Saturday night, the Dallas Stars were held scoreless for the first time this season. In just their second game in the last two weeks against a team currently in playoff position, Dallas was caught flat-footed in the first period. Though they found their game in the second stanza, the Stars couldn’t find the back of the net against the St. Louis Blues. Was their 3-0 road loss to a Central Division rival merely a blip on the radar, or a sign of things to come? We’ll soon find out, as the Stars have a rough road ahead. Between now and New Year’s Day, the Stars’ schedule looks like this:
Week One: Torts, Johnny Hockey and the Habs
Tuesday, December 15, the Stars host the struggling Columbus Blue Jackets. New head coach John Tortorella, who took the reins when Todd Richards was fired after an 0-7-0 start to the season, is trying to light a fire under his team, with mixed results. Expect the Blue Jackets to play with desperation from the opening faceoff. This game will be anything but an automatic two points for Dallas.
Two nights later, the Calgary Flames come to town. Don’t be fooled by their current spot in the standings: Led by second-year sensation Johnny “Johnny Hockey” Gaudreau, who’s currently on an 88-point pace (one more than Stars Captain Jamie Benn scored last year), the Flames have won five straight and are 7-2-1 in their last ten games. Calgary is playing with loads of confidence right now, but Dallas can exploit their weaknesses on the blue line and in net to put this game out of reach early. After last week’s all-too-interesting 6-5 win over Carolina, though, is any game truly “out of reach?”
A Saturday night tilt between the two conference leaders? Yes, please. December 19, the Montreal Canadiens visit Dallas. Despite the absence of injured all-world goalie Carey Price, Montreal keeps on truckin’, with Norris Trophy finalist P.K. Subban at the fore. Subban averages just over twenty-five minutes a night, so Stars forwards will undoubtedly get their fill of him. Both teams should consider this a “measuring stick” game.
Week Two: Central Division Showdown
The day after hosting the Habs, the Stars fly to Minnesota for their third meeting of the season against the Wild. Dallas won the first two in overtime, 3-2 and 4-3, the latter requiring the Stars to erase a 3-0 deficit in the third period. The Boys from Big D need to win this one in regulation (no problem, right?) and sprint to the plane, as they host the Chicago Blackhawks the very next night (December 22). You read that right: The Stars’ first game of the season against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, who also happen to be division rivals, is the second game of a back-to-back and Dallas’ third game in four nights. The only saving grace for the Stars is that they’ll be playing at home.
Following a three-day Christmas break, the Stars return to the scene of their recent shutout, St. Louis, for another game on the 26th. The teams meet again the very next night, in Dallas. In a season in which fighting majors are down drastically, Stars and Blues players dropped the gloves twice in their first meeting of the year. There’s already a healthy dislike simmering in this pot, and a back-to-back could cause it to boil over. St. Louis currently trails Dallas by eight points in the standings. All other games being equal, the Blues could cut the Stars’ lead in half with regulation wins in these two contests. Playoff position could be on the line. The stakes are high, and both teams know it.
Week Three: Jackets, Predators and Answers
Less than forty-eight hours after the completion of the Dallas-St. Louis back-to-back battles, the Stars will find themselves in Columbus for a rematch with the Blue Jackets. The game will be the third in four nights for both clubs, so two points will go to the team making the fewest mistakes.
The Stars return home for their traditional New Year’s Eve game. Last year’s NYE opponent was a hapless Arizona Coyotes squad, whom Dallas dispatched with ease, 6-0. The NHL schedule-makers weren’t so kind this year, sending the Nashville Predators to Dallas instead. The Stars have arguably the best group of forwards in the league, while the Predators have the best defense corps. When a powerful cold front hits an equally powerful warm front, severe storms result. Expect stormy weather in Big D for NYE.
The Dallas Stars are a playoff team. As I said almost a month ago, they took full advantage of a fairly easy schedule through the first twenty games to virtually clinch a playoff spot before American Thanksgiving. The question now is, “What kind of a playoff team will the Stars be?” Over the next three weeks, they play five games against Central Division rivals, including two back-to-backs. By the time the sun rises on January 1, Jim Nill, Lindy Ruff and Co. should have an answer to that question. Whether or not they like the answer is an entirely different matter.