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What to watch for as Stars look to keep Coyotes on ice

Dallas has seen plenty of recent success against the Coyotes, who are still searching for their first win

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars (2-3-0) have a chance to get back to .500 (such as this mark means in a league where you still get a point for not winning) and to establish their first, albeit modest, winning streak of the season with a win over the winless Arizona Coyotes (0-4-1) tonight.

The tilt is the first of a home-and-home set with the desert dogs, with the return engagement set for Glendale on Thursday night.

Here's what to watch for.

 

1. Trap? This is no stinking trap

We like to give credit where it's due (or, at least, when we're pretty sure we'll get called out if we just try and pass off someone's else's idea as our own), and so it was that veteran NHLer and analyst Craig Ludwig pooh-poohed our comment Monday that these games against a struggling Arizona team were "trap" games for the Stars.

Ludwig is right.

A trap game suggests that a team is caught unaware, or is preparing for something else down the line. When you're 2-3-0, you shouldn't be taking any team lightly -- even if that team is allowing a league-worst 4.40 goals per game, boasts a league-worst minus-11 goal differential and will be minus their starting goaltender (Antti Raanta, lower-body injury, is out. Adin Hill, 21, will make his NHL debut) as are the Coyotes. One of the hallmarks of a Ken Hitchcock-led team is in its preparation. That's been borne out on a number of fronts, including the fact they are allowing the second-fewest shots on goal per game in the NHL.

So, should the Dallas Stars beat the Arizona Coyotes? Logic suggests the answer is yes. But should Los Angeles, New Jersey, Ottawa and Detroit all be in the top nine in winning percentage? No.

In short, sometimes, there's no place in hockey for logic. And the Stars understand that these shouldn't be trap games, like Ludwig said.

Video: Pregame: DAL vs ARI

 

2. Turning a disadvantage into an advantage

Everyone knows that last year's Stars fell into a special teams black hole, especially on the penalty kill where they were dead last in the league.

The sample size remains painfully small, but so far, so good for the Stars, who have become a much more persistent and, indeed, dangerous team while killing penalties.

"Our guys are getting better and better and better. We're dangerous now," Hitchcock said, noting two or three shorthanded scoring chances in Saturday's 3-1 win over Colorado.

"When our tempo, when our four (four-man unit) goes on, we're dangerous right now. If we keep working at it, with the speed we have up front, and the tenacity, we can make you pay for making mistakes," the coach added. "That's probably the element of our game that's improved the most is our special teams."

For the record, Hitchcock has targeted a combined special-teams number of 105 as a goal that should suggest a playoff berth. Currently, the Stars' penalty-kill success rate of 85.7 percent (ninth in the league) and their 27.8 percent power-play efficiency (sixth in the league) puts them at 113.5.

 

3. Welcome back, Rick

This is our first chance to see Rick Tocchet in action as head coach of the Arizona Coyotes after spending the last three years as an assistant in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Tocchet was a big part of head coach Mike Sullivan's staff there and that work was recognized when he took on the Coyotes head-coaching job this offseason.

This is Tocchet's second opportunity as an NHL head coach, having coached in Tampa Bay for most of two seasons between 2008 and 2010 during a time of great upheaval at the ownership level.

Hitchcock had Tocchet as a player in Philadelphia and echoed what many of us have thought in recent years, and that is that he deserved another shot as a head coach.

"I'm really happy for him that he's got a head job," Hitchcock said. "He'd be the first guy to tell you he's a way better coach having gone through the game in Pittsburgh. He's had a lot of high-maintenance players there, and he's done a great job with them. I can see a lot of Pittsburgh in Arizona, to be honest with you.

"They are a red-line-and-in team with a lot of dynamics. They've got a lot of speed, a lot of skill, a lot of transition defensemen. They can tromp, and that's the way they're built. So we've got to make sure they don't get loose on us, because if they do, then they can really go."

 

4. Wait your turn

This week represents an interesting challenge for Hitchcock, who admitted he benched defenseman Jamie Oleksiak for Saturday's win for no other reason than Dan Hamhuis was coming off an injury and needed to return to the lineup.

In general, coaches don't tinker with winning lineups -- and certainly the forward contingent doesn't look to change -- but Hitchcock alluded to wanting to make things right with Oleksiak, who has played well, mostly in a top-four role for the team thus far, and if it isn't Tuesday night, it'll be Thursday in Arizona.

"This is a wait-your-turn league," Hitchcock said. "You wait your turn, and then when it's your turn, you've got to take advantage of it. We know Oleksiak's coming in. If he doesn't come in today, he's coming in Thursday. We know that. Everybody else knows it on the team, so you got to make sure you're not one of the guys that the coach has his eyeballs on, to be honest with you."

Given that Oleksiak was one of the last players off during Tuesday's morning skate, we're guessing Thursday for his return. Given recent praise of Stephen Johns by Hitchcock, and the locked-in play of Marc Methot, Esa Lindell and John Klingberg, it would seem the pressure will be on Hamhuis and 21-year-old Julius Honka, who looked more comfortable in Saturday's win.

Video: COL@DAL: Benn picks the corner on Varlamov

 

5. Offense still slumbering 

For all of the positive traits the Stars have revealed in their first five games - and there are plenty - the one element that still dogs them, and which must be reversed before any meaningful gains can be had, is increased offense overall, and some balance to the offensive proceedings.

The Stars have scored 11 times in five games: two empty-net goals, five on the power play and just four even-strength goals.

If you take away Martin Hanzal's empty-netter against Detroit, there are nine Stars forwards who will be in the lineup Tuesday night who have yet to score a goal.

"Five-on-five there might be a little bit of frustration, but it'd be worse if we weren't getting chances," said Brett Ritchie, who has one assist in five games, playing almost exclusively with Jason Spezza.

"Sometimes, (goals) just come consistently, and other times, they -- as a team -- you might score in bunches, and I think that's kind of what you're seeing right now. As long as the chances are there, and we're playing the right systems and running the right routes then, obviously, you want to win every game. But there's not a real need to worry. As long as those chances are there, they're going to start going in."

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

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