If you've watched the Dallas Stars over the last few weeks, you can tell there has been a change in the team. The most important difference has obviously come in the standings. The Stars are 9-2-1 in their last 12 games and have turned a 9-12-5 record on December 5 into an 18-14-6 mark, one month later. As this week starts they are just three points out of the final Wild Card playoff spot, with a game in hand.
Additional numbers also tell you exactly why those wins have occurred. In the last month - over those dozen games - the Stars have averaged 3.67 goals per game, while allowing just 2.5 goals against. They have only given up five third-period goals combined during that span. They have converted more than 23% of their power play chances. They have also posted a team .911 save percentage. Even better, in their nine wins over that time, the Stars have a .934 save percentage, mostly courtesy of some masterful performances from Kari Lehtonen. They are 5-2 at home and 4-0-1 on the road.
As good as the overall stretch has been, since the NHL returned from Christmas Break, the Stars run has been even more impressive. They have outscored their opponents 24-11. They halted winning streaks by the New York Rangers (an NHL-best, eight-game run) and Arizona Coyotes (a season-high, three in a row). They won back-to-back games by six goals each. They went 2-0-1 against Central Division teams, after previously starting the year 0-7-3. They faced five teams who have a combined 103-69-17 - including three of the top-10 teams in the NHL - and took nine of a possible ten points. In the midst, they matched their season-long winning streak of four games.
They also put together amongst the most diverse offensive attacks you will ever see. In five games since Christmas, 15 different Stars players scored goals. To put that into perspective, remember only 18 skaters dress per game. Most NHL teams have played close to 40 games this season, and there are six teams who have 18 or fewer goal scorers for the entire year. When the season began the Stars were predicted to have one of the top offenses in the league. But even the most lofty hopes or expectations could not have predicted 24 goals from 15 different players over a nine-day span.
The Stars most recent game against the Chicago Blackhawks also exhibited change. On November 16, in the 18th game of the season, the Stars travelled to Chicago to play the second game of a back-to-back. They looked strong in the opening period, matching the Hawks in a wide-open first period where each team scored twice. After a scoreless second period, the Stars found themselves tied heading into the third. In the final period, they got blown right out of the United Center. They were outshot 23-5 and gave up four goals in the final frame, to lose a lopsided contest 6-2. They looked tired, outclassed, and overmatched.
In a strange scheduling coincidence, all three trips the Stars make to Chicago this year come in the second game on consecutive nights. Sunday night was their first trip back in that setting since their third period collapse on November 16. After dominating the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night, the Stars knew they had a tough test in the Windy City. Again, they played a very strong and entertaining first period, with each team scoring once. Then the Stars and Hawks each doubled their output in the second period with a pair of goals. Through the opening 40 minutes Dallas never trailed. The game was tied 3-3 heading into the third period, and Dallas was once again in the same boat they had been six weeks ago. Only this time the script would not follow the same suit.
Despite playing their sixth period in just about 26 hours, the Stars came out the quicker and fresher team. They took their fourth lead of the night on Erik Cole's second tally of the game, early in the third period. The Stars outshot the Hawks 7-2 to open the frame, and 15-10 overall. They came within minutes of what would have been arguably their most impressive victory of the season.
But they never got to the finish line. With under four minutes to play, ex-Stars forward, Brad Richards scored from an improbable angle to tie the game. Anyone watching for the last month would tell you that, despite the offense, Kari Lehtonen has been the team's best player. He has looked like the Kari who shined for most of last season, and led the Stars back to the playoffs. Still, he'd probably be the first to tell you he wants that Richards shot back. In overtime Cody Eakin was robbed at one end, and Patrick Sharp delivered the fatal blow at the other, handing the Stars a 5-4 overtime loss, in a game where they never trailed for a second.
It was a tough loss. When you're on the outside looking in at a playoff spot, they are all tough losses. But it was especially difficult because everyone knows what a win like that, under those conditions, would have felt like. When you're that close to it, and see it slip away, it undoubtedly stings.
However, while they didn't get that win and left a point on the table, it does not take away from the game they played. For the last month we have all seen a much closer version of Dallas Stars hockey to the one we expected back in October. The Stars have rebounded from an early-season deficit to get right back into playoff contention. And on Sunday, in front of a national audience, they showcased that they can go toe-to-toe with the best in the league. Under any circumstances.
Sunday's overtime loss on Sunday feels like an appropriate metaphor for the Stars at this point of the season. They did not end the night how they wanted. However, they also did not leave empty handed. They showed signs of how good they can be. But also had a couple of plays on which they'd like to have a mulligan. They proved to the entire hockey world - but most importantly to themselves - just how far they've come since their last trip to Chicago, a month and a half ago. Yet, they also showed that, as good as they've been, there is still room for improvement.
The Stars can be proud of Sunday's game. They can be proud of 19 points out of a possible 24 in the last month. They can be proud of a season turnaround that many people believed they could not muster. What they cannot do is let up. There is still work to be done, and it will require playing the same brand of up-tempo, physical, everybody pull their weight hockey they have over the last dozen games. The Stars cannot pull off the gas. It will take three more months like the last one to get this team where they want to be in April.
The Stars have been a different team lately. They look like one that understands that and is ready for the challenge.
Dallas has three games this week, beginning at home and then hitting the road for a pair. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' in the upcoming week:
Get Ritch Quick
Among the several positive storylines surrounding the Stars of late was the emergence of rookie winger Brett Ritchie. The 21-year old made his NHL debut last week and was extremely impressive. Ritchie scored on the first shot of his NHL career, and had two goals and an assist in three games. He became the first Stars player since Mike Modano to score in each of his first two NHL games. The power forward showed physicality and poise, and never looked out of place in a NHL game. Many people predicted Ritchie as one of the favorites to make the Dallas roster, before an injury just before training camp detoured his preseason. It took three months this season for him to get his NHL call, but based on his play, he may find himself in a Dallas sweater much more regularly going forward.
The Stars have not lost many games over the last month. However, there has been a common theme when they do. In fact, going all the way back to November 16 at Chicago, every Dallas Stars loss has featured at least four goals against. The Stars have lost nine games over that span, including two in overtime. The last time Dallas lost a game where the opponent has scored fewer than four goals was a 2-1 defeat to the Minnesota Wild on November 15.
Waive on Waive
Last week the Stars claimed defenseman David Schlemko off of waivers from the Arizona Coyotes. GM Jim Nill said the pickup was made to strengthen the depth of the Stars blue line, while providing flexibility with other prospects to get playing time in the AHL instead of sitting in the NHL. It will be interesting to see if Schlemko - a veteran of more than 207 NHL games - gets into the Stars lineup this week with three games on the schedule. Schlemko's addition was one of two waiver moves the Stars blue line has undergone this season. Back in mid-November, the Columbus Blue Jackets claimed Kevin Connauton off waivers from Dallas. Connauton has settled in nicely in Columbus with 5 goals and 9 points in 14 games since joining the Jackets. Columbus makes their only trip of the season to Dallas on Tuesday. If Schlemko is in the lineup, he could make his Stars debut the same night Connauton returns to Dallas.
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.