Stars at the quarter mark

It’s been three weeks since the Dallas Stars began play and they are already at the quarter mark of the season. Friday’s 3-1 win over Anaheim was game 12 of a shortened 48-game season. It’s been an up and down first quarter that has added up to a 6-5-1 record. The Stars struggled through a four-game winless streak (0-3-1) at one point, but are now riding a three-game winning streak.  They currently rank third in the Pacific Division and eighth in the Western Conference.

“There’s been some good and there’s been some not so good,” said Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “It’s hard, you don’t have that training camp. We didn’t’ have (Jamie) Benn for a lot of that time, (Derek) Roy’s been out. Still, to this time, we haven’t had our team on the ice with Ray Whitney out. We’ve tried to incorporate some young D, and now we have another one in there.”

Benn missed the first five games due to a contract issue. Roy missed five games with a groin injury. Whitney is out for at least another three weeks with a fractured bone in his foot. Cody Eakin stepped up and helped fill the void in the top six while Benn and Roy were missing, and has played well where ever the Stars have put him. Brenden Morrow has moved into the top six with Whitney out, and has fit in well on a line with Benn and Jaromir Jagr. Since Roy’s return three games ago, the Stars’ forward lines have stayed pretty much the same.

On defense, rookie Brenden Dillon and veteran Stephane Robidas have found some chemistry playing together over the past seven games. Aaron Rome, who battled some injury issues early in the season, has found a spot on a pairing with Trevor Daley the last four games. Jamie Oleksiak, the Stars first round pick from 2011, came in from the AHL and has been in the lineup the last five games. Alex Goligoski has struggled at times, was scratched Wednesday in Edmonton, but bounced back with a solid outing Friday against the Ducks.  Philip Larsen, a scratch four of the last five games, has been the odd man out for the most part recently. Jordie Benn, who played the first eight games, is now in the AHL.

Overall, the Stars seem to be finding some things that are working both at the forward spot and on the back end. The goaltending has been stellar with Kari Lehtonen pulling most of the load. Lehtonen is 6-2-1 with a 2.30 goals against average and .928 save percentage.

“You’re trying to juggle all these balls, and you are trying to find chemistry and now in these last three or four games we are starting to find some consistency in our lines and in our D, and it makes a big difference,” said Nieuwendyk. “Now, we have to take our game to another level.”

Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said the team has shown improvement since the beginning of the season, but that the Stars need to continue to do so as the season moves along, especially with the team relying on several young players and with so little margin for error in a short campaign.

“We have work to do. I’m not going to back off this. We have to be a team – with our young players – we have to be a team that’s better at 24 (the halfway mark), than we were at 12. It’s just the way it is,” Gulutzan said. “It’s too tight in a condensed season, there’s not going to be much separation (between teams). We’ve got to push through the tough times here and the tough schedule coming up.  That’s just the way it is. We have to keep pushing and be better at every segment.”

Added Robidas: “I don’t think we have played our best, best hockey yet. We’ve been fortunate to win some games. Our goalie has won some games for us in the first part of the year, if you look at the shots we gave up. I don’t think it’s how you start, it’s how you finish and you’ve got to improve every day. I think (Friday’s win over Anaheim) was better than the last game, so that’s a step forward. As long as we keep moving forward as a team, that’s what we are looking for. We want to build on that momentum.

“Sometimes you have to find a way to win games, and we found a way to win games. That’s a positive sign. But we have to realize that we can’t play with fire. You’ve got to play and win the right way. If you cheat and don’t play the right way, it will come back and bite you in the [butt] in the end.”

Key areas

Goals for: The hope heading into the season was that the addition of Jagr, Roy and Whitney would boost the top six and the Stars’ offense, which ranked 22nd in the league at 2.49 goals per game last season. Over the first 12 games, goal scoring has been an issue at times. The Stars rank 28th in the league in scoring at 2.08 goals per game. Benn missing the first part of the season due to the contract issue hurt and so have injuries to Roy and Whitney. But since Roy returned from his groin injury and both he and Benn have been in the lineup, the Stars have scored nine goals over three games (3.00 per game).  Still, the Stars aren’t getting much scoring from beyond the top six group. The top six group of forwards – or guys who have been in the top six over the course of the season – have provided 19 of the team’s 25 goals (76 percent). The Stars could use a little more depth scoring.

Power play: The Stars’ power play woes of last season are well documented. They were last in the league at 13.5 percent. Gulutzan targeted this is as the most important area of improvement, and there have been mixed results so far. The Stars rank 19th in the league at 17.1 percent (9-52).

“Shoot. Shoot. We can still shoot more and we’re going to start shooting more,” Gulutzan said after the Stars scored twice on the power play against the Ducks Friday night. “We got rewarded for it tonight and our power play was good, I thought. But we have to establish shot first, and have a shot-first mentality, not just on the power play but also five-on-five.”

Goals against: Gulutzan marked this as another area of improvement coming into the season. He was hoping the Stars would be better defensively and that would help bring the goals against average down. The Stars rank 8th in the league in goals against, but a lot of the credit there goes to goaltending. The Stars have had some issues defensively. Turnover problems haven’t helped. But Lehtonen has helped clean up a lot of messes. He faced a lot of rubber early in the season as the Stars allowed 40.3 shots in his first three starts and the big Finn helped them get 5 of 6 points in those games.

“That guy doesn’t get enough credit for how good he really is,” said Daley. “It’s incredible.”

The Stars who were giving up a lot of shots early in the season, have tightened up a bit recently, and allowed a season-low 21 shots against versus Anaheim Friday.

The penalty kill has helped keep the goals against down as well. It’s ranked ninth in the league at 84.2 percent, and that’s been key considering the Stars have been shorthanded 57 times, second most in the league.

Discipline: This was a big issue last season, and it’s been a sore point this season. The Stars have been killing penalties far more often than they’ve been on the power play. They are minus-16 in the number of power play opportunities versus times shorthanded (41-57), which is the second worst rating the league. It’s cost them games and points. And it’s tough to generate chances and offense when you are killing a lot of penalties. The good news: they’ve been a plus-1 over the last three games (13-12).

“Earlier on, we were getting caught with a lot of penalties. We’re slowly getting that out of our game,” said Daley. “That’s a big part of the game, the special teams. You put the other team on the power play all night you’re going to pay the price. The league is too good today.  The first rule of business was to take care of the penalties in the game and I think it was a good start for us.”

First quarter stats

Category Stat Rank
Goals per game 2.08 28th
Goals against per game 2.33 8th
5-on-5 GF/GA ratio 0.94 18th
Shots per game 25.2 29th
Shots against per game 32.3 27th
Team Save % 92.8 4th
Faceoff percentage 47.4 26th
Category Stat Rank
Power play overall 17.1 19th
Power play home 29.4 8th
Power play road 8.3 24th
Penalty kill overall 84.2 9th
Penalty kill home 76.2 22nd
Penalty kill road 88.9 5th
PP Opportunities 41 23rd
Times Shorthanded 57 29th
PP-TS Differential -16 29th
Category Player Stat
Goals Benn, Eriksson, Ryder 4
Assists Eakin, Goligoski, Jagr, Roy 5
Points Jagr 8
+/- Robidas +6
PIM Robidas 17
Shots Jagr 31
Ice Time/Game Goligoski 22:01
Faceoffs Fiddler 52.5%
Hits Dillon 34
Blocked shots Robidas 27

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