With Thanksgiving come and gone, the holiday season is officially in full swing. People everywhere are compiling their wish lists and checking them twice before heading out in preparation for the impending celebrations, and the Dallas Stars are no exception. If Jim Nill, Lindy Ruff and the Stars on the ice could take advantage of a leftover Black Friday deal or Cyber Monday savings, where would they turn first? Here are three things you’d almost certainly find if you stumbled across a wish list penned in Victory Green ink:
A Consistently Healthy Lehtonen
After Tuesday night’s 7-4 loss in which he suffered an apparent head or neck injury after a collision with defenseman John Klingberg, goaltender Kari Lehtonen was officially described Wednesday as day-to-day with an upper-body injury. AHL netminder Jack Campbell was recalled and Lehtonen was placed on IR retroactive to Tuesday, which meant he’d sit out at least through Saturday’s game. However, Lehtonen skated Friday and Ruff described him as feeling good, which could point to him returning sooner rather than later.
That’s good news for Stars fans, as he and Antti Niemi have provided an above-average backstop as a tandem for the Stars through the first quarter of the campaign. Lehtonen is 9-1-0 with a .921 save percentage, and his counterpart is 10-4-0 with a .908 stoppage rate. The stats don’t tell the entire story, either; each goalie has made huge stops in pivotal moments to both maintain leads and keep his club in games, which is exactly what the Stars lacked so often in 2014-15. Niemi has seen more time than Lehtonen, but not by much; he’s gotten just four more starts than Lehtonen, two of which came on the heels of the injury. The Stars have used their two-headed starting goalie tandem to perfection through the early stages of the season, and each seems to be feeding off of the other in order to play their best hockey.
This is all well and good, but it could come crashing down if Lehtonen falls victim to the injury bug as he so often has in his career. He’s got a history of groin issues (go ahead and google “Kari Lehtonen groin.” I’ll wait.), and the Finn suffered two concussions last season thanks to collisions in his crease. He may have gotten lucky this time, but the injury bug could still be lurking in the shadows, waiting for a chance to strike.
If I were Nill or Ruff, the No. 1 item on my wish list would include the words “Lehtonen” and “healthy”; maybe even underlined for good measure.
A Return to Strong Defensive Play
While the Dallas Stars may not be perfect on the defensive end, a team doesn’t reach 19-5-0 out of the gate without a strong commitment to team defense and careful minding of the puck. That all started to fall apart Tuesday as turnover after turnover found its way into the net behind Stars goaltenders, and Ruff put it perfectly when he told press following the ugly defeat that the team “played last year’s hockey, and got last year’s results.”
The Stars were never going to be a staunch, unbreakable and suffocating defensive team; their success relies on playing solid-enough defense, orchestrating clean zone exits to get the puck in the hands of their forwards and pure, unadulterated offensive firepower at a breakneck pace. However, that first part is more critical than it seems. Sure, the Stars might be able to beat teams 7-6 now and again just by putting the puck in the net, but this team’s sparkling record owes a lot to Dallas’ solid defensive start. Second-year man John Klingberg has shown why Nill and company invested in him to the tune of 27 points, and he’s been just as good defensively (with the exception of his horrendous turnovers in Tuesday and Friday’s contests; more on that in a minute). All of the Stars consistent defensive pairings have been solid, forwards are buying into strong backchecking (the addition of proven-winner Patrick Sharp has helped here tremendously, as he’s great at it night in and night out) and, for the most part, the puck is staying out of the Stars’ net enough to win games.
However, I say all of this with the caveat of “for the most part” for a reason. This week, even with the win over Vancouver on Friday and the epic comeback Saturday in Minnesota, has been awful as far as costly giveaways are concerned. Let’s take a look at something else that’s probably on the Stars’ list that highlights what can happen when it all goes south.
The Abolishment of Turnovers
When things go wrong for the Dallas Stars’ defensemen, they can often go very wrong. Last season, the corps struggled to limit turnovers as a whole, and some of those giveaways have crept back into the Stars’ game over their last three matchups. Take a look at Klingberg’s assist on Vancouver’s first tally Friday night:
If Klingberg and company are making plays like that, no amount of large Finnish man between the pipes will stop rubber from meeting twine. It seems as if teams are beginning to come after the Stars’ defensemen more as of late in an effort to rush them and get them out of their comfort zone, and it’s worked over the last several games. The Stars gave Ottawa just about every goal they scored Tuesday with either a turnover or careless play that resulted in a breakaway and, even though they pulled out the shootout win Friday and rallied for an emotional 4-3 OT win over Minnesota Saturday, more of the same occurred in those two contests. Klingberg redeemed himself with a brilliant, walk-the-line tying goal Saturday, which is indicative of the Stars as a whole; they can often make up for lapses in puck management. However, they can’t count on outscoring their mistakes every night.
Turnovers were the bane of Ruff’s existence in 2014-15, and if he could have his pick of hockey-themed holiday gifts, he might think long and hard about making asking for a permanent end to the horrendous giveaways his top priority.
Coming into the season, goaltending and defense were the two main concerns for Dallas, and two months of strong play has done its part in alleviating some of those worries. However, the holidays aren’t the time to relax for the Stars; they still have episodes where they turn the puck over far too often, one member of their dynamic duo in net had his latest injury scare, and teams are going to continue to bring their best and most aggressive play when they match up with the Western Conference leaders.
There are countless things to love about the Stars’ hot start, but the problems and uncertainties haven’t completely gone away, either. Asking for a little holiday magic certainly couldn’t hurt.