“I like our team identity. I think we’ve shown that our identity is team speed. We play fast, we play hard and we play as a five man unit. That’s what I am excited about,” Nill said. “The coaches have done a good job of building that identity within the team, and the players have done a good job of buying into that. We are a hard team to play against when we play like that.”
That identity didn’t develop overnight. With a new coach, a lot of new players and a young team, it took some time over the first part of the season. But after three months and 41 games, the Stars have made strides.
“I think we’ve grown a lot as a team. If you look at where we were at the start of the year, it’s not even in the same ballpark,” said Stars forward Rich Peverley. “I think we’ve really grown and we’ve come together. I think we just need to keep growing and get better. I think if you look at the standings, we can’t fall behind now. We’ve got to start picking up some ground, especially this coming week.”
The Stars hit the midpoint of the season with a 20-14-7 (47 points) record. Despite dropping their last two games in regulation, they are just two points out of a playoff spot.
“We want to be in the playoff spot obviously, and were not there yet,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “We’ve had some pretty good games, and then some not so good. So we are going to have to find a way in the second half to dig deep as a team and find a way to make a push for the playoffs. “
Still, there not in a bad spot considering they lost eight of their first 13 games, and were still eight points out of the final playoff spot around Thanksgiving. A 15-¬6-5 stretch, including a 5-0-2 run to finish out December, helped the cause.
“I like the way we’ve fought back to get to where we are at,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “After a tough start we had a good run in December and I am not going to let the last two games put a damper on that.”
Those last two games – a 6-4 loss to Montreal and a 5-1 loss to Detroit – showed that there is still work to be done. And it showed that the NHL is a tough league. There are no easy games and no sure points. And for the most part, the Stars have handled the tough league pretty well over the first half of the season. They haven’t thrown out a lot of bad games, and there have been no prolonged stretches of bad hockey. They haven’t lost more than two in a row all season. And in most of their losses, they’ve been competitive.
“Every night we go into a game I feel like we are going to win, and that’s a nice feeling,” said Nill. “That comes with being prepared. The coaches have the guys prepared. They guys understand what they are supposed to do.”
Nill said the team’s depth has helped. The top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin have had some big nights and carried the load at times, but when that line has gone dry others have stepped up to score key goals. There were key penalty shots from Vernon Fiddler (at Boston) and Antoine Roussel (at Chicago), some big game-winners by Rich Peverley and key contributions from Erik Cole, Ryan Garbutt, Colton Sceviour and others.
“You look at our team, we’ve got a first line, yeah, and then lines two through four are all number two lines,” Nill said. “It doesn’t matter where we play, what the other team’s matchups are, we can play anybody against anybody. I think our depth has paid off injury-wise. I think our depth has paid off at the center position, we have six guys who can take draws both lefties and righties. We have a lot of different ways to match up against other teams.”
There have been challenges on defense, where the Stars have weathered a rash of injuries. Big injuries. Stephane Robidas (broken leg) and Trevor Daley (high-ankle sprain) went out of the lineup long-term. Sergei Gonchar has missed the last six games with concussion-like symptoms. But the Stars handled the adversity relatively well thanks to younger players like Kevin Connauton and Cameron Gaunce stepping in to help fill the void, and the forwards stepping up their defensive game.
“Very happy [with the defense],” Nill said. “We’re talking major injuries. When you lose three of your top six guys, and you are a young team to start with, that could have been a turning point in the year and it turned out to be a turning point for a positive instead of a negative. The young guys have come in and grabbed the opportunity. They are growing with the experience and getting better every game, and it bodes well for the franchise down the road.”
Nill is pleased with the goaltending that Kari Lehtonen and Dan Ellis have provided.
“It’s been good. It started off rough with Kari injured early on. Dan took the load early on and to be fair to him we didn’t haven’t an identity and we didn’t know what we were,” Nill said. “Now, he’s grabbed the bull by horns and he’s got us three or four wins at the right time when we needed them, so he’s stepped up. We’ve got good depth there. And Kari is Kari; he is one of the top goalies in the league. He’s been there for us.”
The Stars average 2.85 goals per game, which ranks 10th in the league. They average 32.1 shots per game, which ranks 5th. They rank 8th in faceoffs at 52.1 percent. Advanced stats say they are one of the better puck possession teams in the league.
But the Stars are giving up 2.93 goals per game, which ranks 22nd in the league. Lowering that number is a focus for Ruff and his staff over the second half of the season.
“I think our defending got better through December,” said Ruff. “It slipped the last couple games, and I’d like to see us cut back on the goals against.”
Special teams are another area for improvement, said Ruff. The power play has been an issue. It ranks 29th in the league at 12.5 percent. The penalty kill has had some ups and downs, and is ranked 18th at 81.3 percent. A bump upwards in both those areas will be key.
The Stars had some tough injuries over the first half of the season, and they’ll have to hope they can avoid key ones over the second half.
“We’re going to need health,” said Nill. “Everybody needs health, no matter who you are. We’ve got to stay healthy.”
And they’ll need to secure points at a healthy clip. Even with the recent losses to Montreal and Detroit, the Stars still have an impressive 15-8-5 (.625) mark over their last 28 games. Chances are they’ll need to play at a similar pace or better to give themselves a shot at a playoff spot. And they’ll need to avoid any big slides.
“I think we started a little slow, but we’ve played some pretty good hockey the last 30 games or so,” said Stars forward Shawn Horcoff. “You are going to have little dips, but you have to make sure they are small dips and not big ones. For us going forward, we’re still right there after a couple of slips. The West is going to be tough. Forty-seven points in the first half is OK. I think we got a little bit better. If we can play 40 games the way we did the last 30, we’re going to give ourselves a good chance.”
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.