Last year there was a troubling trend in Dallas Stars games. For whatever reason, things would be going well, and then something would happen and suddenly they weren't. It wasn't always the same thing, but it was something. It became one of the more frustrating things surrounding the season, and it eventually became an obstacle too large for the Stars to hurdle. The emphasis on playing responsibly this season is an effort to limit the times when those turning points have the adverse impact they did a year ago.
That's not to say the Stars were the only team that had this issue. No team is immune to the opposition gaining momentum and running with it. And all throughout the league, two-goal leads were being given away like party favors.
But one of the keys to success this season has to be tightening up when Dallas needs to. That means winning more third periods, protecting more leads, and not allowing the game-changing play to go against them.
Through the first couple of games this season, the Stars were tested in that department on both nights. In each game Dallas took a two-goal lead into the second half of the contest. In Thursday's opener, they closed the show decidedly with a 3-0 win over Pittsburgh. On Saturday night, they weren't as successful and experienced their first negative turning point of the season.
With just under seven minutes to play in the second period, the Stars were very much in control. They had a 3-1 lead and had outshot the Colorado Avalanche 19-13. Then it happened. It seemed innocent enough. A spinning puck that goaltender Antti Niemi got underneath and lifted over the glass for a Delay of Game penalty.
Up until that point, the Stars had scored six goals and allowed just one for the season. Niemi had stopped 49 of the first 50 shots he faced in a Stars sweater. The penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4 over a game and a half.
And then the puck sailed over the glass.
Just over a minute later, the Avs scored on the power play to get within one. Shortly thereafter, the Stars took another avoidable penalty - this one a Too Many Men call - and the Avs cashed in again to tie the score before second intermission. In a blink of an eye, the Stars went from dominating to not. The Avs ran away with the game in the third period, scoring three times, ending the night with five unanswered goals. All of them coming after the turning points from late in the second period.
Let me be clear. This is not to say that Saturday means this year is a repeat of last year. Not at all. It is worth more than just mentioning that in Thursday's opener, there was a chance for one of those turning points and the Stars powered right through it. The Stars were up 2-0 against a premier offense and had a would-be third goal disallowed. On that play the Stars were penalized, giving one of the more potent power plays a chance to get within a goal and completely change the game.
They never blinked.
At home, in the third period - where both areas were problematic last season - the Stars stared down the Pittsburgh power play, quickly answered with a power play strike of their own, and clamped down for a very impressive 3-0 opening night win.
It was a terrific way to open the season. There were so many areas the Stars wanted to improve from last year. Their play down the stretch of a game. Their record at home. Their special teams at American Airlines Center. Their goaltending. Check, check, check, and check. But on Saturday night, the second half didn't follow the same script.
No team will protect every lead. And no team goes 82-0. What happened to the Stars in Denver is not some precursor of concern, just as Thursday night's performance was not an anointment that Dallas is infallible. They are merely two games in a story of 82. And the goal is to make sure the majority end more like Thursday than they did on Saturday.
What makes the weekend notable for the Stars going forward is how they respond. When the Stars added Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, and Niemi in the offseason, they talked as much about their character and their leadership as they did their on-ice ability. The Stars had a tough time recovering when things started to go sideways last year. Those additions, combined with a fresh start and new approach from the returners, are supposed to keep the Stars on track when the road gets a little bumpy. Dallas feels like they have the right group for that.
On Tuesday night, the Stars take the ice for the first time this season coming off of a loss. Saturday was a second-half performance that Head Coach Lindy Ruff called, "not good enough" and "embarrassing." We're only two games into the season, but with the focus paid to the start of this season, and the year Dallas had to endure last season, the Stars need a big response. This is not last season. It's a different year. The team needs to go out and prove it.
The top players have to respond to being challenged by their coach. Kari Lehtonen has to respond after not starting either of the first two games. The team has to respond to a lackluster finish to what was otherwise a solid opening week.
When the game started to slip from their control on Saturday, the Stars didn't respond how they wanted to. But now off the heels of their first loss, and the fashion in which it came, they must respond like they need to.
The Stars return to action on Tuesday when the Edmonton Oilers come to town. They then hit the road with stops in Tampa Bay and Florida to cap the week. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as they do:
Rookie forward Mattias Janmark was the talk of the preseason, coming out of virtually nowhere to win a roster spot. He has seized the opportunity as well as he could have dreamed through a pair of games. Janmark scored just 1:39 into his NHL debut on Thursday, getting a goal on his first shot and his first shift. He bettered that on Saturday with a goal 20 seconds into the game in Denver. With all the offensive firepower the Stars have, the 22 year-old Janmark is one of only two players on the team with multiple goals through two games this season. (Cody Eakin is the other.)
Stars forward Ales Hemsky is off to a flying start in his second season in Dallas. He scored a goal and added an assist on opening night, and has three points in his first two games. Last season was his first beginning outside of Edmonton, and Hemsky struggled to find his game initially. After tallying an assist on opening night, he went 14 games without another point and did not score his first goal until late November. Coming off of offseason hip surgery, Hemsky has looked like one of the Stars best forwards out of the gates this year, and much more like the player who registered 494 points in 672 games prior to signing in Dallas. He'll try to keep his strong play going on Tuesday against the Oilers, the team for which Hemsky played his first 11 seasons in the NHL.
In an 82-game season the Stars only play 32 games against Eastern Conference opponents. However, nearly half of those this year come in the first month and a half of the season. The Stars play Eastern opponents in 15 of their first 22 games of the season. They will only play 17 more in the final 60 games of the year. By the time the initial seven-week stretch is over, the Stars season-series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Buffalo Sabres will all be done. Last season the Stars were outstanding against the East with a 19-11-2 record. That was 12 points better than they were the prior year. Dating back to last year, the Stars have won six consecutive games vs. East opponents and have won eight of the last nine. On Thursday night, Dallas begins a four-game road trip through the East where they will visit Tampa Bay, Florida, Philadelphia, and finish with an opening night rematch vs. Pittsburgh.
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.