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Stars shine in first quarter of season

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

With their game in Washington Thursday night, the Stars hit the 20-game mark or what can be considered the first quarter of the season. And what a first quarter it has been for the Stars, who have the best record in the NHL at 16-4-0.

The Stars had plenty of goals heading into the 2015-16 season, and they seem to have nailed them in the first 20 games.

“I think I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the Benns, Seguins, Spezzas, Sharps, that group that I talk to and the stuff we talk about – buying in and staying with it, putting pressure on each other,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “So, a lot of that credit belongs there, and when I switch things up or think there’s a different idea for winning the game, they’re not scratching their head. They just buy into it and say let’s get at it.”

Here’s a look at what the Stars have accomplished over the first 20 games.

A strong start to the season was a key for the Stars in 2015-16, and all they did was get off to the best start in franchise history through 20 games with a 16-4-0 record for 32 points. The previous record had been 29 points, last accomplished by the 1998-99 team (13-4-3).

The Stars have put together four winning streaks of three or more games and have yet to lose consecutive games through the first quarter of the season. Through Thursday, they were in first place in the Western Conference and tops in the NHL with their 32 points in 20 games.

“Those points are big. Nobody would have anticipated where we are,” Ruff said. “Keeping our feet on the ground and staying motivated for that next game, these guys have done a tremendous job of putting the game away. Win a game, put it away. Even after the losses we’ve been able to put it away and bounce back with a win. The record we have is a credit to the fact that we didn’t lose two in a row, and we bounced right back.”

The Stars have already put 12 points between themselves and the ninth spot in the Western Conference. They were five points out of a playoff spot 20 games into last season.

“I’m happy. It feels good to get off to a great start,” said Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski. “It’s only 20 games, but it’s nice to feel that we are not digging out of a hole now. Instead of ‘We’ve got to win, we’ve got to win,’ there are other mindsets you can have, getting better in areas. Obviously, we are still trying to win games, but how can we get better. It’s a different feeling.”

The Stars knew they would be able to score, and they have. The Stars’ offense has been dynamic. With three of the league’s top four scorers in Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg leading the way, the Stars are the NHL’s top scoring team, averaging 3.55 goals per game. And there’s plenty of depth scoring. Seventeen different Dallas players have scored goals, including eleven with three goals or more.

But getting the goals against down was high on the Stars’ to-do list this season, and they’ve accomplished that. They’re allowing 2.50 goals per game, ranking 16th in the league. That’s a major improvement over last season when they allowed 3.13 per game and were tied for 26th in the NHL.

The team defense, which improved over the second half of last season, has continued to take steps forward this season.

“It’s getting better,” Ruff said. “I think it’s gotten better from the first ten to the second. For me, that’s where we needed to make progress. And we’re still progressing. I think our goaltenders are in tune with what we are trying to do, which helps.”

The two-goalie system with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi rotating in net has worked out well for the Stars. Ruff likes to say it is still trial and error with rotating the two goalies, but the results speak volumes so far.

Lehtonen is 9-1-0 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Niemi is 7-3-0 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. The Stars team save percentage of .917 ranks 11th in the NHL, and that’s a significant improvement over last season when they ranked 29th with a .895 save percentage.

The starts have been split evenly with both Lehtonen and Niemi getting ten.

“I think what it’s done, it’s given both goalies an opportunity to get some rest, both goalies to be fresh,” Ruff said. “I think there is some healthy competition between the two, but I think it’s friendly healthy competition. Those guys like each other. They’ve been spurring each other on, and I think it’s been a great situation so far.”

It’s been an adjustment for Lehtonen and Niemi, but there are benefits.

“I think it’s been good,” Niemi said. “When you get time off, you get a chance to work on your game more than if you play every night.”

The Stars are 7-2-0 at home this season. They didn’t win their seventh game at home last season until December 29 and finished with a 17-16-8 mark at American Airlines Center, ranking 26th in the league with 42 home points.

“We were one game over .500 last year [at home], and that is not going to get you in the playoffs,” said Stars center Vernon Fiddler. “It’s one thing that we have to be better at this year. We have to make this building hard to come into and play against. We have to take pride in each and every one of us to play hard at home and play the right way.”

So far, so good. Their 14 points at American Airlines Center rank fifth in the league.

“It’s just keeping it simple,” Goligoski said. “We can get excited at home sometimes and turn pucks over. We know that we go on the road and win games by playing simple. You get a little fear in your belly when you are on the road, and you just want to get it deep and keep things simple. We just have to play that way at home too.”

The Stars have been impressive on the road as well, winning 9 of 11 games (9-2-0). Their 18 road points are tops in the NHL.

The power play has been a key part of the Stars’ early season success. The power play ranks second in the league at 28.3 percent, cashing in on 17 of 60 opportunities. They’ve scored on the power play in 12 of 20 games this season.

“We’re moving the puck. We’ve got four or five plays that we try to use. Teams will try to scheme against it, but we try to have different looks for different penalty kills,” Spezza said. “We’ve been consistent with it. The nights we haven’t scored we’ve had good looks. There are going to be ebbs and flow with the power play throughout the year. It’s just a matter of staying with the structure. Give Lindy credit, he’s kept us together as a unit and pretty much last year after Christmas, except for Patrick Sharp being added to the unit. We’ve been the same four guys, and now Sharp has added another element.”

The penalty kill has been up and down. It ranks 20th in the league at 79.3 percent and is an area where the Stars can improve. They have scored three times shorthanded, which is tied for third in the league.

Third periods weren’t kind to the Stars last season when they were outscored 101-74. It’s been a much different story this season. They’ve outscored their opponents 29-17 in the final period of regulation. The Stars are 8-0-0 when leading after two periods and 6-2-0 when tied after two.

“We feel [calm this year],” said Stars center Cody Eakin. “I don’t know what it is, if it is those new guys [Sharp, Johnny Oduya] coming in and bringing that leadership to the team and locker room. I think guys are bearing down and learning from our mistakes, staying calm and not changing anything.”

It’s still too early to tell on this. Thirteen of the Stars’ first 20 games have been against the Eastern Conference, and only three have been against the Central Division. The Stars were 8-14-7 vs. the Central last season, and they know they will have to be better in division games this season.

“We haven’t played too many games against our division. That’s where we want to be good,” said Stars defensemen John Klingberg. “That’s where we lost too many games last year.”

The Stars are 2-1-0 against the Central so far this season, but there are 26 division games left on the schedule.

“We've got a lot of games left against our division, so we don't want to get ahead of ourselves,” said Spezza. “We feel like that's the reason we missed the playoffs last year because we didn't win enough games in our division. It's no secret how good our division is, so we're going to have to win a lot of games and we'll just keep plugging along.”

Here is a look at how the Stars fared in some key statistical categories through the 20 games of the season.

Category Stat NHL Rank
Record 16-4-0 (32 points) 1st
Points Percentage .800 1st
Home 7-2-0 (14 points) 5th
Away 9-2-0 (18 points) 1st
Goals For 3.55/game 1st
Goals Against 2.50/game 16th
Goal Differential 1.05/game 3rd
5-on-5 GF/GA Ratio 1.19 (43-36) 6th
Save Percentage .917 T-11th
Power Play 28.3 2nd
Penalty Kill 79.3 20th
Shots For 31.6 2nd
Shots Against 30.1 19th
Shot Differential 1.5/game 11th
Close Game Corsi (Possession) 54.8 2nd
Faceoffs 51.0 7th

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 reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.
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