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Red-hot Oilers could be biggest test yet for Stars' defense

Dallas is set to face an Edmonton team that features the league's top two scorers in Draisatl and McDavid

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

EDMONTON, Alberta -- For the past 11 games, the Stars have played the best defense in the NHL.

During a 9-1-1 run, Dallas has allowed 18 goals and regained the identity that helped it get to the second round of the playoffs last season. The Stars currently sit second in goals against average at 2.35, third in save percentage at .921 and seventh in fewest shots on goal against at 29.9 per game.

Last season, the Stars ranked second in GAA (2.44), second in save percentage (.923) and 16th in SOGA (31.6).

 

[GAME DAY GUIDE: Everything you need to know for Stars at Oilers]

 

By embracing a defensive identity, Dallas (10-8-2) is moving back into playoff position and shedding the uncertainty that was created by a 1-7-1 start.

"Stingy defense. It's been our bread and butter since halfway through the year last year," said forward Tyler Seguin. "This year, early on, we were maybe thinking about it too much. But we got back to the natural system, which is defense first, and we're finding greasy ways to win games."

Video: Relive 36 hours of Stars' road trip in 36 seconds

The past two games on this four-game road trip through Western Canada have been great examples of just how diversified and unified the team is at the same time. Goalie Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin picked up wins on back-to-back nights. Bishop currently ranks third in the NHL at 2.12 goals per game. Khudobin ranks eighth at 2.37.

Joel Hanley played Wednesday at Calgary and logged 13:02. Roman Polak played Thursday at Vancouver and logged 18:24 in just his second game of the season after suffering a sternum injury in the season opener. Andrew Cogliano played Wednesday, but suffered a lower body injury, so Rhett Gardner played Thursday.

No matter who is in or who is out, the Stars seem to have found a good way to play hockey.

"We're playing as a team right now," Polak said. "We forecheck as a team, we defend as a team, and if something goes wrong, we stick with the plan."

But Saturday might be the biggest challenge for that team defense in some time. Dallas will play a matinee against the Edmonton Oilers, who have the two leading scorers in the league in Leon Draisatl (41 points in 21 games) and Connor McDavid (37 points in 21 games). McDavid had three goals and three assists in a 6-2 win over Colorado Thursday. Draisatl added five assists in that game.

Video: DAL@VAN: Montgomery discusses Stars' win over Canucks

Led by former Stars coach Dave Tippett (who is in his first year with the Oilers), Edmonton (13-6-2) has become a team that might finally be putting it together. Asked about McDavid and Draisatl and their big night, Tippett said he liked the fact that the entire team played well.

"When you have a team, everyone recognizes those star players had a phenomenal night," Tippett said Friday. "But they also recognize we had a good team win, which we needed."

Tippett is reshaping an organization that has missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, and said earlier that he believes the Oilers are taking big steps forward.

"We've got some growing to do as a group, and I've seen some growth in the first 20 games, but there's lots more there," he said. "We don't want to just be competitive, we want to go into every game thinking we've got a chance to win."

The Stars also are trying to find that sweet spot.

Video: Comeau, Seguin propel Stars to 4-2 road win

By embracing the defensive identity, Dallas has become consistent in its play. That was clear in the games against Calgary and Vancouver, as Dallas frustrated both teams and forced mistakes that led to offensive chances. While the top players are not putting up big numbers on the season, Justin Dowling has two goals in the past two games, Joe Pavelski has two goals and two assists, and Radek Faksa stretched his point streak to four games.

"I think we have a lot of skill in our lineup. We have a lot of players who can make plays," Stars coach Jim Montgomery said. "But if you don't have the will, your skill doesn't show. We're doing skill and will right now, and I think that makes us a dangerous team."

A dangerous that would love to shut down the two hottest players in the league and finish this road trip on a good note Saturday.

"I think that's why we've turned things around," Blake Comeau said when asked about the team defense. "Everybody is playing good defensive hockey, we're checking well, we're getting great goaltending. That was the identity of the team last year, everybody bought into being on the right side of the puck. …

"The hardest thing is to get 20 guys to buy into good defensive hockey, and everyone is doing that."

 

Stars (10-8-2) at Oilers (13-6-2)

Saturday, 3 p.m. CT

Where: Rogers Place (Edmonton, Alberta)

TV: FOX Sports Southwest

Radio: The Ticket 1310-AM, 96.7-FM

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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