Although the Dallas Stars have won six of their first eight games, they still find themselves surrounded by almost every team in the Central Division and life will likely stay that way for most of the season.
Before the Monday night games, the Stars sat in second place in the division with 12 points. Ahead of them are the Nashville Predators with 13 points. Behind them sit the Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild, all with 11 points. The defending Cup champions (Chicago Blackhawks) are close behind with 10 points as well. And the team in last place, the Colorado Avalanche with just five points, have beaten the Stars seven straight times in regular season play.
One of the biggest reasons for the Stars playoff absence last season was their inability to beat teams in the Central Division. They managed just eight wins against divisional opponents in 29 attempts. The Central appears to (somehow) be even stronger this season and the early race is as tight as it gets.
They have already lost their only divisional game so far this season against the Avalanche as a third-period breakdown was the genesis of that defeat. I’ve broken down the divisional games of last season to detail the records, scores, what went wrong and what the Stars need to do to alter their fates this season.
St. Louis Blues
Season Record Against: 2-2-1
Final Scores (in chronological order): 3-4(OTL), 4-3(W), 4-1(W), 0-3(L), 5-7(L)
What Went Wrong?: Goaltending and Vladimir Tarasenko
Like a lot teams last year, the Stars had absolutely no answer for Vladimir Tarasenko in the season series. He tallied five goals in just four games against the Stars last season, including the game-tying and game-winning goal in the first game. They also let Jaden Schwartz run wild as he posted three goals in four games against Dallas. The Stars had a tough time defending their best players and their overall defensive coverage was questionable at best.
Kari Lehtonen started all five games and before I go into the statistics, those with weak stomachs may want to look away. He posted a .874 save percentage and a 3.27 goals against average in five contests against the Blues. The Stars blew two third-period leads that ended in an overtime loss and a regulation loss. The regulation loss ended at 7-5 and was the nail in the coffin in terms of the Stars playoff hopes.
Simply put, if the Stars getting better goaltending against the Blues this season, they should be able to handle them and win the season series. The Stars are faster than the Blues and Jamie Benn absolutely owns them. Look for the Stars to get at least seven points out of this five game season series.
Season Record Against: 2-2-1
Final Scores: 1-4(L), 2-3(L), 2-3(OTL), 4-3(W), 4-1(W)
What Went Wrong?: Too little, too late
Hey, 2-2-1 isn’t really that bad is it? No big blowouts and three one-goal games isn’t too shabby. Unfortunately, the two wins for Dallas came after they were virtually eliminated and then mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. Anders Lindback started the first contest and the Stars were never really in the game.
The second game saw the Stars tied with just over six minutes left in the game and veteran Matt Cullen ended the hope for a Stars victory with a late goal. The overtime loss in January was tied the entire third period that saw the Stars have multiple chances to take the lead.
As far as this season is concerned, the Predators may be the toughest divisional match up out of anyone in the Central. They are the deepest team on the blue line in the entire NHL and have enough offense to score enough to win. They aren’t likely to blow out the Stars, but their defense is good enough to fend off a furious Dallas offense and Pekka Rinne is still one of the better goaltenders in the West.
That being said, if the Stars can find a way to take advantage of what few mistakes the Predators make, their improved defense and goaltending might be enough to steal some games away from Nashville.
Season Record Against: 2-1-2
Final Scores: 2-3(SOL), 2-6(L), 4-5(OTL), 6-3(W), 4-0(W)
What Went Wrong?: Trevor Daley and Patrick Sharp
Heh, how about that? The two players that were swapped in the offseason were the central point of defeat when the Stars were unable to beat the Blackhawks. Trevor Daley was routinely beaten to the net and finished the season series with a -7 to show for it. He scored the first goal of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks but he would not register another point against Chicago for the rest of the season.
Patrick Sharp owned the Stars with five points in four games against them last year. His first goal came on the power play on opening night and tied the game in the third period. The Blackhawks would go on to win that game in the shootout. A few months later, Sharp would end a game with an overtime goal against Lehtonen and the Stars.
The two problems for the Stars have switched sides so that should help them fare better against the Blackhawks this season. Chicago is very top-heavy on defense and the Stars have the offensive potential to feast on the bottom two pairings that the Blackhawks put out. Chicago is one of the teams that Lehtonen always seems to play well against, so goaltending should not be a big issue on the Dallas side of this season series.
Season Record Against: 1-3-1
Final Scores: 1-4(L), 1-2(L), 4-5(OTL), 7-1(W), 2-6(L)
What Went Wrong?: Goaltending and third period meltdowns
The Stars struggled early on in the season, so it isn’t surprising they did not fare well against Minnesota as three of their five meetings were in the month of November. Three of the four losses to the Wild came before they acquired Devan Dubnyk and went on that ridiculous run. Also in three of the four losses, Dallas either had a lead or the game was tied heading into the third period. The essence of the third period meltdown appeared in the final meeting of the season between these two teams when the Stars let a 1-0 third period lead turn into a 6-2 loss. Thomas Vanek scored with less than two minutes left to tie a game in November in which the Stars would go on to lose in overtime.
This is going to be one of the big ones this season. Dallas and Minnesota will likely finish close together in the standings and the Stars cannot afford to give them as many points as they did last year. Once again the main point of improvement needs to be the goaltending. Lehtonen posted a .889 save percentage in four games against the Wild last season while Enroth was shellacked in his only appearance against them late in the season. They gave up ten goals past the second period against the Wild in those five games, a figure that has to see a major decrease if the Stars are going to take the season series in 2015-16.
Season Record Against: 1-3-0
Final Scores: 2-5(L), 1-2(L), 5-2(W), 2-4(L)
What Went Wrong?: Untimely goals against, superb goaltending performances at the other end
This one is probably the one that stings the most for Dallas. They outplayed the Jets for most of the four contests, but bad goals against at the worst times and the inability to score doomed the Stars in the season series. Dallas finished just seven points back of Winnipeg for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference so these contests played a huge role in Winnipeg’s postseason representation.
Unlike Dallas, the goaltending for the Jets came up huge in the season series, highlighted by a 46 save performance by Ondrej Pavelec to give the Jets a 2-1 victory in Dallas. The Stars outshot the Jets in two of the three losses and ultimately, bad goals against at horrible times cost them games. In the first loss, Lehtonen gave up a tie-breaking goal to Adam Lowry that can only be described as atrocious. Just two minutes later, Lowry would score on replacement goalie Jussi Rynnas to give the Jets a 4-2 lead and they would never look back. The Stars would give up a shorthanded goal later in the period to seal the defeat.
In the 2-1 loss behind a magnificent Pavelec performance, the Stars lost via a shorthanded goal by Evander Kane. The final loss of the season against the Jets, the Stars gave up a breakaway to Dustin Byfuglien who made no mistake with it and gave the Jets a third period lead that they would hold on to for the rest of the game. Those losses were the difference between playing golf and playing in the first round against the Anaheim Ducks. The Stars will look capitalize on their chances against the Jets this season.
Season Record Against: 0-3-2
Final Scores: 2-5(L), 3-4(L), 2-3(SOL), 1-4(L), 4-5(SOL)
What Went Wrong: Pretty much everything
Apparently Dallas hasn’t figured this one out yet as many of the same problems they had against Colorado last season resurfaced in the first game against them this year. Where to begin? They couldn’t hold a lead. They were horrific on the power play. The goaltending was awful. They gave up a ton of third period goals. They couldn’t stop Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog. It was really all bad against Colorado and they were lucky to get two points out of the series.
The Stars gave up ten third period goals against the Avalanche last season. Two of them came in the final thirty seconds of the period, one of those being a game-tying goal. They scored the last goal of the game in four of the five meetings with Landeskog being responsible for two of them. Despite being a poor possession team last season, the Avalanche routinely out shot the Stars and put some very high totals up on Dallas goalies.
One step the Stars need to take to start winning games against Colorado is to not play run-and-gun hockey with them. As previously stated and is becoming more and more apparent every day, the Avalanche are a very poor possession team. Trading high-quality scoring chances is not the way to go, as Semyon Varlamov is an incredible goaltender and there is no point in trading quality chances with their skilled forwards. If the Stars stick to a good game plan, they should be able to overwhelm the Avalanche on the possession meter and get their scoring chances that way.
The Record Has to Change
As the standings help show, the Central Division is going to be a furious battle once again. The end result will hang on who performs the best within the division and the Stars need to have better outcomes this season if they are going to compete for the division title.
Jordan has been covering the Stars for The Hockey Writers since February 2015. He is originally from Iowa City, Iowa. You can follow Jordan on twitter @jordan_dix