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What to watch for as Stars commence road swing at Colorado

Dallas seeks its fifth straight victory and the eighth in its past nine meetings with the Avs

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

DENVER -- The Dallas Stars will be gunning for a fifth straight victory as they begin a five-game road trip in Denver against the struggling Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Tuesday night.

Here are some thoughts and meanderings heading into this game.

 

1. Water seeks its own level?

Just as the Stars (5-3-0) are playing at a level most observers imagined was within their grasp at the start of the season, having won four in a row, the Colorado Avalanche are the opposite side of that coin. 

Picked by most to finish last in the Central Division -- and be among the worst teams in the Western Conference coming off a historically miserable season a year ago -- the Avs surprised by winning four of five to start the season. 

But they enter Tuesday's game having lost three in a row and having been outscored 11-5 during this slide. 

The first of those losses came in Dallas. The Avs power play is 2-for-12 during the losing streak, but their penalty kill has been solid killing 11 of 13 man-advantage opportunities against during the streak. 

As Avs defenseman Erik Johnson told us Tuesday morning, it's important for a young Avs team to put the brakes on this kind of slide, especially given how last season went, these skids sometimes take on a life of their own.

 

2. Strike early

This is the first of five straight on the road for the Stars. Much has been said about setting a tone, creating a road identity and -- as was the case last week when the Stars knocked off a desperate Arizona team in Glendale -- they will face a similarly under-matched-but equally-desperate Avs team that, not unlike Dallas, is trying to put a forgettable 2016-17 season behind them. 

The best way to suck the life out of a team that seems to be vulnerable is to come hard out of the gate. That suggests the team's best line of late -- Radek Faksa, Tyler Pitlick and Antoine Roussel -- should get more than their fair share of ice time in the first period to set that tone. 

The Stars, by the way, have beaten Colorado five straight times in the regular season and seven of the last eight against the Avs. 

"For me, just knowing that you don't have to put the show on (like teams often do at home) and that, it's going to be hard and, especially here at altitude, it always is really hard," Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock said. "And I want to see us continue down the path of being a good team, especially in critical spots and critical places on the ice and keep building on what we've been doing."

Video: Spezza looking to start scoring

 

3. Special-teams battle brewing

The Avs are 21st on the power play and 25th on the penalty kill, which suggests a favorable matchup for a Dallas team that has been excellent on both sides of the special teams coin, ranking third on the penalty kill and sixth on the power play. 

The one area that Hitchcock would like to see an improvement on is with the team's second power-play unit. Five of the team's six power-play goals have been scored by first unit mainstays Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, while John Klingberg -- another first-unit defender -- has the other man-advantage goal. 

That means the second unit that draws primarily from Jason Spezza, Brett Ritchie, Martin Hanzal, Julius Honka, Esa Lindell and Mattias Janmark has yet to deliver a single goal. Some of that is the first group has scored, and some of it is being on the ice less during a power play. But there clearly needs to be some production. 

"We haven't had a whole lot of power-play opportunities as a team. But there's no doubt, we should be a good unit. We have the makings to be a very good unit," Spezza said Tuesday. 

The unit put in extra work at practice this week in the hopes of breaking the goose egg. 

"I think they are headed in the right direction, but at the end of the day, we're going to have to see some success," Hitchcock said. "We like what we see, we just we don't sustain it long enough."

Video: Avs looking to right the ship against Stars

 

4. Speaking of the big center -- err, winger

Been a slow start for the veteran Spezza, who has yet to score and has three assists on the season. 

The last couple of games, he has moved from his natural position as a center to the right side, playing some with Hanzal and Elie. The move allows Spezza to get up ice more quickly because the centers have more responsibilities lower in the defensive zone. 

"It's always a challenge when things change for you," said Spezza, who played wing quite a bit last season. 

He has also seen his ice time shrink to 12:57 a night, a function, in part, of Hitchcock's balanced offensive attack. A year ago, Spezza played 16:10 on average a night. 

Still, Spezza feels things are trending the right way for him. 

"I'm getting chances, I'm just not burying them," he said. "I think I've had more chances 5-on-5 than I did a lot of parts of different years. The chances are there for me, and I'm shooting it pretty well in practice. I'm just not connecting in a game." 

Hitchcock agrees that Spezza, who has 21 shots on goal this season, is getting in better position to score. 

"He's playing a big-body game, which is helping," Hitchcock said. "He's right, he is getting a lot more chances now than he has in the past. I think this is just Step 1 for hopefully having success. Also in saying that, you know, I think it's a little bit like the rest of our team down the lineup, we've just got to hit the net more and look for second chances."

 

5. What he said

Spezza alluded to the team not getting as many power-play opportunities, which feeds into the power-play unit dynamic. 

The more power plays, the more opportunities for both units to get into a groove. Makes sense, right? 

The Stars currently rank 29th in the NHL with just 23 man-advantage opportunities. That's about half the number that the league leaders in this category -- Chicago and the New York Rangers (41) --- have had. 

Lots of factors, but as Spezza pointed out, maybe holding onto the puck more, controlling possession, especially in the offensive zone, often leads to teams getting tired and taking penalties -- and the Stars could do a better job of that.

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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