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Stepneski: Through 20 games, Stars' season has been up and down

The Stars have shined at home and been lackluster on the road

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars have hit the 20-game mark of the season which is considered a good point to take stock of the team. So, where does coach Ken Hitchcock see his team through what is basically the first quarter of the season.

"I see a team forging an identity. It's a process. I'm really enjoying the process because I'm seeing a team emerge," Hitchcock said. "It's going to be hard, it's going to be very challenging, and we've got a long way to go. We've got some pieces in place that are starting to emerge different from what people were looking at. That's what we felt, that there was more to us than just the high-profile guys. We're starting to see some of that emerge and, I think, at the end of the day and by the end of the year we're going to be a really hard team to play against."

The Stars hit the 20-game mark with Saturday's 6-3 win over Edmonton. It was far from a work of art, but Hitchcock said the Stars can't be about painting Rembrandts if they are going to be successful. Saturday's game was a hard-fought, emotional, physical affair.

"You saw today how we're built. This is what we've got, this is our team," Hitchcock said. "This is the way we're built, and we can really play greasy hockey. We're going to have to, that's a hard way to play, but it's effective. We needed more participants in that role, and that would open up space for other people, and that's exactly what it did [Saturday]. … We need more guys harder to play against if we expect to do any damage in the Central Division. We're not going to wow-factor you. We needed a really greasy team, and we're starting to see that now."

But overall, it's been an up and down first 20 games for the Stars who have excelled at home and struggled on the road.

Video: DAL@VAN: Radulov wires home GWG in overtime

 

The Record

The Stars are 10-9-1, and it's been a tale of home and away. In Dallas, they've been very good with a 7-2-0 record and not so good on the road where they are 3-7-1. It's stating the obvious - but we'll state it anyway - they must get better on the road.

Some of those losses on the road have turned on short stretches in the game where the Stars were unable to handle strong surges by the opposition.

"We are playing pretty good at home, and we have to bring that on the road," said defenseman John Klingberg. "We have to be mentally prepared to play on the road. We've let the momentum slip in the games on the road."

Overall, 10-9-1 doesn't look that impressive. But the Stars aren't operating in a vacuum, there's a lot of stuff going on around them, and if you look at the standings in the Western Conference, eight teams ranked sixth to 13th are bunched up between 22 and 20 points. And the Stars are right in the middle of that quagmire and sitting outside a playoff spot based on points percentage. Call it mediocrity or call it parity, but that's where the league is right now. There's still a lot to be sorted out from now until April.

Then there is the Central Division. St. Louis (15-5-1) and Winnipeg (12-4-3) are both off to strong starts. Nashville (11-6-2) has turned things around following a sluggish start. Chicago (10-8-2), Colorado (10-8-1), and Minnesota (9-8-2) are right there with the Stars in the standings. The Stars are 1-5-0 against the Central, and they'll have to improve there.

"We're in a dogfight and every day matters. I think our players realize that," Hitchcock said. "We're competitive as heck, and we're going to have to have a lot of things go right to have success but so are a lot of other teams."

Video: VGK@DAL: Seguin nets redirect on power play

 

Goals For

The Stars are averaging 2.9 goals per game, ranked 19th in the league. As with the record, numbers are much different at home than they are on the road. At home, the Stars rank ninth in goal scoring (3.56 per game) and on the road they are tied for 28th (2.36 per game).

A big issue for the Stars through the first 20 games was not enough guys chipping in offensively. A lot of the scoring was coming from about four guys and three of them - Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov - were playing on the same line. Through 15 games, Benn, Seguin, and Radulov had accounted for half the team's goals. Those three plus defenseman John Klingberg had accounted for 51 percent of the team's points.

So, after a 4-1 loss to Winnipeg in Game 15, Hitchcock made changes, saying the Stars needed to be in a better position to compete with top teams. He broke up his top line, moving Benn to center with Radulov on his right wing and had Seguin centering another line. The goal was to get more players involved in key roles and spread the wealth offensively.

Five games into the changes, the results have been mixed. The Stars won 5-0 over the Islanders and 6-3 over the Oilers at home, and then scored just five goals on a three-game road trip against Carolina, Florida, and Tampa Bay. Hitchcock said he plans to stick with Benn and Seguin as a one-two punch at center.

"We have no choice," Hitchcock said. "We have to do something like this because I can't put those three guys together and say you've got to check the top line, you've got to score all the goals, you've got to kill all the penalties, and you've got to do all the stuff on the power play. It's too much. I've got to be able to find other participants to help this along or by November 30th we are going to be dealing with burn out."

But among the forwards there have been others contributing. Radek Faksa has scored five goals despite getting about 12 minutes of ice time per game. Mattias Janmark has chipped in 10 points (four goals, six assists). But forwards Jason Spezza (two goals), Antoine Roussel (two goals), Devin Shore (one goal), and Brett Ritchie (one goal) have struggled to get on track on the goal scoring front.

Five-on-five scoring also has been an issue. The Stars have been outscored 39-35 including 28-15 on the road. The overall numbers look a little better after they outscored the Oilers 5-1 during five-on-five play Saturday.

They've scored a league-low 13 goals in the third period as well.

Video: COL@DAL: Bishop denies Landeskog's chance in close

 

Goals Against

The Stars rank 16th in the league in goals against at 3.0 goals per game. Again, it's a home vs. road issue. At home, they've been outstanding in allowing a league-low 1.89 goals per game. In six of the nine home games the Stars have allowed two goals or fewer. On the road, they rank 27th in allowing 3.91 per game. In eight of the 11 road games they've allowed four goals or more.

There are a lot of positive numbers on the defensive side of things for the Stars. They allow 28.8 shots per game which is the second-fewest allowed in the league. They allow the third-fewest high-danger chances per 60 minutes at five-on-five. Even on the road they are top 10 in both shots against and high-danger chances against during five-on-five play.

Still, when on the road the goals against can pile up because mistakes seem to pile up. Hitchcock said some of that is experience and improvement will come with time. And some of it has to do with patience.

"When we get down on the road we try to hit the home run. That's what we want to avoid. We want to keep chipping away knowing that you are going to have to come back and get points," Hitchcock said. "The one thing we've been guilty in the first 20 games is swinging for the fences and trying to get it all back in one shift, and that's kind of escalated. You like the desire, but we go from limited risk to full risk, and sometimes that ends up in the back of the net on the road. You get away with it sometimes at home, but you don't get away with it on the road."

The Stars rank 26th in the league with a team save percentage of .896. Both goaltenders have had their ups and downs. Ben Bishop is 8-6-1 with a 2.78 goals against average and .905 save percentage. Kari Lehtonen is 2-3-1 with a 2.89 goals against average and .897 save percentage.

Bishop has been superb at home posting a 6-1-0 record, 1.36 GAA and .948 SV%. Despite the team's woes on the road, Lehtonen's numbers away from home aren't bad at 1-2-1, 2.51 and .905.

Video: EDM@DAL: Spezza snipes one past Talbot for PPG 

 

Special Teams

Special teams have been a major area of improvement so far this season. The power play ranks second in the league at 27.4 percent, and it has been good both at home and on the road. It ranks first in the league on the road at 32.3 percent and 10th at home at 22.8 percent.

The penalty kill has slipped recently, especially on the road, and now ranks 11th in the league at 83.3 percent. It's fifth at home (91.4 percent) but 23rd on the road (75.7 percent).

Hitchcock set a target of the overall power-play-and penalty-kill percentages adding up to 105 for the Stars having a shot at making the playoffs. Right now, they are at 110.7 which ranks second in the league. Only Tampa Bay (111.8) is better.

Including shorthanded goals for and against, the Stars have outscored the opposition 18-15 in special teams play, so they are a plus in that area through the first 20 games.

 Video: NYI@DAL: Janmark slaps home SHG off turnover

 

Looking ahead

The next 21 games will take the Stars to the midpoint of the season. That stretch will include 11 games at home and 10 on the road. Ten of those 21 games will come against Central Division foes including three games against Chicago, two against Colorado, two against St. Louis, two against Nashville, and one against Minnesota. There will be another long road trip, this one to the northeast to take on the Rangers, Islanders, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. So, they are big tests looming over the next quarter of the season.

This story was not subject to 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.

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