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Monday notes: It's not all offense for the Stars

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars get a lot of attention for their goal scoring, and that’s no surprise. They lead the NHL in that department, averaging 3.46 goals per game. But the Stars are starting to get pretty good at keeping pucks out of their net as well.

Through Sunday’s games, the Stars were tied for ninth in the NHL in goals against at 2.41 per game. That’s a big step forward for a team that ranked 26th in the league last season in goals against, allowing 3.13 per game.

And the Stars have been on a pretty good run lately. They’ve allowed just seven goals during their current five-game point streak (1.40 per game), and they’ve allowed 15 goals over the past nine games (1.67 per game).

“I think it’s improved,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said of his team’s defensive play. “It’s something that we’ve worked real hard at. We are working real hard with our play away from the puck. We’ve put a pretty consistent stretch together. The chances have been going down. The game at St. Louis the day after Christmas (3-2 shootout loss) didn’t the fit the normal for us, but I thought we came right back with another solid performance.”

That solid performance was Sunday’s 3-0 win over St. Louis at American Airlines Center in which the Stars limited the Blues to 22 shots on goal. Another recent defensive gem was last Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Chicago in which the Blackhawks managed just 20 shots on goal.

The Stars have allowed two goals or fewer in six of the past nine games. They’ve allowed one goal or fewer in four of the past nine games.

“I think our penalty kill has a lot to do with that, our goaltending and then our team’s play defensively,” said Stars forward Patrick Sharp. “It’s a boring quote, but I think when we check first and play well in front of our net, that’s when we win games and when we create offense. We get a lot of attention for scoring goals, but the reason that we win is we check well. When we don’t, we’re going to see losses. It was a good lesson again for us [Sunday against St. Louis].”

Sunday’s game against St. Louis wrapped up a key stretch for the Stars that saw them play five games against quality opponents – Montreal, Minnesota, Chicago and St. Louis twice. The Stars grabbed nine of a possible ten points by going 4-0-1 and outscoring the opposition 21-7.

“I think we’ve been able to win games different ways,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “We’ve played some solid defense, we’ve had some timely scoring, but I think we are playing a really consistent game, and we are getting some production down the lineup. We’re getting our defense more involved. Our goaltenders have stood tall for us when we haven’t played well. It’s been a complete team effort for us.”

Special teams have been big during the stretch as well. The Stars were 7-18 (38.9 percent) on the power play in those five games and 12-14 (85.7 percent) on the penalty kill.

Stars goaltender Antti Niemi was named the NHL’s second star of the week after posting a 2-0-1 record, 1.02 goals-against average and .966 save percentage (85 saves on 88 shots). Niemi is 15-5-3 on the season with a 2.28 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and three shutouts.

Stars coach Lindy Ruff was asked Monday to name one thing that stands out with Niemi.

“It’s his work ethic and how competitive he is, whether it is a practice or a game,” Ruff said. “He is a really competitive guy.”

The Stars held an optional practice Monday in Frisco before flying to Columbus for Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jackets. Coming out of the NHL’s holiday break the Stars play four games in six nights and six games in nine nights. That won’t leave much time for practice.

“If you look at it, even going through the trip, maybe one real practice day in the next ten days,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “But after back-to-back games, it is more important that they rest and recoup and get ready to go again.”

The Stars won’t have an opportunity to get in some good practice time until after the Minnesota game on Jan. 9. They don’t play again until January 15.

“It’s funny how that works,” Ruff said “You’d like to have it spread out a little bit, but everybody deals with the same thing.”

Stars prospect Roope Hintz and Finland lost to Russia, 6-4, at the World Junior Championship in Helsinki on Monday. Finland had a 3-1 lead, but Russia rattled off four straight goals to take control of the game.

Hintz, a second-round pick in 2015, centered Finland’s top line. He had no points, no shots and a minus-two rating. He won five of 17 faceoffs. Finland, which is 1-1-0 at the tournament, plays Slovakia on Wednesday as preliminary round play continues.

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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