My, how two weeks can change a division.
The Dallas Stars, who wavered on the brink of dropping out of the playoff picture, suddenly find themselves leading the Pacific Division and third in the Western Conference. On February 19, the Stars were 29-26-4 and second to last in their division. After a strong surge–8-0-1 in their last nine games, the Stars have a 37-26-5 record and are playing some of the hottest hockey in the NHL.
The leading cause for the Stars turnaround is in their, suddenly, stifling defense and penalty killing. During this nine-game streak, the Stars have routinely given up less than two goals a game, other than the 4-3 shootout loss that came against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the 4-3 shootout victory against the San Jose Sharks. The Stars, who score 2.6 goals per game on average, are not a high-scoring team and depend on low-scoring games in order to notch victories. Because of this, the Stars must have solid penalty killing, which can be seen in their recent streak–Dallas has succeeded on 26 of 27 penalty killing opportunities. The superior goaltending of Kari Lehtonen and Richard Bachman continues to be one of the Stars most reliable weapons–Lehtonen stopped 45 of 48 shots against the Sharks in the Stars recent victory. However, team defense has become the foundation for the Stars eminent play in recent weeks, and penalty killing is a symptom of this commendable team defense.
Dallas made no additions to their lineup at the trade deadline, and the return of Jamie Benn and the inspirational play of the team’s youngest players are the obvious reasons for the Stars recent success. Stars Head Coach Glen Gulutzan also deserves credit for motivating his team of late and putting a winning formula on the ice with the tools he has in place. Tomas Vincour’s encouraging play is an example of this, as his gritty game-tying goal with 75 seconds left in regulation and his lone shootout goal in the fifth shootout round was the game winner against the Sharks. Vincour is a 21-year-old, strong forward who continues to develop his game. Philip Larsen, a 22-year-old, agile defenseman, is also exuding confidence, as he has been logging about 20-minutes per game and has a +8 +/- rating this season. Since returning from injury, Jamie Benn has reinserted himself as a force in the lineup, as his physical play continues to win battles in the corners. Benn has two goals in his last two games. Michael Ryder also continues to prove himself as one of the most valuable free-agenct signings from this offseason as he notched his 29th goal of the season in the Stars win over the Sharks. Ryder also has 10 points in his last eight games, with six of those points being goals. Ryder’s career high in goals is 30, which he recorded in back-to-back seasons with the Montreal Canadians. Ryder should smash that career high, as he is one goal away with fourteen games remaining on the schedule.
These past two weeks show the formula the Stars must continue to follow if they hope to secure a playoff spot: sound team defense and goaltending mixed with timely goal scoring. Penalty killing must also continue to be a boon and not a weakness for Dallas. Because of this recent trend, the Stars suddenly have a pulse, and fans are beginning to flock back to a team that has been a disappointment in recent years. If the Dallas Stars continue to stay hot during the final stretch of the season, they may not only secure an elusive playoff berth, but a division title may also be within reach.