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Gaining Some Momentum

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars are one of two remaining NHL clubs that are unbeaten. 

Yes, it’s been a strong 4-0-0 start to the 2010-11 season for a team that many of the so-called experts predicted would miss the playoffs for a third straight season. 

But with contributions from throughout their lineup, the Stars are determined not to let that happen and it has showed with their early performance. 

The top offensive line of center Brad Richards between wingers Loui Eriksson and James Neal has been exceptional in the early going, the second line featuring Mike Ribeiro and captain Brenden Morrow has also dazzled at times, and the goaltending from Kari Lehtonen has been outstanding. 

Perhaps even more important, the Stars have managed to come up with the big play when they’ve needed it, finding ways to win close games in clutch situations. 

“We’re gaining some momentum and we really like the way we’re playing,” Richards said. 

A team that never managed to string together more than two wins in a row last year has reeled off four straight this season, three of them extending beyond regulation, two of which ending in a shootout, including their come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues Saturday night.

That is significant, because last season, Dallas also went into extra time in three of their first four contests and wound up losing all three to start 1-0-3 as opposed to 4-0-0. The Stars struggled in shootouts, fashioning a 5-10 mark before they were eliminated from playoff contention in 2009-10, so to start off with two straight wins in the tie-breaker event bodes well for this season.

“That’s something that’s always nice, to win when the game is really on the line,” said Lehtonen, who has stopped four-of-five shooters in the two shootout wins. “It’s something we practice a lot. You just try to be as calm and as ready as you can.”

Lehtonen’s performance has been a huge key to the Stars’ stellar record. For a squad that has now been outshot by a 146-90 margin, including a ridiculous 62-18 in third periods, there’s no question Lehtonen has made his mark. After making 41 saves Saturday night, he sports an impressive 2.39 goals-against average and an outstanding .932 save percentage. 

“He was terrific, he gave us an opportunity to win,” Dallas coach Marc Crawford said. “He was super all night. The goals he gave up, there was nothing he could do about them. He made it look easy because he moved so well. He was making believers of the guys in front of him. They started to dig in a bit more.”

“Sometimes it’s this way,” shrugged the humble Lehtonen, who has been in net for all four triumphs. “In the first game of the year, I wasn’t sharp. When one part is not doing well, another part helps out. We were in a little bit of trouble and I was able to make good saves. The next night it might be another way. That’s the sign of a good team.”

Another feature of a strong team is how they derive confidence from their goaltender and play better.

“Your goaltender builds such a foundation for your team,” Crawford said. “Tonight was a case where we did not having much going other than him. The belief that was built by him tonight was infectious.”

 “Kari’s playing really good back there for us,” said Eriksson, who scored the shootout winner and added a goal and an assist in regulation Saturday night. “And that gives us a little more confidence to go forward and that’s what I think we’ve been doing. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”

In addition to Lehtonen’s excellence has been the Stars’ offense, which has put up an impressive 14 goals in the flow of play through four games. Richards has totaled multiple points in every game and leads the team with nine points, which ranks him tied for first in the entire NHL and is the best start of his career. His seven assists are also tied for the league lead. Linemates Eriksson and Neal are also among the NHL’s top 25 scorers, with Eriksson’s four goals sitting tied for fifth in the league. 

“We’re finding each other right now, we create a lot of chances out there,” Eriksson said of the dynamic trio. “We get two goals again (Saturday) and we’ve been playing really well lately, so I hope it’s going to continue. I think everyone is really excited to get off to a good start here.”

Having one highly-productive line is important, but the Stars have boasted two combinations contributing offense in just about every game and the impact of having two lines clicking at the same time cannot be underestimated. 

Morrow also has four goals, while Ribeiro is tied for fourth in the NHL with his five assists and has scored on both of his shootout attempts. And while the third member of the combo, Adam Burish, hasn’t put up any points yet, his hard work and grit has been valuable as well to their success.

“I think every good team has a lot of lines contributing,” Morrow said. “Some nights it’s not going to be there for one line and it’s up to others to step up and find a way to score. I think we’ve done a really good job - it’s early in the season, but pre-season too, just having guys step up in games when the top lines are checked well. You’re getting contributions from everyone and that’s what makes good teams.”

Part of that includes multiple lines chipping in on the road, where the opposing coach has the last line change and can more easily match up his best defenders against the Stars’ top offensive players. But with more than one line clicking, it makes it more difficult for the opposition to choose who to check more closely.

“Teams that make playoffs and teams that do well always have two or three lines going, so if we get matched up on the road, they’ll have a little easier match-up and vice versa,” noted Richards, who too often last season was targeted by opponents in away games. “You can kind of help each other out in that regard, where they have to try to pick a line.”

And if the Stars could get the third or fourth lines going, with 20-goal scorers like Jamie Benn (who sat out his second straight game Saturday with concussion-like symptoms) and Steve Ott, their offense could be downright lethal.

“It’s great to have depth of scoring,” Crawford said. “Any time your third and fourth lines can chip in with goals, it makes it that much better. You want your top lines, when they’re on the road, to at least be plus lines or even lines, and it gives a chance for some line to have a big game and on different nights, it’s been different lines. Richie’s line was extraordinary in New Jersey and Ribby’s line really came up with a huge performance in Long Island, with a couple of big goals.”

“It’s nice, I think our forward group is very strong,” added Ott, who totaled a career-high 22 goals last season, but has one assist in four contests so far. “You’re looking at a strong Ribeiro line, they’re very dangerous on the ice, and Richie’s line can score any shift and I think when Bennie gets back, our line has kind of proven that we can score and the fourth line is so hard-working, you’re going to wear teams down and open up some space. I think throughout the lineup, there’s scoring to be had. If you look, (Toby Petersen) is on the fourth line, he scored nine goals last year. Throughout the lineup, there’s a strong forward group where all of us can score, and it’s nice to have.” 

Add it all up and it’s got the Stars rolling along at a 4-0-0 record, their longest winning streak since a five-game span in January 2009 and their best start since opening with five victories in 2006-07. 

“We were excited to go and we started off good, so if we just keep that going and just be consistent,” said Neal, who’s compiled two goals and four assists so far. “We’re on our way.”

The path continues Monday night in Tampa Bay (6:30 pm start, FSSW). 

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