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What to watch for as Stars return home to face Avalanche

Coming off a tough loss in Nashville, the Stars look to hit their stride tonight

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars return home for a Saturday night date with Central Division foe Colorado, in the hopes of starting to gain some traction in the Central Division after a disappointing 1-3-0 start to the season.

The task has become exponentially more difficult than we might have imagined at the outset of the season, given the surprisingly play of the 4-1-0 Avalanche, who own a share of the division lead with St. Louis.

Here's what to look for as the Stars prepare for their third home game of this young season.

 

1. Easy picking, right? Right?

Remember last season when the Colorado Avalanche gave new meaning to the word bad? They had a minus-112 goal differential. They were staggeringly bad. And even with an infusion of young players, and a healthy Semyon Varlamov in goal, this team still looked to be an easy pick for seventh in the Central Division.

Not so fast.

With sophomore head coach Jared Bednar given a second chance at molding this team after being hired late last summer when Patrick Roy departed in a huff over the direction the Avs were headed, this has become a much more difficult team to play against.

Varlamov is unbeaten at 3-0, and should get the start Saturday. Nail Yakupov, a former first-overall draft pick who was a bust in Edmonton and then St. Louis, has five points in five games playing with Matt Duchene, who had expected to be traded, and may yet be headed elsewhere but has five points as well.

In short, if the Stars are going to collect the two points, most would have penciled in when they saw the schedule. It will take a significant effort, even if the Avs are coming off a home victory over Anaheim on Friday night.

"Everybody thinks they're the surprise team," Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock said.

That's not how he sees them.

"They are controlling the game through the middle of the ice and they're doing it with structure too," he said.

The Avs did not skate Saturday morning, so the status of Nathan MacKinnon, who took a stick to the eye Friday night, remains uncertain, although Bednar did think the former top pick, who has four assists in five games, will play.

 

2. Goalie conundrum

There's really no issue for the Stars about the goaltending on their end. Ben Bishop (1-1-0 with a .932 save percentage) will be the man, and until the Stars get right, we would expect a very healthy dose of Bishop, especially since the team doesn't play back-to-back games until Oct. 26 and 27 during a long, critical road trip west.

The issue for the Stars, thus far, hasn't been their own goaltending as much as it's been in having success against top goaltenders who oppose them. To date, their only win, a 4-2 victory over Detroit on Tuesday, came against a backup, Petr Mrazek. They have failed to put a dent in starters Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), Jake Allen (St. Louis) and Pekka Rinne (Nashville) and now must face Varlamov, who was given Friday off in favor of Jonathan Bernier, who defeated his old mates from Anaheim.

Varlamov, who was runner-up for the Vezina Trophy in 2014 when the Avs were the surprise Central Division champions, has allowed just five goals in three games and boasts a .945 save percentage. In short, Varlamov represents another challenge for a team that has displayed a surprising lack of finish thus far this season.

"The bottom line is if you're going to have success in the league, at some period of time, you've got to outwork the goalie," Hitchcock said. "Doesn't matter who's playing, I mean, we've got the top guy today, We just got to every night take it personally that we're going to outwork the other team's goaltender."

 

3. Finishing school

The Stars goal breakdown looks like this: four power-play goals, one in each game thus far, the first time the team has had power-play goals in each of four games to start the season since the team moved to Dallas in 1993. That's good.

They have one empty net goal. Okay. That's nice.

The problem is the Stars, who figured to be among the most dynamic offensive teams in the league, have scored three even-strength goals in four games.

Uhm. That's not so good. In fact, they are tied for 30th in the 31-team league for fewest 5-on-5 goals.

Hitchcock and his coaching staff spent part of Friday trying to teach the players what it looks like to play the way they want them to. That meant some teaching for the team's top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, who have combined for zero even-strength goals and three in total.

"There's a lot of chasing the game going on," Hitchcock said of that unit. "They're either on the forecheck or they're on the backcheck. We're trying to help them through what a number one or two line is supposed to look like so today was educational time for the whole line."

Overall, Hitchcock is happy with the team's scoring initial chances, but wants them to be better at secondary chances.

"What I think we need to work on is staying on the hunt longer," he said. "Those are the chances that we're not getting. We're getting a lot of original chances, we're getting a lot of bang plays at the net, but the hunt plays where you check the puck back again and again, we need to be better in that area."

 

4. Defensive shuffle

In a continuing effort to find the right combinations on the back end, look for Marc Methot to bring size and veteran toughness to a pairing with John Klingberg after Klingberg had played for the most part with Esa Lindell through the first four games.

Hitchcock felt that teams were targeting Klingberg, who has points in four straight games (two goals, three assists to lead the team). Methot isn't there to necessarily physically protect Klingberg, but to provide a necessary outlet and option, which should take some of the pressure off Klingberg who has been excellent thus far.

Assuming Dan Hamhuis doesn't have a setback before this evening, he'll rejoin the lineup after missing two games with a groin issue and likely play with regular partner Stephen Johns.

"There's certainly some things that we can be better at as a team," Hamhuis said. "We spent some time talking about it today. Sometimes it's not necessarily a systems thing. I think we've got a great system in place, it's a matter of executing it when the other teams putting pressure on us and sticking to our game plan. That's something we haven't done well and can get better at."

What is interesting is that with Hamhuis returning, Julius Honka is going to remain in the lineup playing with Lindell, with Jamie Oleksiak the odd man out at least for a game. Hitchcock said he's not displeased with Oleksiak, who has been a top-four defender early on, but merely wanting to look at how things look with a different setup.

 

5. Once more, it's a process

If you're an optimist, fair to say the Stars are the best 1-3-0 team in the NHL. There's really no such thing, but if there was, the Stars would be that team.

The challenge for Hitchcock and his squad is to understand that this is so and not let the record define them.

"We're playing awful well and we're not winning," Hitchcock said. "So now is the time to help players understand what improved play looks like, (what) it feels like, it looks like, so they can see it visually."

Then, it's on the players.

Veteran Jason Spezza, who has three assists thus far, feels the team needs to respond better when opposing teams up the ante in games.

"I think we need to show more composure at the difficult parts of the game. When the temperature rises in the game, the other team makes their push I think we have to show more composure," Spezza said.

As for the goals, he thinks they'll come. But it's a question of not trying to rush things.

"We're probably a little more rushed right now because we're trying to do everything so hard and so right," Spezza said. "I think our intentions are in the right place but our execution isn't."

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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