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On the Radar: Carving a path

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars

Since 2016 began it's been a bit of a roller coaster ride for the Dallas Stars. Step back and look at the entirety of it, and the results have been about average. The Stars are 10-9-3 with 23 points in 22 games. That's well below the pace they set before that, when they went 28-8-3 with 59 points in their first 39 games. However, most of those recent numbers were anchored down by a dismal January that saw Dallas win just three of 11 games. The club has done well to counterbalance that with a solid February. The Stars enter the final few games of the month with a 7-3-1 record, and their 15 points are tied for the third-most by any team since the All-Star Break.

Still, even through what has been a very successful month, there have been blemishes. Recent back-to-back lopsided losses to Arizona and Boston siphoned the air out of what was a nice little point streak. The goals-against average is up in February compared to where it was from October through January. Plus the Stars have lost two of their three home games. Both by four goals. That shouldn't - and doesn't - erase collecting 68% of the points available this month. But it sure does sprinkle a little bit of water on it cosmetically.

Because of the ups and downs of the last two months, there is a very impressive and important achievement by the Stars that has largely flown under the radar. It's one that deserves some recognition both because of what it means for the present, as well as the future.

This season the Stars have been outstanding within the Central Division. Overall they are 14-5-2 against the rest of the division, the best record of any Central team. However, the road is where they've really flexed their muscle. The Stars are 8-2-2 in opposing Central Division arenas. Again, tops in the division. Even more specifically, dating back the last two months, the Stars have points in nine straight divisional road games, going 7-0-2 during that span.

Impressive numbers for sure. But why is that important?

First of all, being better in the division was a huge objective this year. All you need to do is look at how costly the Stars poor division record was last season to know the significance. Another key is that the Central is the best division in the sport. Success serves as a good measuring stick against quality opposition. But a few other reasons really speak volumes.

While nothing during the regular season can exactly mirror what awaits those who make the playoffs, divisional games come as close as you can get. They are the opponents you face the most frequently. They are the biggest rivalries. They have the most intensity. They are the proverbial "four-point games" that mean more in the standings. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a different animal, but if you're looking to weight regular season results, divisional games are probably the best place to start .

Furthermore, the Stars potential postseason path goes right through the Central Division. The Stars are locked into a three-team race for the division lead. At the other end of the standings, the likelihood is that the Central Division will claim both Wild Card spots and send five teams to the postseason for the third straight year. Given the current playoff format that was introduced two years ago, if the Stars do finish in the Central's top-three and both Wild Card teams are also from the Central, that guarantees that if Dallas advances, they would face a Central Division opponent in each of the first two rounds, and an outside possibility even exists for the Conference Finals. That would be the case regardless if Dallas finishes first, second, or third in the division.

A strong track record of success against those teams could serve Dallas well. That is especially true on the road considering recent playoff history.

Winning on the road in the playoffs is a monumental task. Since the reformat, road teams are 75-107 (.412) in the postseason. The numbers are even slightly worse when teams are playing divisional opponents, with the road team going 54-80 (.403). Yet, as tough as that is, it falls to basement depths in the Central Division. In the last two playoffs when Central Division teams face off, the road team is just 9-26 (.257). Road wins in the playoffs are always at a premium, but in the opening two rounds, they have been like lunar eclipses for clubs from the Central.

Whether it's October or April, buildings in Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis and the rest of the Central Division cities are notoriously difficult to play in. Since the division realignment, Central Division teams have six of the top 16 home records in the NHL. That the Stars have been able to roll right through those cities, collecting points at a .750 pace this season is no small task. Doing it at an .889 pace the last two months is downright ludicrous.

What makes it even more impressive is that it has come during a stretch when the Stars admittedly haven't been playing their best hockey. Earlier we wrote about the average 2016 for the Stars. Over that same span, the Stars are 7-3-1 inside the division. With most of that coming on the road. That hardly seems average, does it?

Giving up six to the Coyotes stings. Allowing seven at home to the Bruins hurts even more. No one can suggest those were acceptable performances or results. But they also don't silence a reoccurring theme we've all seen with the Stars this season. When the biggest challenges have presented themselves, Dallas has repeatedly risen to the occasion.

The goal of the regular season is to make it to the playoffs. And in doing so, prepare yourself as best as possible for what's to come.

The Stars are in first place in the Western Conference. They have the best record in Central Division games. They have the best road mark through the venues they'll visit come playoff time. And while somewhat overshadowed lately, they also happen to be 8-3-1 in their last 12 games.

There are still six weeks left in the regular season. But based on what they've done and the likely path that awaits them, the Stars appear to be arming themselves quite well for April.

The Stars are back home to begin a homestand in the final week before the NHL Trade Deadline. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the Stars return to Dallas:

February has been a nomad schedule for the Stars. The Stars have played 11 games in eight different cities, and have not played back-to-back games in the same city since January 23 and 25, before the All-Star Break. Heading into the stretch, Dallas knew it would be a grind, but they waded through it nicely, going 7-3-1 in those 11 games. Beginning on Thursday, the Stars finally get to set up roots at home again. The Stars open a three-game home stand hosting Winnipeg, the New York Rangers, and Detroit. It's the beginning of a heavy home stretch as nine of the next 12 games will be played at American Airlines Center. All told the Stars have 13 home games and eight road games left in the regular season.

On Tuesday night the Stars allowed their NHL-most tenth shorthanded goal of the season. The Winnipeg Jets, who scored the goal, also lead the league by scoring ten shorthanded goals this year. The Stars will have to keep that in mind as they face the Jets again on Thursday. The other two teams on the homestand do not pose the same scoring threat while down a man. Both the Rangers and Red Wings are tied for the fewest shorthanded goals this season, scoring one each this year. The Stars have scored eight shorthanded goals, the third-most in the league.

Stars defenseman John Klingberg tied a career-high on Tuesday with three assists. The three points gave him 51 on the season and moved him into second in NHL defensemen scoring this year. He became just the third defensemen in Dallas Stars history and the seventh defensemen in franchise history (dating back to Minnesota) to record a 50-point season. The two others who accomplished that with Dallas are Sergei Zubov, who did it six times, and Philippe Boucher, who did it once. The four who hit 50 with Minnesota are Craig Hartsburg (four times), Brad Maxwell, Larry Murphy, and Gordie Roberts (once each).

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.

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