When the NHL realigned in the summer of 2013, more of an emphasis was placed on play within the division. Schedules were slanted to lean heavily on divisional games and the playoffs were reformatted based on division breakdown. The change limited how many teams per division could qualify, as well as adding importance to finishing in the top-three.
At the time, the Dallas Stars were leaving the powerhouse that was the Pacific Division for the Central. No one could blame them for being excited to leave the Pacific, which was thought to be among the toughest divisions in hockey. Little did Dallas know, however, that the newest most-difficult division was waiting for them on the other side.
The Central Division is, without question, the best division in the sport. Entering this week, Central Division teams held four of the top-seven, and six of the top-13 records in the NHL. The sixth-place team in the Central - who mathematically cannot make the playoffs in the current format - would be second or third place in two of the other three divisions. The top four teams in the Western Conference are from the Central Division, as are six of the top-eight.
The Central dominance is not unique to this year, either. Going back to when the NHL adopted their current alignment, the Central is the only of the four divisions to ever send five teams to the postseason. They've done it in both years. It is also the only division where every team has made the playoffs at least once under the current system.
All of this spells difficulty when you call the Central Division home. In the post-realignment schedule, the Stars play 29 of their 82 games against Central Division opponents. That accounts for more than 35% of their season. The talent throughout not only means that the Stars will have one of the toughest battles to make the playoffs, but it also means that they will have among the toughest schedules as well. That all-important part of the schedule has not yet kicked in this season. Despite the fact that Dallas is just about 20% into the season, they have played just a single game against the Central Division.
That changes this week when the Stars wrap up a three-game home stand with Thursday and Saturday hostings of the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, respectively.
Because of the Eastern-slanted start to the schedule, beginning Thursday, the Stars will play 28 of their final 66 games against Central Division opponents. Looking ahead to next month, that number eventually becomes 25 of their last 53. The Stars are off to their best 16-game start in franchise history, but their season will be determined by those segments still to come. The ones littered with Central Division opponents.
As the Stars dive into that portion of the schedule, they know all too well how vital these games are to their success.
Last season Dallas finished 8-14-7 in games against divisional opponents, and it buried them. In today's NHL - with overtimes and three-point games - it is difficult to be under .500 in season-long statistics. Yet, the Stars managed to be six games under last season. None of the other six Central Division teams had losing records within the division. There were a lot of tough statistics last year that cost Dallas. However, it's possible none were as costly as their divisional record.
Not only do divisional games make up a huge sample of the season to allow to get away, but points squandered in those games go directly to the opponents you are racing for a playoff spot. When you have a year within the division like the Stars did last season, it's incredibly difficult to overcome. Last year's Stars proved that.
Dallas went 33-17-3 against the rest of the league last year. That's a terrific .651 points percentage. Stretched out over the season, that would have given the Stars the sixth-best record in the NHL. Keep in mind, they played at that pace for about two-thirds of the season. Yet, when you factor in their division record, that number-six ranking drops to 19th, and the Stars missed the playoffs by seven points.
With an impact like that, the Stars are well aware of how important these head-to-head matchups are. They were a struggle last year. One of the Stars biggest objectives is to make sure they won't be again this year.
The Stars have only played one Central Division opponent so far this season. It didn't go well. Dallas lost 6-3 to the Colorado Avalanche back in the second game of the season. They have to make sure that game was more of an outlier than the norm.
This week they have two opportunities to do just that, and rewrite the narrative within the division. The hot start has put Dallas at the top of the Central Division standings. It's up to them to prove they belong there.
The quest for that proof goes right through the six teams chasing them, as the toughest division in hockey awaits. The road begins Thursday.
The Stars finish their home stand this week before it's back on the road. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the Stars resume Central Division play:
Tyler Seguin had a season-long eight-game point streak snapped in Tuesday's loss to Toronto. Despite being held off the scoresheet, Seguin still has points in 14 of his last 16 games, and all-but-three games this season. The eight-game streak was the second-longest of Seguin's career. In his first season in Dallas, Seguin went on a career-best, 11- game point streak from March 6-28, 2014. Seguin registered 18 points in those 11 games. He posted 13 points on his recent eight-game run.
Stars defenseman, Jason Demers is on pace to shatter his career-best numbers for offensive production in a season. His two assists on Tuesday upped his totals to four goals, six assists, and ten points in 14 games this year. He is currently tied for 12th among all NHL defensemen in scoring. Demers is in his seventh NHL season, and has never scored more than five goals. Only one month into this season, he is already just one off that number. He also has only surpassed the 25-point mark once previously. That came in the 2013-2014 season when he set career marks with five goals and 34 points.
The scoring by Demers is part of a Stars blue line that leads the league in points by defensemen. John Klingberg has led the way with an NHL-best 15 points, and the entire Stars defensive corps has amassed a league-leading 41 points this season. Five different blue-liners have scored goals this year, and seven have registered points. The six defensemen who have been regulars in the lineup all have plus-ratings, and three of them have scored on the power play. The Central Division is well represented in defensemen scoring as Nashville, Colorado, and Minnesota all join Dallas in the top-five in the league in points by defensemen.
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.