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On the Radar: Deciding the games

The Stars' best players are engaged, producing and showing off a new identity of confidence and swagger

by Josh Bogorad @JoshBogorad / On The Radar

On Tuesday night, the Stars began a five-game road trip in Denver. They went into it riding a four-game winning streak, hoping to extend the positive results in a building that has provided very few of them in recent memory. It didn't happen. Dallas lost 5-3 and their streak evaporated into the mile-high air.

Before time expired on the game and their run of wins, the Stars were a club making changes to try and spin the outcome. They switched up the forward lines, trying to get more production from throughout their lineup. An injury on the blue line necessitated a change to how the defensemen were deployed. And about midway through a one-goal game, during a commercial timeout, Ben Bishop suddenly left the crease in place of Kari Lehtonen. Afterwards, it was that move that grabbed the headlines.

Bishop was asked postgame if there was anything wrong with him, or any reason he needed to be replaced. The goaltender pulled no punches with his response. 

"There was no reason for me to come out. I guess that's the coach's decision. I'm not very happy with the decision. I felt good. I'm not very happy with the decision."

In a separate interview, Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock was asked why he pulled Bishop for Lehtonen.

Video: Stars can't complete comeback in Denver

"It was time to make a change. We needed a wake-up call ... so I got it. It has nothing to do with Ben Bishop. It has to do with 'Wake up, let's get playing.' And I'll do the same with any other goaltender. If I think it's going to help the team and change their mindset, I've got to do whatever it takes. So that's what I did."

While these are hardly the most fiery comments to ever come from inside a locker room, they are also not the kind you hear all the time. Especially from a team that has won five of their last seven games. Or a goaltender early in his tenure with a new team, who has arguably been their MVP through three weeks. Or a new coach less than a month into the season. Because of all of that, it caught a lot of attention. So, what to make of all this?

If you're a Stars fan, you should love it.

All of it.

You should love that Bishop has the confidence and swagger to make a statement like that. His play so far this season -- and his entire career -- merits that. And you should love that Hitch basically said that he would do it again, and will make any move he has to in order to help this team win. Regardless of whose toes he steps on.

Earlier this season, Stars players and coaches talked about the identity of this team. They talked about being forced out of their comfort zone for the greater good, and the positive impact that can have on a club. It can come in all shapes and sizes. So far this season we've seen Tyler Seguin fight and kill penalties. We've seen John Klingberg log career-highs in minutes played. We've seen centers moved to wing, and guys move up and down the lineup. It's not always easy. It's not always comfortable.

There was nothing comfortable about the postgame comments from Bishop and Hitchcock on Tuesday. But there was a lot that was telling.

Video: DAL@COL: Bishop turns aside Comeau's wrist shot

Bishop has played in eight of nine games to open the season. He has had to leave the game twice in that span. Once was due to injury on opening night. The other was Tuesday. Both times he was steaming in the tunnel watching someone else finish his game. The Stars signed Bishop this summer for six years. As stellar as his play has been (and it has), those images of him in the tunnel may be the best early season indication of what kind of goaltender, and competitor, the Stars have through 2023.

To give you an idea of how that mindset can permeate through a locker room, former Stars forward, Vern Fiddler -- just weeks removed from retirement -- was on the postgame show Tuesday, and said hearing Bishop's comments gave him chills.

Speaking of that mindset, in the last two road contests, the Stars have played close games that came down to the wire. A week ago in Arizona -- with the game tied late in regulation -- Jamie Benn, Seguin, and Klingberg completely took the game over. The trio connected for back-to-back goals and spurred the Stars to victory. On Tuesday in Colorado, down by two in the third period, they again were the three best players on the ice.

If you wanted to pick who the best Stars player has been through the first three weeks of the season, you can make a case for four guys. Benn, Seguin, Klingberg, or Bishop. Furthermore, they've typically been at their best when the game is on the line. More than anything else, that may be the most important takeaway from the Stars season to this point.     

Just outside the door to the Stars locker room in Frisco is a quote from Mike Modano. It reads, "I want to be out there on the ice when the game is on the line. I want to be the one who decides games." It's there as a reminder that the elite players in the sport are also the elite competitors.

You've probably heard the saying that a team is only as good as its best players. Right now, the Stars best players are exactly that. They have elite talent at every position playing their best and wanting to be out there when the game is up for grabs. They are guided by an elite coach who demands their best and will make any decision he needs to in order to get results.

Without question, the team remains a work in progress. Some areas have looked good. They are among the league leaders in possession metrics and special teams -- two strong indicators of long term success. Other areas have looked bad. They are still giving up way too many goals on the road, and the lack of secondary scoring has been problematic. There are things to build on and there are things to fix.  

Video: Bishop focused on Oilers

However, when you're early in a season, results and stats only tell you so much. For better or worse, small samples cannot always accurately forecast what is to come.

Soon, things will begin to balance. The Stars PK is going to drop below 90 percent. Players besides the Stars big-three are going to find the back of the net. Time always brings with it regression to the mean.

Still, as that balance unfolds, if you have consistent peak play from the guys who are supposed to lead this team, that bodes as well for Dallas as anything could. The Stars best players are engaged. They are playing 200 feet. They are producing. They are good enough to pull a team forward with them. And they want to be the ones deciding the games.    

Even amidst defeat, Tuesday night was the latest example. And that should play a larger role in the Stars fate this season than any single result.

Josh Bogorad is the Studio Host on Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on 'Stars Live' and immediately after games all season long on FOX Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.

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