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What to watch for as Stars cap back-to-back at Colorado

This middle game of Dallas' three-game stretch looms large on a number of levels

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

DENVER -- The Stars get their turn to curse the National Hockey League schedule makers as they prepare for a Wednesday night tilt in Denver against the surprising Avalanche, a night after they snuck by wounded Montreal, 3-1. The Stars will then return to Dallas in the wee morning hours of Thanksgiving and host the Flames Friday night on Jere Lehtinen's jersey retirement night.

Hey, nobody said it would be easy, right?

Here's a look at what to watch for in the middle game of this three-game set that looms large on a number of levels.

 

Win and in. Lose and, well, let's just say it's tight

Sure, it's plenty early to be looking at the standings, but a glance that shows how Dallas jumps three or four spots in the Central Division and Western Conference with a single win. 

And when you toss divisional games like this one into the mix, it ups the ante considerably, especially when those games have been a struggle through the first quarter of the season for Dallas. 

Wednesday marks the third meeting of the year with the Avs. The Stars won the opener at home 3-1 and then dropped a 5-3 decision in Denver to start a long western road trip. Overall, the Stars have been overwhelmed by Central Division opponents, going 1-5 and being outscored 23-12. A year ago, the Stars were 9-15-5 against the Central, collecting just 23 of a possible 58 points and finished a million miles from the playoffs. 

That a reconstituted Stars team is off to a similarly rocky start against division foes adds more than a little urgency to this pre-Thanksgiving clash in Denver, because no matter how you cut it, the path to the playoffs begins and ends with your divisional record. 

"You know what the reality is, is that every game right now in the west -- not so much division -- but every time you play a western opponent, it feels like a single-elimination playoff game. That's what it feels like," head coach Ken Hitchcock said Wednesday. 

"It feels like you can go five spots up and down ladders here, and it seems like there's this quagmire of everybody. But the part I like right now is if we win tonight, and the right things happen ahead of us, then we are now chasing down second and third (in the Central Division). And that's what we want to do. We want to try and see over the next four or five games if we can work our way into one of the top three spots, rather than be hunkering around with 10 teams in the wild card."

Video: Barrie on friendly rivalry with Benn

 

Okay, let's play that road song again

If there was a song that accompanied the story of the Stars' road play so far this season, it would be a mournful country and western ballad about a man whose girlfriend ran off and his dog got rabies. 

Or something like that. 

But one has to wonder what the mental part of the process is for a team that is 3-7-1 on the road -- one of the worst road records in the league -- and is riding an 0-3-1 streak away from Dallas. 

All kinds of reasons/excuses have been trotted out. And it's interesting that Hitchcock continues to insist that some of the team's best play has been on the road. Their second period in a shootout loss to Florida last week was easily their best 20-minute outing of the season. They were excellent against Tampa Bay in the second period, but somehow ended up giving up three goals en route to a 6-1 loss. 

And maybe it's less about playing away from the American Airlines Center, but how the team responds to adversity like when trailing by a goal. 

The Stars trailed by a goal in their last two home games against Edmonton and Montreal, but kept with it and won both. On the road, there seems to be less of that patience. 

"I think sometimes we're guilty of trying to get it all back in one big gulp and it doesn't work that way," Hitchcock said. "I think our players are starting to get better and better at it." 

There's a big-picture element to this patience, too, in that the Stars can't rewrite their road record in one game in Denver. 

"We're not going to get the road record back all at once, but we want to inch it towards it," Hitchcock said.

 

The juggler

Hitchcock has been doing an unusual amount of juggling in terms of his forward units these days. Part of it is not having Martin Hanzal in the lineup again (he missed Tuesday's game and won't play Wednesday, but there's a chance he will return for Friday's game against Calgary). But the bigger issue is coaxing more scoring out of the group as a whole. 

By the end of Tuesday's game, Mattias Janmark had joined Alexander Radulov and captain Jamie Benn on the team's top line, and Jason Spezza had moved to the wing with Devin Shore on a line centered by Tyler Seguin. That unit was the catalyst to a come-from-behind win against Montreal, scoring twice in 59 seconds at the end of the second period. It also marked the second straight game in which both Spezza and Shore scored after long droughts for both of them to start the season. 

Hitchcock said after the game he's not looking to build chemistry long-term necessarily, but rather go from game to game and respond to the circumstances that the game presents. 

For instance, a couple of undisciplined penalties to Brett Ritchie saw him kept off the ice after the first few minutes of the third period. The Stars also called up Texas Stars captain Curtis McKenzie on Wednesday and sent down rookie defenseman Julius Honka. 

"We've got a couple of guys banged up," Hitchcock said. "Curtis is a real possibility that he might have to play, so he's excited." 

But assuming good health for those three forwards the "Triple S line" (our name. Kind of cool, no?) will should be in display at least early on Wednesday night.

 

Avs rising

A year ago, the Avalanche were a .500 team teetering on the brink of what would be a lost season in the Rockies. While their record isn't appreciably better year over year, there is an undeniable sense of optimism around this team through the first quarter of the season. 

Nathan MacKinnon, so pivotal to the team's offense, is on fire with 22 points in 19 games and 17 points in his last nine games. Rookie Alex Kerfoot is shouldering his way into the Calder Trophy discussion as a top first-year player with nine points in his last seven games, and his 15 points are good for fifth (tied) among all rookie players, as he provides nice depth down the middle for Colorado. 

It's not just the offense. The team has played exceptionally well at home after going 13-26-2 at the Pepsi Center last season. They're enjoying a 6-1-0 at the Pepsi Center (plus a 'home' loss in OT to Ottawa in Sweden) this season, and they've won four in a row at home. 

The penalty kill has allowed just two power-play goals at home all season. 

In short, any resemblance to last year's team is purely coincidental. 

"A lot of teams were surprised by Colorado, but I wasn't just based on personnel," Hitchcock said. "I knew health-wise, if they were healthy, they were pretty good. So they've thrown a real wrench into what I think teams thought was the mix. They've really thrown a big wrench into it. They'll be here all year, battling with the rest of us."

Video: Hitch expecting "white hot" start in Colorado

 

Bishop back to back, and back to Denver

You don't need to be much of a student of history to recall that the last time Ben Bishop started a game here, he was yanked early in the second period and was none too pleased about it

While he has been outstanding at home with a 7-1-0 record, he has struggled on the road and has lost three in a row on the road, allowing 15 goals over that span. 

Against a rested Avs team, Bishop, who stopped 29 of 30 in Tuesday's win over Montreal, is going to have to be especially sharp especially early on. 

"To me, all I know is right now, when you play on the road against a rested team in the first period, your goalie is going to have to be your best player, no matter how much you cut it. He's got to be our best player," Hitchcock said. 

But the coach believes Bishop's recent play points to a corner turned. 

"Ben looks like he's really elevated the last two or three games, so I think we've got a good thing going right now with Ben," Hitchcock said. "He's really starting to play. He looks like he's getting back and rounding into really a nice form here for us, which is good."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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