This is my favorite time of the season. The start of the grind, the dog days. The luster of the season's start is gone, but there is no light at the end of the tunnel of a playoff push. You're just in it.
December means the temperature starts to drop and, in Texas, it actually begins to feel like hockey season outside. We get slammed with cheesy holiday movies (I'm looking at you, Hallmark … ), but also the old classics (I'm looking at you, Die Hard -- yes, it counts). For the Dallas Stars, it has been two months of hockey to get a sample size on this team. What's crazy is with all the injuries to the defensive unit, I don't know if we have a clearer picture or not of what this team is.
But the bottom line is Dallas is in a playoff spot at the moment, and this is what I'm watching as we approach the new calendar year.
Keep an eye on the third period
It has been especially prevalent over the past two weeks. This team is learning to win the third period. Through the first 19 games of the season, the Stars had a minus-5 goal differential against opponents in the third.
Over the last seven games? Plus-7.
The outbursts of offense in the second period were fun to see at the start of the season, but in the grind of Central Division games and contests on the road, the final frame is the difference maker. The Stars are going to find themselves in a tied or one-goal game entering the third period a lot this season. A positive goal differential in the third can determine putting a game away, stealing a win on the road, or grinding a point out of game by getting it to overtime.
Bonus stat: Dallas is 6-3-3 in one-goal games so far this year. You know what makes that record even better as the season continues? Winning the third period.
Video: DAL@VAN: Benn sets up Radulov's go-ahead goal
The Stars have been problematic for the Pacific Division this season at an alarming rate.
Last season, Dallas went 15-9-0 against the Pacific. This year, they are already more than halfway to that mark with an 8-0-1 record. The NHL schedule has given the Stars just four games within their own division so far, but now this is the Wild Card Era of the NHL playoffs.
Currently, Dallas and Minnesota control the two wild-card spots. The next four teams behind them trying to chase them down? They all reside in the Pacific Division.
Stealing points head-to-head against the other division can be the difference-maker in claiming one of those two wild-card spots. When Dallas missed the playoffs last season by four points because of the losing skid they hit at the end, two of those losses were to Pacific teams.
Winning those games could have locked up a playoff spot.
Video: EDM@DAL: Ritchie buries a one-timer at the doorstep
I don't know half the defensemen either ...
And I'm okay with that because this has been fun to watch. I don't know if it can hold up for the rest of the season, but hopefully it doesn't have to.
John Klingberg and Connor Carrick are on track to return in December, but Joel Hanley and Taylor Fedun are playing like this is their last stand -- because it is.
Hanley is on his third NHL organization and Fedun is 30-years-old. There is a shelf life for the fringe, up-and-down player between the NHL and AHL. Hanley and Fedun are at that point, but they have been given the opportunity to play. They're making the most of it, and they're bringing a heightened urgency to the ice. You need that.
Then we get to Miro Heiskanen and Gavin Bayreuther. I'm not going to say much more about Heiskanen because it has already been said. When Jim Montgomery says Heiskanen is not a rookie to him because of the minutes he is playing, that is good enough for me.
Bayreuther continues to raise his stock for the organization. It will be interesting to see how the roster moves shake out when defensemen start to get healthy and a decision needs to be made on Bayreuther. He is doing what every head coach wants a player to do -- make the decision difficult for them.
Video: DAL@CGY: Bayreuther pots wrist shot through traffic
Now we will see where the season goes
I said previously that December/January is when to keep an eye out on this team. They survived the November road rage and stayed with the pack. Now, Dallas gets better stretches at home where they have been good at American Airlines Center and receive actual time to practice.
Games within the Central Division now start to frequent the schedule more, and the Stars have had two months of hockey to get comfortable with what Montgomery wants them to do.
Will they claim a playoff spot in these two months? Of course not. But, the Stars have succeeded in staying in the thick of things between their own division and the wild card spots. Now you have an opportunity to climb the ladder a bit and insert yourself deeper into the discussion.
Keep in mind, Dallas has been doing this without a lot of offense. It's been survival mode for this team between the goaltending and defensive play. I'll circle back to my points on the goal-differential in the third period and the record in one-goal games.
If this offense begins to heat up, those two things may take a back seat for a little while -- which will be perfectly fine with all of us.
Video: Road success propels Stars to winning November
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Brien Rea is a contributing columnist for DallasStars.com and the host of 'Stars Live' on FOX Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter @BrienRea.