There was a time not too long ago when the Dallas Stars were winning games, but they weren't playing the consistent brand of hockey they knew they were capable of. They'd fall behind 3-0 to Minnesota before hitting the afterburners for a comeback victory. They'd storm ahead to a 5-1 lead against Carolina, only to watch it go up in smoke, before rebounding to score a game-winning goal in the final seconds. After games, we'd hear the coaches and players talk about needing to be better. It wasn't about wins and losses. With an NHL-leading 27 wins, the Stars haven't had a problem in that department at any point this season. It was about playing their game. And playing it consistently.
There also was the subject of their opponents. The Stars first four wins of December came against Vancouver, Carolina, Philadelphia, and Columbus. Mixed in were overtime points grabbed against Calgary and Edmonton. A team can never be faulted for their schedule, and the Stars were collecting points at a league-high pace no matter who was on the opposite end of the ice. However, with so many games against the Eastern Conference and so few games within the division, people reasonably wondered what the Stars would look like when the strength of schedule was dialed up.
Ready or not, the Stars were about to find out.
Five games in nine nights awaited Dallas with a mandated three-game Christmas break in the middle. The docket featured four of the top teams in the NHL as opponents. The Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, and a pair of games versus the St. Louis Blues. Before the segment began, those four teams had a combined 74-38-17 season record.
On Sunday night, the five-game stretch concluded. So, how did Dallas do?
It turns out they were ready. And that's an understatement.
The Stars ripped through some of the best the NHL had to offer, going 4-0-1 and taking nine of a possible ten points. Only a nine-round shootout loss in St. Louis stood in the way of a clean sweep. Furthermore, the Stars were largely dominant during the run. They outscored their opponents a combined 21-7 over the five games. That's an average of 4.2 goals scored, and only 1.4 allowed per game. In the 305 minutes played, the Stars only trailed for a total of 35:30.
In their much-anticipated first meeting with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, Dallas dictated play for most of the night. They held the Hawks to just 20 shots on goal and shut them out. On Sunday night in a bad-blood rematch with the Blues, the Stars put forth a similar effort. They limited St. Louis to 22 shots in another shutout win. In two games that had a playoff-feel to them, Dallas more than rose to the occasion. And they were led by their star players. Patrick Sharp scored a goal and added an assist in his first game against Chicago since the trade that brought him to Dallas. Jamie Benn had a goal and an assist against St. Louis after taking repeated shots during the two game home-and-home series. Antti Niemi was in net for one shutout. Kari Lehtonen had the other. All told, in those two games, the Stars outshot their division rivals 70-42 and outscored them 7-0.
Oh, and did we mention that both games also came on the second night of a back-to-back?
The Stars enter this week leading the NHL with 57 points. That's nine more than second place in the West, and 13 more than anyone else in the conference. Their +38 goal differential is the best in the league. Only one other team - the Washington Capitals - has better than a +15 differential. As the Stars began putting together what continues to be a historically-good start to this season, they received a lot of due credit.
Still, there remained those lingering questions. Can they win with that defense? Can they withstand the physical teams? How will they look when they go up against the best teams in the league?
Well, don't look now, but that defense has allowed just 2.40 goals per game and is in the top-10. It's even better as of late, giving up just 15 goals in their last nine games (1.67). As far as withstanding physicality, the Stars are 5-1-1 this season against St. Louis, Boston, Winnipeg, and Philadelphia - four of the more physical teams in the league. And that last question? The one about going head-to-head with the best in the league?
The Stars just answered that one loud and clear.
It's the end of December. The season is almost halfway through and the Stars have showed no signs of slowing down. If anything, this last week-plus has been their most impressive yet. For even the most cynical of hockey fans, it's getting harder and harder to deny what Dallas has done.
The Stars are no longer a team that's off to a great start. They're a great team, period. They continue proving it at every turn, and they're forcing the rest of the NHL to believe it, too.
We wish all of you a very Happy New Year. The Stars play the final two games of 2015 and their first two games of 2016 this week. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as they turn the calendar:
Antti Niemi was named the NHL's #2 Star of the Week on Monday after a terrific three-game performance. He came off the bench for a relief win in Minnesota, blanked Chicago at home, and then led the Stars to a point with a 35-save effort in St. Louis. He stopped 85 of 88 shots he faced. Overall, Niemi has been outstanding in his first season in Dallas. Despite sharing the net with Kari Lehtonen, Niemi's 15 wins rank tied for seventh in the NHL, and his three shutouts are tied for fifth. Niemi has just one regulation loss in his last 11 decisions, going 7-1-3 dating back to November 27. In all 11 games, Niemi has held the opposition to three or fewer goals.
When the Stars drop the puck against the Nashville Predators on New Year's Eve, they'll be riding a 135:48 shutout streak at American Airlines Center. The last goal surrendered by the Stars at home came early in the third period on December 19 vs. Montreal. Since then the Stars have scored eight unanswered goals, blanking both Chicago and St. Louis. The longest ever Stars shutout streak at the AAC is 154:19. That came in December of 2006. It is the longest by the Stars since moving to Dallas. In 2000, they had a 147:38 home shutout streak at Reunion Arena. The Stars would need to hold Nashville off the board for the first 18:32 on Thursday to set a new Dallas record.
The calendar year of 2015 is one that Jamie Benn will always look back upon fondly. In addition to winning the Art Ross Trophy in historic fashion in April, the Stars captain has obliterated the rest of the NHL in point production. Entering this week, Benn has tallied 104 points dating back to January 1. No other player comes close to that mark, with second place registering 82 points. Despite playing in fewer games than most of the other leaders, Tyler Seguin still ranks fifth, scoring 80 points in the calendar year.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for 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.