On Saturday night the Dallas Stars beat St. Louis Blues in the first game back from the Christmas Break. It was the Stars' fourth straight win on the road, and their fifth win in their last six games overall. But more importantly, it was their first win this season against a Central Division opponent. The Stars opened the season 0-7-3 against the rest of the Central. They were the last of the 30 NHL teams to get a win within their division.
The victory in St. Louis was key because if Dallas hopes to crawl back into the Western Conference playoff picture, they will have to find success versus the Central Division. For one, the sheer volume of games make divisional success pivotal. Beginning this weekend, 18 of the final 46 Stars games are against division rivals. That comes out to more than 39% of their remaining schedule. Those numbers are even more compacted in the immediate future. Six of the first nine games in 2015 are versus the Central.
In addition to the number of meetings, results against the rest of the division are key because of the importance of those games. As Dallas attempts to climb back towards a Wild Card spot, they will be trying to jump past Central Division teams like the Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild, and Colorado Avalanche. Their upcoming games against those clubs provide the Stars with an opportunity to advance their position while preventing those they are racing with to do the same.
The schedule won't be a walk in the park for Dallas. The Stars went winless in their first ten divisional games, in part, because of a number of issues the team was trying to correct. However, also playing a factor was the strength of the Central Division. The Stars were outscored 40-18 in those first ten games, a number that predictably translated to a very poor .150 points percentage. But it wasn't just the Stars that those teams preyed upon. Through Sunday, the three best defensive teams in the NHL were all from the Central Division. Another one is in the top-12. At the other end of the ice, 5 teams in the Central rank in the top-15 in goals scored per game. The Central is the only division to have both 4 of the top-12 defensive teams and 5 of the top-15 offensive teams. Additionally, with special teams playing such a big factor in deciding games, 4 of the top-8 penalty killing units in the league belong to Central Division teams. Given all of those numbers, not surprisingly, the Central is the only division that houses 4 teams in the Top-12 of the NHL standings, based on points percentage.
All of this is simply mathematical evidence to what most of the hockey world knew heading into the season. The Central Division is tough. Really tough. But, on Saturday the Stars also proved that they are beatable.
There is not one defined blueprint for how to win a hockey game. Let alone, one against a particular group of teams. However the Stars drafted a pretty nice template in their victory over St. Louis. Dallas played physically - or perhaps more appropriately, did not allow the Blues' physical style to back them down. The Stars took advantage of key mistakes by their opponents, finishing on their opportunities. They won the special teams battle, getting two power play goals, including the game-winner. They had spread-out scoring from players who are not nightly contributors on offense. And they got timely goaltending, as Kari Lehtonen made several key saves at key moments in a close hockey game.
Not every game is going to follow the path the one at Scottrade Center followed on Saturday night. But if Dallas can duplicate those kinds of elements in the coming weeks, it could be a much more manageable trip through the loaded Central Division schedule.
And it might very well be that gauntlet of games that winds up determining the fate of this Dallas Stars season.
The Stars have a busy four-game week, beginning Monday night. We hope you all enjoy the games and have a very safe and happy new year. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the calendar turns from 2014 to 2015:
Stars defenseman Trevor Daley is back to his scoring form from early this season. He has scored twice in the last four games, including a highlight-reel goal in St. Louis. The goal was his eighth of the year, moving him just one shy of his career best, with almost 50 games remaining. Daley is tied for sixth in goal scoring among all NHL defensemen. Furthermore, his five power play goals are tied for the most this season among defensemen. He begins this week tied for 17th among ALL players in power play goals. He currently has the same number as players like Pavel Datsyuk, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Patrick Sharp, and Chris Kunitz.
Special Teams were a huge factor in the Stars win Saturday in St. Louis. Dallas went 2-for-5 on the power play in the game, marking just the fourth time this season that the Stars have scored multiple power play goals in the same game. In the last eight games, Dallas has gone 6-for-28 on the man-advantage. That 21.4% conversion rate is a nice increase from their 16.0% rate for the year. It has also been a big reason why the Stars have a 6-2 record in those eight games. This week the Stars will try to keep the hot power play alive against the Rangers (82.9% PK, 12th), Coyotes (75.4%, 28th), Wild (87.0%, 4th), and Blackhawks (91.0%, 1st)
Over the last few weeks the Stars have faced a lot of teams who have been streaking in one direction or another. Back on December 9, Dallas hosted Winnipeg who had registered points in six straight games (4-0-2) at the time of the meeting. A week later the Stars faced the Vancouver Canucks who were winless in four in a row (0-3-1). From there Dallas visited the Calgary Flames who had lost six straight in regulation. They finished a road trip against the Edmonton Oilers who entered the game without a victory in their last six games (0-5-1). Dallas then returned home to host the Toronto Maple Leafs who arrived having lost three in a row in regulation. Then on Saturday the Stars beat a St. Louis Blues team that was 0-2-1 in their prior three games.
This week Dallas will see a couple more streaking teams. On Monday they host the New York Rangers who have won a NHL-best, eight straight games. They continue the home stand on New Year's Eve against the Arizona Coyotes, who have won back-to-back games and face Philadelphia on Monday, before making their way to Dallas. On Saturday the Stars conclude the home stand and open the new year against the Minnesota Wild who start this week winless in their last five (0-2-3).
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.