and it started with our line," Seguin said. "We've got to respect ourselves and each other, and it was a bad start and we couldn't catch up."

Video: Seguin: Stars 'couldn't catch up' after a slow start

The Stars need the top line, because it is a big part of the team's identity, but they also need depth scoring. The fact that Denis Gurianov stepped up and played well (recording three shots on goal and four hits in 13:41), and that Julius Honka had his second solid game (getting four shots on goal in 14:50) could be a big deal for this group. Gurianov was called up Friday from the AHL, where he had 28 points in 23 games, and he could give coaches some tough decisions ahead.

"It's very encouraging, especially Gurianov's play," Montgomery said. "Honka's play was good, too, but Gurianov's play is exciting because it looks like he can add an element of offense and give us another line that can score."

And if that happens, the team identity could come into better focus.

The Stars have been an offensive dynamo at home, where they average 3.58 goals per game -- almost a goal and a half more than on the road. So if they can continue that pace and start getting some confidence, then maybe they can be a positive puck possession team.

And if they start to see strong performances from Gurianov, Honka and Valeri Nichushkin, maybe they can be a team with some youth and some competition among several players to earn a spot in the lineup.

If they do that, then maybe we will know what kind of team they are.

"Over the course of 82 games, you're going to have ebbs and flows," Montgomery said. "We've just got to get back on track here."

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, and listen to his podcast.

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