The Dallas Stars wrapped up a short, albeit relatively disappointing road trip on Thursday night in Ohio. The 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus meant the Stars were heading back to the Lone Star State with only three points after a 1-2-1 road trip.
If the playoffs began today, the Stars would be left out in the cold – or rather, the hot Texas sun? Either way, they wouldn’t be playing inside an arena trying to earn a repeat trip back to the Stanley Cup Final.
The good news is that while the NHL schedule is shorter than usual this season (56 games instead of 82), it’s certainly a lot longer than eight games. However, the next eight games – all at home – could define how the Stars will need to approach the remaining 40 after them.
That means taking full advantage of home ice. While this is hardly a normal NHL season, that doesn’t mean that the benefit of playing at home is non-existent like it was in last season’s playoff bubble. In fact, the Stars are currently one of only a small handful of teams that can actually lay claim to a significant home-ice advantage. Dallas is allowing as many as 5,000 fans to attend games at the American Airlines Center, giving the Stars a small yet boisterous crowd to provide some extra adrenaline.
With eight games in less than two weeks, the Stars are going to need to take full advantage of that home cooking. And it’s a menu that begins with a tasty appetizer and ends with a main course that’s going to require a healthy appetite to finish off.
Over the last four seasons, the Stars have gone 0-2-0 at home against Chicago in the odd-numbered years and 2-0-0 in the even-numbered ones. If recent history is any indicator, the Stars are about to drop a pair of games in regulation to the Blackhawks.
Luckily, trends don’t decide hockey games.
The difference in this series will likely come down to special teams. The Blackhawks were picked by many to finish seventh in the Discover Central Division, ahead of only the lowly Detroit Red Wings. But Chicago has played inspired hockey since picking up only a single point in its first four games. They’ve grabbed 11 points in their last eight games, going 4-1-3 during that stretch. They’re led by Patrick Kane (6 goals, 9 assists), rookie Dominik Kubalik (3-8–11) and a red-hot power play unit that ranks fourth in the NHL at 37.8 percent.
If the Stars are going to take all four points, they’re going to need to use a combination of their speed and an aggressive defensive corps that forces a young Chicago team into taking penalties against Dallas’ top-ranked power play. The Blackhawks took only four penalties in two games against the Carolina Hurricanes, while the Stars took six in their two games in Columbus, killing five of them. They’ll need that same discipline against the Blackhawks, as well as continued success on the man advantage – led by Joe Pavelski (nine PP points) and John Klingberg (six).
The puck drops on the first this two-game set at 2 p.m. CT on Super Bowl Sunday. The second game will be on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 7:30 p.m. CT.
The Stars dropped a pair of games to the Hurricanes in Raleigh just last weekend. Though they were able to salvage a point, falling to the Hurricanes 4-3 in a shootout in the second of the two-game set. While Carolina had Dallas’ number last weekend, the Stars have gotten the best of the ‘Canes when they’ve faced off at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. In the last 10 meetings between the two teams at AAC, the Stars are 8-2.
The Stars managed just one power play goal in 11 opportunities against the Hurricanes in their opening series. And while special teams will play an important role this time around, the key for the Stars is going to come inside the faceoff circle.
At 49.2 percent, the Stars rank in the bottom third of the NHL in faceoff percentage. The last time Dallas ranked outside the top 10 in faceoff win percentage (FOW%) was 2011-12 when they ranked 11th. A big reason for that percentage drop is the absence of Tyler Seguin, who’s recovering from offseason hip/knee surgery. Once a liability in the faceoff circle, Seguin has seen his percentage of draws won go up every year he’s been in the league. Last season, he won a career-high 58.2 percent of his draws, good enough for sixth among all players with a minimum of 100 total faceoffs and just one-tenth of a percentage point behind Patrice Bergeron (58.3), one of the top centers in the game.
This season, Dallas is 3-0 when winning the faceoff battle but is 2-3 when losing more faceoffs than its opponent. In fact, during the third period of the Stars’ 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets on Sunday, a lost draw in the defensive zone directly led to Columbus’ fourth goal – the eventual game-winner.
Carolina won 72 of 136 total faceoffs against the Stars last weekend. Unlike the Blue Jackets, the Hurricanes didn’t score any direct goals off any of their faceoff wins. But they were able to control the puck possession game and establish their tempo and game plan more effectively because of it.
The Stars and Hurricanes will faceoff on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m. CT and then again on the night of Saturday, Feb. 13, at 7:00 CT.
The Stars were dominated in the faceoff circle by the Predators during the opening series of the season, but Dallas dominated the scoreboard, winning twice and outscoring Nashville 10-2 in the process.
The biggest point of emphasis for the Stars against the Predators will have to be a quick start and make sure they score first. Through Feb. 5, Nashville had scored the game’s first goal only three times, winning just one of those contests. Incongruously, the four of the Preds’ five wins have come after giving up the game’s first goal.
That said, no team wants to deliberately play from behind, particularly Dallas, which is 4-0 when leading by a score of 1-0 and 1-3 when trailing by the same score.
A strong start, particularly scoring in the opening period, has been a difficult task thus far for the Stars. Dallas has potted a league-worst three first-period tallies. If the Stars are able to breakthrough in the first 20 minutes, it’ll likely be Pavelski that helps make it happen.
Of Dallas’ three goals in the opening period, the veteran center has netted two while assisting on the other. Pavelski has been a major catalyst behind the Stars’ strong 5-2-1 start and has 20 career goals in 48 regular-season games against Nashville.
The Stars will look get off to a hot start in back-to-back nights when they play host to the Predators on Monday, Feb. 15 and Tuesday, Feb. 16. Both games are slated to begin at 7:30 p.m. CT.
Tampa Bay Lightning
From a Stanley Cup Final opponent to a divisional foe in less than four months, the Stars will close out their homestand with a pair of games against the Lightning.
The Bolts are without their top forward, Nikita Kucherov (for at least the regular season), but they reinserted their captain, Steven Stamkos, back into the lineup. The six-time All-Star missed almost all of the playoffs last year with a core muscle injury. Stamkos played less than three minutes of the postseason, but certainly made an impact.
Both teams rank in the top five for average goals per game. But don’t expect a wild Texas shootout, as the Lightning boast a league-best 2.00 goals against per game, and the Stars aren’t far behind in sixth at 2.50.
Historical data and current statistics can get thrown out the window with this one, though. Tampa Bay defeated Dallas in six games to win the Stanley Cup last September – and that should provide all the flavor the Stars need to ensure this is a tasty last meal at home.
The Stars and Lightning renew their rivalry on Thursday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. CT and again on Saturday, Feb. 20 at 7:00 p.m. CT.