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What to watch for as Stars return home to face Hurricanes

Riding a three-game win streak, Dallas aims for a solid showing before embarking on its lengthy road trip

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars, currently riding a three-game win streak, will play host to a rapidly-improving Carolina Hurricanes team Saturday night at the American Airlines Center.

The Stars moved above .500 for the first time this season with a wild 5-4 win over Arizona in Glendale on Thursday. This is their final home game for almost two weeks as the 4-3-0 Stars leave Monday for a five-game road trip that includes stops in Colorado, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Here are some things to mull over before a hockey night in Texas.

 
1. A snowball rolling downhill

Interesting challenge for the Stars as they try and continue to build momentum on the eve of what is a pivotal, lengthy road trip against Western Conference foes.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock praised the fight his team showed in Thursday's win with a strong third-period showing in a back-and-forth game against a desperate Arizona club. Can the team keep that emotional level going, especially to start Saturday's game against an Eastern Conference foe, with whom they have little history or rancor?

Hitchcock has said on a number of occasions that he likes his team's play on the road more than at home, where they are 3-1-0. If we wondered about the two Arizona games this week being "trap" games, this game is more likely a "bridge" game leading into the road trip, and will require special focus.

Video: Klingberg wants to set a tone at home

 
2. Big boys cruising

A dominant third period for the big line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov sparked the Stars on Thursday. They scored twice, including the game-winner in the third period, and Benn had his best all-around game of the season.

The trio have combined for nine goals and eight assists on the season. It's not going to happen every night, but the theory is that kind of play should be infectious -- and should raise the bar -- for the rest of the players on the Stars.

Certainly, Carolina head coach Bill Peters noted the trio's dangerous potential Saturday morning. It's a tone that needs to be reinforced, especially early Saturday, if there is to be any meaningful continuity -- a word that Hitchcock has used regularly in recent days in describing what he'd like to see from his team moving forward.

 

3. The other boys

Center Radek Faksa and linemates Tyler Pitlick and Antoine Roussel have been key contributors during this three-game win streak. But there remains a need to generate more goals from the middle class of the lineup.

Remember the nine goals scored by the big line? The rest of the lineup as a whole has scored 10.

Jason Spezza, Devin Shore, Brett Ritchie and rookie Remi Elie are all without goals. Martin Hanzal has one -- an empty-netter. Especially with a long road trip looming, where scoring depth will be needed for success, there is mounting pressure for the middle part of the lineup to produce.

Hitchcock tinkered a bit on the right side of the lineup with Spezza moving to the right wing and Mattias Janmark moving into the center position during Thursday's win.

"I think we've got to get Spez ahead of the play," Hitchcock said Saturday. "He's too far under the play right now. He's at his best when he can hang onto the puck in the (offensive) zone -- when he can break ahead of the play."

The issue is that Janmark has played almost exclusively on the wing since coming to the NHL two seasons ago.

"There's different kinds of responsibilities so you have to think a bit more," he said. "You have to be like a connection all over the ice. It's a little bit of an adjustment, but you get used to it."

Hitchcock said he's not particularly worried about the scoring from the second and third lines.

"Personally, we'd like to see them have success so that they feel good about themselves," he said. "We're taking steps but from a personal standpoint for them individually you'd like to see them get a goal or whatever."

 

4. Small (but impressive) sample size

Carolina has played just five games the fewest in the Eastern Conference and tied for the fewest in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild. But their 3-1-1 record, and the fact they rank fourth in goals allowed per game and 23rd in goals scored per game, suggests that this is a team that is going to try and play it close to the vest.

The 'Canes have one of the most promising young defensive corps in the NHL, and newcomer Scott Darling, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has provided solid goaltending with a 2.20 GAA early on.

Jeff Skinner represents the team's early-scoring horse with three goals, although the top line of Justin Williams -- who was on the Stars' radar in the off-season as an unrestricted free agent -- Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen has shown some spark.

Skinner is the only 'Cane with more than two goals (he has three), although 10 different players have registered at least one goal, so there is some nice balance at play here.

They are also extremely disciplined and rank first in the NHL, logging the fewest penalty minutes per game (6.24). Dallas, by comparison, is 19th taking 10.51 penalty minutes on average.

"They just don't crack," Hitchcock said. "They've got no cracks in their game. They make you crack. They don't put themselves in poor positions, offensively or defensively. They don't use their quickness with the puck they use their quickness without the puck. That's a hard team to play against."

Video: Canes trying to 'pack two points' vs Stars

 

5. Defensive realignment

It has been interesting to watch how Hitchcock has juggled his defensive group and it appears there is little room for errors among his blue liners, as Jamie Oleksiak will be a scratch for the third time in the last four games.

Oleksiak had some up-and-down moments in Thursday's win, and Julius Honka will move back into the lineup Saturday night. Oleksiak had a shot blocked at the Coyotes' blue line in the third period that turned into a Clayton Keller breakaway goal.

Hitchcock admitted they may have erred in forcing Oleksiak, a left-handed shot, to play the right side with veteran Marc Methot.

"We didn't do Jamie any favors by flipping him over to the other side, so we just decided we'll just keep going lefty/righty," he said. 

Presumably, that means that Oleksiak, who had hoped to emerge from the "into the lineup, out of the lineup" routine that marked last season, will not return until there is a spot that opens on the left side, where Methot, Esa Lindell and Dan Hamhuis occupy spots in the top six.

"We liked a lot of his game," Hitchcock said of Oleksiak. "We just think that to do our whole team a favor, and do him a favor, we need to keep him on the side that's natural rather than flip him back and forth. To be honest with you, that's a little bit on us."

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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