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What to watch for as Stars conclude homestand against Islanders

Following a dispiriting loss to Winnipeg on Monday, Dallas looks for a win before hitting the road

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars are looking to close out a brief three-game home stand with a victory over the impressive -- or dare we say surprisingly impressive -- New York Islanders. A win would give them a 2-1 record on this homestand following a win over Buffalo last Saturday and a disappointing 4-1 loss to Winnipeg on Monday.

Here's what to watch for as the Stars prepare to hit the road next week for three games, starting with back-to-back games in Raleigh Monday and Florida on Tuesday.

 

The big line scattered

In the absence of anything resembling depth scoring, Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock has broken up the tried-and-tested unit of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov -- a group that has been together, with the exception of parts of two games during the team's long western road trip.

It's not a function of the unit's effectiveness -- they are largely responsible for the Stars being above .500 at 8-7-0 -- but rather the need to spread out the wealth given the inability of other forwards to generate offense.

Hitchcock had brought up the idea of playing center to Benn in the summer and the captain wasn't comfortable. But it was Benn who recently came to Hitchcock about making the switch.

"He brought it up," Hitchcock said Friday morning.

Benn, who takes a lot of draws anyway even when playing on the left side, will move to center with Gemel Smith on the left and Radulov on the right, while Seguin will skate between Mattias Janmark and Devin Shore. The hope is they will give defenses more than they can handle.

The reasoning is simple, as far as head coach Ken Hitchcock is concerned: most elite NHL teams have a powerful one-two punch down the middle, and this will give the Stars just that.

"I think, right now, we were becoming a one-line hockey club. That doesn't cut it in the National Hockey League," Hitchcock said.

Video: Jamie Benn on playing center

 

A goal, a goal, my kingdom for a goal

Listen, it's hard to score whether you're old or young. Ask veteran Jason Spezza, who is still looking for his first goal of the season. But look around the NHL and lots of kids are getting into the act.

Why not the Stars' kids?

Exactly.

"We need more weapons out there," Hitchcock said. "We think we've got young guys that are ready to take that next step. So let's give them that opportunity."  

Certainly these new line combinations put young players like Smith in a prime position to contribute. The key for Smith, especially, will be in not trying to overthink moving to the big line.

Hitchcock wants him to do what he's been doing -- going hard after pucks, pressuring defenders, making smart, simple plays.

The 23-year-old has skill -- he had two primary first-period assists last Saturday against Buffalo -- but he can't get caught up in trying to dish the puck to Radulov and Benn as sometimes happens with young players moving up in the lineup who feel they must defer to their elders.

Same for Shore, who is also without a goal, and Janmark who has one goal in his last 12 games, playing with Seguin, even though the Stars are desperate for more balanced scoring as they are tied for 26th in the NHL with 24 5-on-5 goals.

"I think you view it as an opportunity, but I think first and foremost, you need to make sure you're doing all the really important stuff, as far as the systems and the work ethic and the compete that you'd be doing regardless of where you're playing," Shore said Friday. "But obviously, if you have a chance like that, you'd like to make the most of it."

 

Islanders in a groove

We have, over the years, been critical of the Islanders for their sometimes curious decisions vis-a -is coaching and personnel, and of course, their misguided move to Brooklyn, which is the nightmare that just keeps on giving.

But let's give the organization credit.

Under new ownership, there is a kind of calm -- even as they work to hammer out a plan for a new home and keep the wheels turning toward inking captain John Tavares to a new deal.

The team has rebounded early on from a disappointing 2016-17 season, and has gone 6-2-1 in their last nine and remain undefeated in regulation at home at 5-0-2. They have struggled on the road going 3-5-0, but Tavares has been terrific with 18 points, including back-to-back hat tricks last week.

Tavares's linemate Josh Bailey just had a career-best nine-game point streak come to an end and also has 18 points.

And keep your eye on young Mathew Barzal, who is quietly putting together the kind of season that should have him in Calder Trophy discussion with 14 points. He's riding a six-game point streak heading into Friday's Texas tilt.

 

Injury bug

It happens to all teams and the Stars are not immune to the injury bug as they will play without defensive anchor Marc Methot, who has a lower body injury and will not play Friday.

The big defender is considered day-to-day, so the feeling is his absence will not be a long-term issue. But it will put pressure on a defensive group that has struggled to start games of late, giving up three goals in the first period their last two losses, both to Winnipeg.

Tyler Pitlick will also miss Friday's game, although the Stars did get good news on the injury front as both Radek Faksa and Brett Ritchie will rejoin the team.

Ritchie missed three games with an upper body injury while Faksa was injured against Buffalo last Saturday and missed Monday's loss to Winnipeg.

Video: Josh Bailey chats with Scott Burnside

 

Speaking of starting on time ...

Let's toss out the Buffalo game last Saturday, as a kind of early holiday present, as the Stars scored four times in the first period en route to a 5-1 win.

Beyond that, the team has struggled to amp up the energy to start games.

Most pronounced was the feeble starts against Winnipeg, whom the Stars played twice in a four-day period, but it's been a problem beyond those two losses. It's pretty simple. If you start poorly, giving up an early goal (like the one Winnipeg scored 26 seconds into Monday's loss) or taking early penalties, you end up chasing the game.

And with the Stars' offensive issues, that's a recipe for disaster.

As Hitchcock noted, the team has suffered from brief moments where they have not handled opposing teams' surges particularly well. That was certainly true early in the Winnipeg losses.

The Islanders have been particularly impressive later in games, outscoring opponents 23-15 in the third period.

On the other hand, if you start on your toes and push the pace, it forces opposing teams to play on their heels and maybe take a penalty or two, which is important for a Stars team that currently ranks first in power-play efficiency.

In short, come ready.

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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