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What to watch for as Stars look to get out of rut in Calgary

Following a difficult loss to Edmonton on Thursday, Dallas faces another stiff test tonight

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

CALGARY -- The Dallas Stars will be looking to get things right on their current five-game road trip against the Calgary Flames, another team with high expectations that has struggled to find any traction early in the season. 

The Stars are coming off a disheartening 5-4 loss to Edmonton on Thursday, a game in which they clawed back from three one-goal deficits only to blow a 4-3 lead late in regulation.

Here are some thoughts on a pivotal game in (Canadian) Cowtown.

 

1. Short memory

Given how this road trip started, with losses in Denver and Edmonton, and with less than 24 hours to digest the Edmonton loss, this game will test the mental toughness of a Stars team still learning how to put teams away at critical junctures of games. 

The Edmonton loss was especially disappointing, given the key mental mistakes made against a team that entered the game as the lowest-scoring team in the NHL. 

Changing the focus from Thursday to today will be key for the Stars. To that end, Gemel Smith will come into the lineup for the first time since opening night against Vegas. It's not clear who will come out from the forward group. 

Head coach Ken Hitchcock said he would decide after warmups on Friday night. 

The Stars will employ the same six defenseman that played Thursday as Stephen Johns is still not cleared to play. Johns will skate with the team when they travel to the resort town of Whistler, British Columbia following Friday's game.

 

2. Kari time

As planned, Friday night will mark Kari Lehtonen's first start since the second game of the season, which, quite frankly, seems like a million years ago, even though it was less than a month. 

That game sort of typified Lehtonen's regular season to date. 

He came on in relief of Ben Bishop in the season opener at home and allowed two goals in a 2-1 loss. In his only start, he allowed three goals on three straight shots during the first period of a 5-3 loss. He also came on in relief of Bishop Tuesday in the first game of this road trip when Hitchcock pulled Bishop in the second period. 

Lehtonen allowed one goal, but it was the game-winner so he ended up taking the loss and currently sits at 0-3-0 with a 4.00 GAA and .851 save percentage. 

In short, this start looms large for Kari and the Stars. 

Play well, get a win and help restore order in the universe. Struggle, and the issue of confidence going forward becomes even more magnified for the veteran netminder. 

"I think it's like anything else. The goalies just need to stop the puck," Hitchcock said. "How he feels and what's going on, it's not relevant for me. He just needs to stop the puck and help us maintain a competitive level during the game. We don't need saving. We've played 10 games, we've out-chanced the opposition nine of the 10 times. He's just going to have to make the saves that are there. Just like Ben has to do it, if we're going to be effective." 

That said, Hitchcock believes the early stages of Friday's game are important for the Stars defensively, as the Flames have made strong pushes to start in recent outings.

Video: Stars looking to bounce back in Calgary

 

3. Special teams on a special run

So, for some good news: As of Friday morning, the Stars ranked second in the NHL in power-play efficiency, thanks in large part to the play of Jamie Benn (two goals against Edmonton), Tyler Seguin (six goals, two game-winners) and Alexander Radulov, who was reunited with his regular linemates Thursday and had a goal and two assists in a losing effort. 

Even the beleaguered second power-play unit chipped in with an Esa Lindell goal off a nice Jason Spezza feed that gave the Stars their brief, only lead of the game. 

On the other side of the coin, they rank third in penalty-killing efficiency and, as we have mentioned repeatedly since the beginning of the season, the Stars were beyond bad on the PK a year ago. So kudos to assistant coach Rick Wilson and his band of penalty-killers, who have done yeoman's work. 

The team also ranks second in the league in faceoff-winning percentage at 54 percent. They are third in the league in both even strength and penalty-kill faceoffs won. 

Do all those things, and you should be a playoff team. No question. But if you're doing all those things, you should be better than 5-5-0, which is where the Stars sit through 10 games, and with three more road games coming up in the next week.

 

4. So, what gives?

It's not just one thing, of course. And watching the Stars as they have struggled through the first two games of this trip, and found themselves pedestrian through 10 games, we're reminded of the old saying about a death from a thousand cuts. 

Most of the cuts are mental, failing to pay attention to detail. And not to flog a failing steed, but this team will be doomed to mediocrity until the middle of the lineup starts to produce. 

Yes, the second power-play unit got a goal. That's a nice step considering they hadn't scored and had been wholly ineffective for most of the first 10 games. But at even strength, the team has not provided the kind of pressure and production the makeup of the lineup suggests should be the case. The Stars have scored 18 goals at 5-on-5 and nine have been scored by Benn, Seguin and John Klingberg. 

Hitchcock has tinkered with the lines but at some point it can't be about combinations, it has to be about effort and simply getting the job done. 

"We've got to be careful here because there's a lot of things that we really like. A lot," Hitchcock said Friday morning. "But there are a lot of items and I would say nuances in our game that have to change. And we talked about that today. We did a 10-game evaluation today. We put about 20 clips together to show the guys what are good and what needs to get better and we went through it individually with each guy. So it was good. It was good to go through it."

So far, the team seems to be engaged in following the plan. 

"I don't know embracing is the word that you want to use," Hitchcock said. "I think they're all ears. They're all ears, they're all eyes. They're learning how to win and learning how to become a team. And it's going to take a lot of time. It feels like when you're winning all the time, it feels like you won overnight -- but until you get winning all the time, it feels like it takes forever. We just got to keep them enthusiastic about the process."

 

5. Something will give

There are some startling parallels between the Flames and the Stars, and on some levels they represent mirror images. 

Dallas, for instance, has been terrific at home going 4-1-0, while is now 1-4-0 away from the American Airlines Center. The Flames have been impressive on the road, going 4-2-0 while winning just one of four games at the Scotiabank Saddledome (1-3-0). 

If you do the math, both teams hit the ice Friday with identical records. The Flames, like the Oilers, frankly, have struggled offensively sitting 28th in the league in goals for per game. They sit at 20th in both power play and penalty kill, which means, on paper, the Stars have a distinct edge in special-teams play. 

On paper. 

What really unites these teams, though, is the feeling of unfinished business at the 10-game mark. 

Both teams entered the season with high expectations, both internally and externally. Those expectations have not been met by either team. 

So, did we mention something has to give on Friday?

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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