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What to watch for as Stars return home to face Sabres

After a disappointing end to its road trip, Dallas looks to rebound

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

The Dallas Stars hope that the home is where the wins are as they begin a three-game homestand Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres, before squaring off against red-hot Winnipeg on Monday and then the Islanders next Friday night.

The 7-6-0 Stars are trying to rebound from a disappointing end to their 2-3-0 road trip -- a 5-2 dud in Winnipeg on Thursday.

Here are some thoughts on a game in which there's more than meets the eye.


1. Road hangover?

The first 10 to 15 minutes of Saturday's game will tell us a lot about where the Stars are at not just structurally, but emotionally and mentally.

They did not play well early on throughout the road trip and these two games against Buffalo and Winnipeg come without any meaningful break for the Stars. The team landed at 2:30 a.m. from Winnipeg on Friday morning and then met early in the afternoon to go over video.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock is in some ways treating these two games against Buffalo, and the rematch against Winnipeg, as an extension of the road trip.

"We're on the long road trip until Monday," he said. "We've just got to deal with it that way."

And while the team has played well at home (4-1 and have allowed only nine goals in those five games) they struggled throughout the road trip to get engaged early on, and that has to be addressed -- and indeed it was during the team's lengthy session Friday.

"Winning in the National Hockey League goes to the team that initiates," Hitchcock said. "When you react, or when you play on your heels, not many good things happen. So there's all kinds of issues that go into why you're onto your heels, why you're playing on your heels, why does it take you a period before you get on your toes? That's what we talked about: What's holding us back from playing on our toes? Why is it on the road and why are we on our heels so much to start work?"

Guess we'll find out early Saturday some of the answers to those questions.


2. What's the difference? Same ice, home or away, right?

Right, but it's about the attitude -- the swagger that many teams carry into home games that is difficult to replicate on the road.

The Stars are living proof of that on both sides of the ledger.

"It's not about sleeping in different places or other beds it's just a matter of being prepared that you're going to come out really hard," said defenseman John Klingberg. "We're going to have to do something about it and not just back away."

Against a Sabres team still trying to find its footing under new head coach Phil Housley, it would seem imperative that the Stars exhibit that kind of urgency to start Saturday's contest.

In fact, it's likely not overstating it to suggest that if they have the kind of mental toughness that is required to be successful in this league that will be a given after a disappointing end to the road trip.

If not, well, that's a whole other issue, no?


3. The kids aren't going anywhere -- not right away

With Martin Hanzal and Brett Ritchie both sidelined at least until next Friday's game against the Islanders, look for more work to be done and more responsibility to be given to the youngsters, including Jason Dickinson, who was called up from Texas for Thursday's game.

He played some on the wing, but also at his natural position of center, and it was a bit much at times, especially in the Dallas zone, Hitchcock said.

Dickinson also took an offensive-zone penalty that led to the Jets' first of two first-period power-play goals.

Still, on the offensive side of the puck, Hitchcock has high hopes for the first-round draft pick, who looks to start playing on a line with Jason Spezza and Devin Shore.

"He looks like a guy who, especially from the red line in, can really help us right now.," Hitchcock said.

What is implied is that the young guy, including fellow rookies Gemel Smith and Remi Elie, are going to have to produce if the Stars are going to be the kind of dangerous four-line team their on-paper lineup suggests they should be.

Smith, especially, has come in for some high praise from Hitchcock in recent days.

"He's getting better and better. For me, so far, since the start of the year, he's been our most-improved player."


4. Kari's turn

Some folks might have raised an eyebrow or two when it was announced that Kari Lehtonen was going to start at home Saturday. And it's more a reflection on Lehtonen's play in Calgary than dissatisfaction with the play of Ben Bishop, who will undoubtedly start Monday.

Unless, of course, Lehtonen pitches a shutout against Buffalo. But we digress.

Sort of.

The point is that at a time on the road trip when the Stars needed Lehtonen to step into the breach, having lost the first two games in Colorado and Edmonton, Lehtonen was very good in a 2-1 win. His stop of a shorthanded breakaway by Mikael Backlund was a game-saver as the Stars had to come from behind for the important victory, which turned out to be Lehtonen's first of the season.

Lehtonen is 1-3-0 on the season with an .896 save percentage, but this start gives Lehtonen the chance to build on an important win in Calgary and build up the kind of trust that is critical to ongoing success.

"I think every game when your backup goalie is important, because you're getting situations that are not an advantage for the team," Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock said that with the team's energy level in question, given the end of the long road trip without a break, it's going to be up to Lehtonen to reprise his role.

"He did a great in Calgary, and we hope he does the same job again," he said. 

And if he does play well again, Hitchcock acknowledged that, perhaps, he needs to rethink how he deploys the veteran, who still has a starter's mentality.

"If he plays really well tonight, we got to think about that," Hitchcock said. "We've got to think about maybe adding some more games into the mix for him."


5. Take advantage of what the schedule gives you

No question the 4-7-2 Sabres have struggled under the Hall-of-Famer Housley, but they have slowly started to right the ship.

The Sabres rank 25th in goals scored per game and 28th in goals allowed per game. The power play is 26th. But anyone who thinks a lineup with Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane can't take advantage, especially if you're a team that's lacking a little confidence or energy right now, then you don't watch much NHL hockey. "

Well, three great centers," Hitchcock said. "Obviously that drives the bus. They got a lot of firepower. They got a lot of people that really know how to put the puck in the net. They've added scoring players like (Jason) Pominville. They don't need much of an opportunity to get points. Another test for us if we let 'em loose like Arizona did, they're going to get five on your halfway through the hockey game."

The plan? Stay tight and try and wear the Sabres down in the third period. "We've had bad first periods so we have to change it," said Radek Faksa. "We have to come strong and just very excited to be home and I believe we will come strong."

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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