“I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.” – Sandy Koufax
The Dallas Stars have vaulted to the top of the Western Conference. It’s a stark contrast from the previous season. Dallas is a Western Conference best 19-5-1 and only two points behind the Canadiens for tops in the entire NHL. They have a solid plus-22 goal differential and have been tough to beat at home (9-3) and almost unbeatable on the road (10-3).
My, how times have changed.
Through 24 games last season, the Stars were 9-10-5 and despite their scoring prowess were floundering in the Central, the defense looked liked Swiss cheese and the goaltending was schizophrenic.
Much can be said for the improved overall team defense, enhanced goaltending and the Hart-like play of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. But so much of the Stars’ success can be attributed to their reversal of some ugly trends from last season.
They have become the hunted
Dallas hasn’t looked completely invulnerable this season but instead of being looked upon as point fodder for other teams, the Stars have become the aggressor. They have become the draw. Teams have circled the Stars on the schedule and that’s a good thing.
No lead was safe for Dallas last season and teams seized upon that. “At points last year, I think we thought we could just score and then it would be over,” Jamie Benn via The Dallas Morning News. “We learned our lesson.” This season, the Stars are 6-1 in one-goal games.
The Stars understand that now teams will give them their all-out best most games. Dallas has become a measuring stick and it is incumbent on them to be ready.
Kari being Kari
Although he has missed the last few games with injury, Kari Lehtonen has been a huge part of what the Stars have done this season. The Finn has nine wins and one loss so far this season and has been much more reliable in net with a 2.41 goals-against and a .921 save percentage.
Last season, and for much of his career in Dallas, fans simply could not rely on Dallas’ netminder. The saying around town, on Twitter and the chat rooms was: “That’s Kari being Kari.”
Translation: There’s a shot he should have saved for whatever reason (soft goal, out of position, etc.)
Stars fans saw it in the playoffs two seasons ago when Lehtonen was spectacular at times against the Ducks in Dallas, but awful on the road and in the decisive Game 6. His goals-against in the losses was below .900 and he couldn’t make the big save when called upon.
Granted, the defensive play in front of Lehtonen has improved drastically this season as all of the team’s major players are on the good side of the plus/minus. There has been a dedication to team defense and it has obviously been a boon to Lehtonen.
As well, with a competent back-up in Niemi, Lehtonen doesn’t have to troop out there every night and do the spectacular.
Of course, the only way to shake the “Kari being Kari” moniker is to win in crunch time and in the post-season.
Close ’em out!
Despite an ugly loss in Calgary where the Stars gave up a 3-0 lead in the third period to the Flames and then lost in the shootout, the Stars are 10-0-1 when they lead after the first two periods. It has been a reversal that has been great for Dallas.
Last season, it was not uncommon to see this team squander a two goal lead in the final frame and end up losing. It was a trend that bit them hard when a playoff push came late in the season and points were at a premium.
Had they won a few of those games earlier in the season, they might have sneaked into the post-season.
But the Stars aren’t too worried about that right now, in fact, they have used those painful lessons from last season to their advantage.
Dallas is becoming a very good third period team and that will pay dividends throughout the season.