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On the Radar: Still Starting

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars

Prior to opening night, Dallas Stars Head Coach, Lindy Ruff was asked about the start of the season and what he wanted to see. As his reply, he jokingly asked, "Which start?" He then proceeded to explain that there were different phases of starting a season. There was the initial start, consisting of the first few games. Then there was the middle start after that, and eventually the end of the start.

Ruff delivered his 'various starts' answer via a smile, and got a laugh from the media members assembled. However, despite the humorous delivery, the coach's message was no joke.

It has been well documented how focused on the start of this season the Stars were this year. That focus remains intact long past the first game, or even the first week or two. Regardless of how the first handful of games went for Dallas, just as much emphasis was being placed on those that followed. Now eight games in, we know that the Stars have begun very well through the first 10% of the season. The club's 6-2-0 record matches the third-best in Dallas Stars history, but lessons from the past teach the Stars that those results can lead down very different roads.

Twice before, the Stars have had 12 points in their opening eight games. The first time was 1998-99 when the Stars finished with the best record in the NHL, and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The other was 2011-12 when they finished 10th in the West and missed the playoffs by six points. A hot start can be a great springboard, but it guarantees nothing and leaves no room for complacency or a setback. This group of Stars knows that all too well.

Last year on October 25, the Stars woke up with a 4-1-2 record. They had points in six of their first seven games, and were in second place in the Central Division. Things were not perfect, but by all accounts, it was a good start for Dallas. That night they lost 7-5 on Long Island, beginning a seven-game winless streak, where they claimed just two of a possible 14 points. When they emerged from that skid, the Stars were 4-6-4. They were in last place in the Central, and had the second fewest points in the Western Conference.

They never once got back into a playoff spot for the remaining five months of the season.

The lowest that Dallas got last year was three-games under .500. The last time they were there came on December 12, when their record sat at 10-13-5. Following that, the Stars finished the season with a 31-18-5 record over their final 54 games. Despite playing .620 for the final four months of the season, Dallas never made up the deficit. In fact, that pace - which for the season would have been the 8th-best record in the entire NHL - still left them seven points back from a playoff spot by season's end.

There's a harsh reality to today's NHL. If you fall behind early, you usually get left behind.

While there's no timestamp on when Ruff's different tiers of starting officially come to an end, Thanksgiving is a commonly-used checkpoint. Over the last six full NHL seasons, 76 of the 96 playoff teams held a playoff spot at Thanksgiving. Of the 20 that did not, 16 of them were within four points at the holiday. That means that with four-and-a-half months still to play, only about 4% of teams that were more than two wins out of a playoff spot advanced to the postseason.

With numbers like those, it's easy to see why the Stars were so focused on their start this year. It's even easier to see when you factor in their history the last two seasons. The Stars have been a very good second-half team in each of the last two seasons. Truthfully, it's lasted more than half a season. Over the last two years, from December 13th through the end of the season, the Stars are a combined 57-38-11 (.590). They have really heated up late, going a combined 26-14-1 (.646) from March 2nd on. However, it has all come off the heels of sluggish starts, by comparison.

From the start of the year through December 12, over the last two seasons combined, the Stars are an even 24-24-10. They've also been under-.500 in the first week of November each year. It was the start that cost Dallas a chance at the playoffs last year. It almost cost them the year before, but the Stars clawed back just enough to earn a spot by two points. With the West loaded again, the Stars knew that this year, chasing would be as difficult as ever.

So far Dallas has done exactly what they wanted. They started the season on the right foot, with a great record. But they also know the job is not done yet.

When Tyler Seguin was asked about the team's hot start on the recent road trip, he took it in stride. He referenced the club's good record early last season and emphasized the need to continue their quality play and not rest on it. That's how the Stars are managing the success from the last couple of weeks and the task that awaits over the next couple as they head into November. That's what they set out to do long before this season began, and it remains their goal.

It's hard to tell exactly where on Ruff's scale of starting Dallas is right now. But we're still one month away from Thanksgiving, and it's a safe bet Ruff and his team definitely know that. Between now and then, the Stars will keep the same approach and look for the same results.

As for when the "start" of the season does officially end, that's anybody's guess. For now though, it's been such a nice start for the Stars, they probably wouldn't mind if it continues a bit longer.

The Stars stay in Dallas this week as they wrap up their home stand with three games. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as they host Anaheim, Vancouver, and San Jose:

Pacific Division

After opening the season with six of their first eight games against Eastern Conference teams, the Stars resume play versus the West this week with three games against Pacific Division opponents. Ever since leaving the division following the 2013 season, the Stars have dominated teams from the Pacific, going 28-9-5 (.726). They have won 14 of the 21 games played in each of the last two seasons. This will be their first test of the season against Pacific Division opponents.

Double Team

Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are two of three players who enter this week tied for the NHL lead with 12 points. They are the only set of teammates who both rank in the top-10 in NHL scoring. Benn's eight goals also lead the league outright. Despite Seguin missing 11 games last season, the Stars duo still combined for 164 points, finishing as the highest-scoring set of teammates in the NHL. Benn and Seguin have combined for 351 points (155g, 196a) in 330 man-games since becoming teammates in the summer of 2013.

Special Delivery

A big reason for the Stars early-season success has been their outstanding special teams play at both ends of the ice. Dallas enters this week with the NHL's #3 power play unit, converting on 29.6% of their chances. They have scored power play goals in six of the eight games so far this season. Their penalty kill has been even better. The Stars have killed off 90.9% off their penalties, tying for the best percentage in the NHL. Both power play goals allowed by the Stars came in the second game of the season. The Stars have gone six straight games without allowing a power play goal, and have killed off the last 16 opportunities against. All three Stars opponents this week have power play units that enter the week ranked in the bottom-10 of the NHL.

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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