"We got off to a much better start. We committed ourselves to defense,” said Stars center Jason Spezza.
The start and team defense were two of the key areas the Stars were talking about before training camp even started in September. The start was superb as the Stars racked up a 28-8-3 (59 points) record over the first three months of the season and were sitting with the NHL’s best record as the calendar flipped from 2015 to 2016. They struggled in January (3-6-2) and there was another little bump in February, but they finished 12-3-2 over their final 17 games.
On the defensive side, the Stars cut the goals-against number down to 2.78 per game this season. While that number doesn’t jump out at you and they tied for 19th in the league, it was a significant improvement over last season when the Stars allowed 3.13 goals per game and tied for 26th in the NHL. Plus, over the final ten games of this season the Stars allowed 19 goals or 1.9 per game.
“This last 10-12 games the goals against went down and the goals went up,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “I think that's the biggest difference overall, not giving up the high-quality chances at inopportune times of the game.”
The Stars wanted to be better at home, and they were, posting a 28-11-2 (58 points) mark at the American Airlines Center. The 28 wins and 58 points ranked second in the NHL this season. They were 17-16-8 (42 points) at home last season.
“We had a lot of disappointment last year with our home record and that’s another area that we really turned around,” Ruff said. “Our fans have been tremendous all year long, and they’re going to be a big part of things going forward. If you have to play a deciding game, and you can play it at home, they can be the extra man for us.”
And then there was play within the Central Division. Last season, the Stars had the worst record within the division at 8-14-7 (23 points). This season, they tied for the best record within the division at 19-7-3 (41 points).
You can toss in improvement in special teams. The Stars power play ranked fifth at 22.1 percent, and the penalty kill was tenth at 82.3 percent. The goaltending was better as well. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi didn’t put up spectacular numbers and both had their ups and downs over the season, but they combined for 50 wins – 25 apiece. When one struggled, the other almost always stepped up his game. Down the stretch, both played well combining to stop 267 of 285 shots for a .937 save percentage over the final ten games.
"Both our goaltenders have been a big part of where we're at,” said Ruff. “I do feel good about [our goaltending].”
All that helped add up to a 50-23-9 record for 109 points, a Central Division title, top seed in the Western Conference and the second-best record in the NHL.
But now it is onto the playoffs.
“We’ve got a lot of work and the work just starts now,” said Spezza.
The Stars come into the playoffs on a roll. They were 9-2-0 over the last 11 games of the regular season. But starting this week the Stars and the other 15 teams in the NHL playoffs go back to 0-0 records.
“It’s a whole new season. Anything can happen,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “We wanted to be playing good hockey to finish the year and that’s what we did. Hopefully, we can ride this momentum into game one.”
The Stars will take on the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the playoffs. The Wild had a bumpy ride this season, and they struggled down the stretch, but they were able to hang on for the second-wild card spot in the Western Conference. They’ve won in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons as a wild-card team, both times knocking off the Central Division winner.
“They’re a good team, they play with a lot of structure and a lot of the personnel over there are two-way guys,” said Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski. “There’s not going to be a lot of cheat in their game; we’ll be ready for that. We want to concentrate on us and get to our game and use our speed, make them feel some pressure.”
The Stars won four of five games against the Wild in the regular season series, but three of those wins came in three-on-three overtime which isn’t a factor in the playoffs. The Wild won the even-strength battle, outscoring the Stars 12-8 during five-on-five play in the five-game series. The Stars won the special teams battle, scoring four times on the power play and once shorthanded while Minnesota scored one power-play goal in the series.
“We’ve played well against them this year,” Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk told Minnesota media. “Almost every one of the Dallas games was overtime, besides a couple of them. It should be difficult. We know what they bring. We’re going to have to be disciplined and stay out of the penalty box and play our tight-checking game. That’s the only way that we can go about it against these guys.”
*The Stars had Sunday off. They will practice Monday morning in Frisco.
*Stars center Tyler Seguin, who missed the final ten games of the season with a cut to his Achilles tendon, is expected to return to practice Monday. Stars coach Lindy Ruff still isn’t ready to say if Seguin will be ready for the playoff opener.
“I might can answer that after Monday or Tuesday,” Ruff said. “He’s progressing and doing pretty well.”
*Ruff has indicated that forward Mattias Janmark (upper body) should be ready to go by the playoff opener. Janmark missed the final three games of the regular season.
*Stars defenseman Jason Demers returned to the lineup Saturday after missing 13 games with a shoulder injury. He played 18:39 in the 3-2 win over Nashville.
“I thought he did okay,” Ruff said. “He’s been out a long time, there’s room for improvement, but I thought he did some good things in the game. I think he’s not where you need to be if you’re going to start a playoff series. He’s got himself close, but I don’t think he’s there yet.”
*Wild forwards Zach Parise (undisclosed) and Erik Haula (undisclosed) did not practice Sunday. Both are day to day, according to the Star Tribune.
*Forward Thomas Vanek (upper body) is expected to miss the start of the playoffs. Vanek missed the final three games of the regular season.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.