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What to watch for as Stars face stiff challenge at Tampa Bay

Dallas will be greeted tonight by a red-hot Lightning team that is off to its best start in franchise history

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Dallas Stars finish up their current three-game road trip with the toughest challenge in the National Hockey League right now, the Tampa Bay Lightning, whom they'll face Thursday night at Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa.

Here's what to look for in what promises to be a tall order for a team still trying to get the whole winning-on-the-road thing.

 

Hot? You want hot?

Let's start here. The Lightning are off to a roaring start at 14-2-2, the best start in franchise history, and if you're looking for flaws -- at least at this point in the season -- you better get a magnifying glass.

Starting with a rejuvenated captain Steven Stamkos, who has more than put his injury-plagued past in the rear-view mirror, and his equally impressive linemate, Nikita Kucherov, this team is deep and committed.

Stamkos leads the league in points (31) and Kucherov leads the league in goals (16), and along with Vladislav Namestnikov, they form the best forward unit in the league.

The Bolts are second in the league behind Dallas in terms of power-play efficiency, and no team has scored more than the Bolts' 20 man-advantage goals.

The danger for a Dallas team that has struggled to start games in an effective manner is that Tampa is exactly the opposite. They have out-scored opponents 25-14 in the first period and 51-27 through two periods thus far this season.

Yikes.

Video: Victor Hedman speaks with Scott Burnside

 

Welcome home, Ben Bishop

The storyline dominating this game is the return of netminder Ben Bishop to the place where he grew into one of the game's elite goaltenders.

This will mark Bishop's first game at Amalie Arena since he was dealt to Los Angeles at the trade deadline last season, and there will be no shortage of emotion on both sides of the ice.

Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper is emphatic in his praise of Bishop, calling him the single-most important player on the team since Cooper took over as head coach, about the same time Bishop arrived at the 2013 trade deadline. Bishop holds most of the franchise goaltending records of note and earned two Vezina Trophy nominations while with the Lightning.

His first season in Dallas, with whom he signed a six-year deal in the offseason, has not been without its bumps.

He is coming off a 4-1 loss to Carolina on Monday in which he gave up four third-period goals on nine shots. His season save percentage of .908 is off his career mark of .918.

As for Thursday's game, we spoke with goaltending coach Jeff Reese about these kinds of gamesand there are two schools of thought. First, Bishop knows the shooters well, knows their tendencies. That's a positive. On the other hand, there is the danger of letting emotion rule the day and trying and do too much instead of just staying in your game.

Guess we'll find out.

 

Understudy becomes a star

One of the reasons that Bishop ended up leaving Tampa Bay was the evolution of Andrei Vasilevskiy from elite goaltending prospect to elite goaltender.

There were some ups and downs to Vasilevskiy's season last year when Bishop was injured and he was forced into regular appearances, but now, in his first full season as an NHL starter, the 23-year-old Vasilevskiy has been dominant and might challenge Stamkos and Kucherov as team MVP at this juncture of the season.

He leads the league in wins and boasts an eye-popping 13-1-1 record to go with an equally impressive .930 save percentage.

Vasilevskiy is 25-5-3 since the Bishop trade. Still, Bishop and Vasilevskiy remain close, and there is a lot of mutual admiration.

"They had a great relationship," Cooper said.

Much of the credit for Vasilevskiy's star turn has gone to Bishop, who was both friend and mentor to the young Russian netminder during their shared time in Tampa.

"Bish was extremely welcoming to him," Cooper said. "Some of the things that Bish is really good at -- i.e. playing the puck -- he really helped Vasilevskiy with that, kind of pushed Vasy in that area."

Bishop said people around the NHL might be surprised at Vasilevskiy's play. Not him.

"I could see this coming," he said.

 

Close, so close

The Stars are coming off a 4-3 shootout loss to Florida on Tuesday that dropped their road record to 3-6-1 on the season.

But there were definite signs of improvement over the Carolina game (yes, hard not to improve on that debacle, but we digress).

Most notably was a second period in which the Stars assumed control of the game, out-shooting Florida 18-4 and erasing a 2-0 first-period deficit to take a 3-2 lead.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock called it the best period of hockey the team had played this season.

Can that commitment to detail and urgency to win puck battles -- periodically missing from the Stars, especially on the road this season -- be found against an opponent who lives much further up the NHL food chain? Short answer is they better, or this has the potential to get ugly.

"I think we've played five really good periods, and we want to see if we can carry it on," Hitchcock said. "I more look at playing to our potential. They're playing the best of anybody in the league right now too, they're playing the best team game that's why they're winning. So you want to measure your team game up against them. We want to see at the end of the night how we look."

Video: Stars looking to end road trip with a win

 

Some housecleaning

Rookie winger Gemel Smith will rejoin the Stars lineup after being scratched for Tuesday's game.

He will take the place of Jason Dickinson, who struggled in his call-up from the American Hockey League and has been returned to the Texas Stars.

Smith will likely skate with Tyler Seguin and Devin Shore.

Veteran defenseman Marc Methot, whose presence has been missed on this road trip as he's been dealing with a lower-body issue, has been skating on his own at the team's practice facility in Frisco. There's optimism he will rejoin the team for their next game -- a matinee at home against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.

"We obviously like Smitty. He had a tough outing the last game. He looked a little bit tired, so he's fresh now and ready to go," Hitchcock said.

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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