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vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 28-30-9    Stars 35-27-5

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago

WE ARE STARDUST: Defending Big D

I used to think that the elimination of the Circus Trip and Ice Show, and not having a road trip longer than three or four games, would be a boon to the Hawks. But looking over the recent schedule, you can see why the players are not exactly pleased with how things shake out. They just came back from a West swing, one they’ll have to do again in another week or two, were home for one game before bouncing down to Texas, then back home for just one before a Canadian swing, and then back home for just two before bouncing out again. Of course, this would matter more if the games did…which they don’t.

Anyway, the schedule says the Hawks have to provide the opposition for the Stars tonight. There they’ll find a Stars team that is starting to bunker into the playoff spots. They’re four up on the Coyotes and are only three points behind the Blues for the last automatic spot in the Central. They’ve done that by winning six of their last eight, five of them in regulation, including being the only ones to remember it’s still the St. Louis Blues after all and beating them twice in that stretch. They’ve shut out the Rangers and Avalanche back-to-back at home, so this isn’t exactly the time to catch them.

It’s not like the Stars have cracked some code or radically changed how they play. They’ve just benefitted from Ben Bishop (THE BISHOP!) shooting lightning bolts out of his arse. THE BISHOP! threw a .936 at the world in February, and is at .989 in March so far, having conceded one goal in three games. The injury layoff has done him some good, obviously.

The Stars have mimicked what the Wild have done the past couple seasons. They’re not a good possession team when it comes to attempts, but as you move up the charts in terms of quality of attempts the Stars get better and better. They’re just about even in scoring-chance share, and then just a tick under 52% in high danger chance share. They’ll let you have it to the outside, but you can’t quite get to the middle on them.

The Stars have moved wunderkind Miro Heiskanen with John Klingberg and they take all the offensive responsibility while the bottom two pairings take turns manning the bunker. While they tried to use the acquisition of Mats Zuccarello to spread out some scoring, he lasted a period and a half before something went CRACK! on him. So even though Seguin and Benn are on separate lines now, they still do the heavy lifting here with assistance from Alex Radulov.

For the Hawks, the chance of a real clunker feel tangible. They weren’t very good against the Sabres but got away with it, and now you have this one game trip in a season that’s lost. You could see where weariness would combine with carelessness and against a team with it all still to play for, it’s not hard to envision where it gets ugly. Corey Crawford will do his best to keep it from doing so. Would guess the lines look pretty much the same as Thursday, which means they’ll be a mishmash because John Hayden sucks and won’t skate with Toews and Saad for more than five minutes. Maybe Sikura slots back in for Kunitz or Hayden, but…whatever.

Keep on keepin’ on…

 

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Logan Stark is an editor at DefendingBigD.com. You can follow her @LoganStarkBooks. Hey…Stark on the Stars. We just thought of that! Anyway, here’s the Q&A we did with her two weeks ago when the Stars were here

Let’s get this out of the way up top. While the CEO swearing about the team’s two stars is good for comedic value out here, isn’t it nonsensical as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are just about the only reason the Stars are anything? (not to mention Benn’s long-standing place with the team and fans)
– First of all, Bishop and Khudobin have been absolute brick walls this season. They’re a large factor of why the Stars are still in a playoff position this late in the season. Second, Miro Heiskanen is a godsend for this team, especially when half the blue line was injured during the first half of the season. Okay, on to the real question. CEO Lites’ comments were beyond nonsensical. Not only did the tirade tarnish the team’s reputation around the league (what high-profile player would want to sign with the team now?), but it also made them a laughing stock. Benn and Seguin have proved Lites wrong with their on-ice performance, but those comments are continuing to hang over them and the team almost two months after they rocked hockey Twitter. Benn and Seguin are the faces of the franchise and are fan-favorites, and they were definitely fan-favorites for their classy responses to the comments. In the end, Lites’ comments backfired, I think, landing egg on his face – while getting some good splatter on the team that will come off with time. CEOs come and go, but Benn and Seguin are here to stay for a long, long time. In the end, it’s their on-ice performance and leadership in the locker room that matters the most. The team and coaching staff still support them, so why should fans do any different?
Why has Julius Honka not worked? The pedigree is there, he seems to have a coach that wants to play faster, and yet four points is four points…
– Do we have time for me to draft a graduate dissertation on why Honka hasn’t worked? No? Okay, let’s give this a shot: The yo-yo effect under Hitchcock last season did absolutely nothing for Honka. Not only was he bounced between the Dallas Stars and their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, but he was bounced with such frequency that he never had a chance to settle into the lineup and make a real impact. When Honka did spend time in Dallas, it was most often as a healthy scratch or with sub-par ice time. None of that helped his development and can only have hurt his confidence on the ice. We’ve seen flashes of his brilliance on the ice, but not this season. He’s been a healthy scratch with regularity under Montgomery, which leads me to believe that Montgomery doesn’t know where to slot him in within the current lineup. There’s just not room in the lines for a player struggling to produce (hush, let’s not talk about Nichushkin) and who needs time on the ice to get his skates back under him, so to speak. At this point, I would say it’s time to trade Honka, use him to bring in fresh talent that’s capable of producing at a steady rate.
Jim Nill has gotten three coaches. At what point does the cannon point at him?
– If the Stars fail to make the playoffs this spring, I think there’s going to be a turnover in the front office. It’s pretty clear that management expects this roster to be a repeat contender, yet they’ve failed to make a real postseason splash. If the Stars fail to make the playoffs (or fail to make it past the first round), I would place good money on Nill being let go. The lack of postseason performances and his lackluster record at the draft table would definitely be grounds for his exit from the team. At a certain point, it’s not about the coaches, but about the guy in the front office saddling said coaches with questionable trades, picks, and players.
What are the Stars gong to do before the deadline (assuming they don’t do anything before we print this, in which case I’ll just switch whatever you said to what they did and make you look like geniuses)?
– Nill has gone on record saying they’re looking for offensive power and depth at the deadline, and Dallas scouts have been checking out Zuccarello and Panarin (they got Zuc, and then he got hurt-ED). I would keep an eye out for the Stars to make a move for either of them on a rental basis (with an extension option on the table). One thing to watch for: the picks and/or players they send the opposite way. Just what is the front office willing to part with in exchange for a player that just might help the Stars get to the playoffs? In the past, Nill has been pretty good about not giving up first round picks or developing players that will aid the team. However, the Stars are getting desperate to make that playoff push this year, so is this the year Nill finally parts with the golden ticket of a first round pick?

 

 

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vs.

RECORDS: Stars 30-25-5   Hawks 26-27-9

PUCK DROP: 2pm

TV: WGN

FROM A DC-9 AT NIGHT: Defending Big D

It’s such a weird year. The Hawks lost the opening half of their showcase weekend, and yet that’s probably the best game they’ve played since…man, it’s hard to say. There have been periods here and there but overall, you could argue it was New Year’s Day. And they lost that one, too. But they don’t base the standings on aesthetics and who played better. All that matters is what you got out of it. The Hawks got nothing but a handful of themselves, which means they’d better get something out of this one if they’re serious about chasing until the end of the year.

From the Hawks’ perspective, they’ll get a couple of returnees. Brent Seabrook looks likely to return from his “abdominal” problem (and this is where we snigger about any trainer being able to find his abdominals), and Carl Dahlstrom should be over his case of the plague. Marcus Kruger also should be available after missing the third period on Friday. The first two mean that Henri Jokiharju will return to Rockford, and that’s a whole other discussion we’ll have soon at a podcast near you. So the defense will look like you’ve become accustomed to, and any change in the forwards is Perlini coming in for either Kunitz or Hayden or possibly Sikura, but that would be unfair to the kid.

Right, the Stars. Like any team stuck in this goo around the wildcards, this is not how they pictured their beautiful house. They’ve lost five of seven, and all of those without Ben Bishop who has been hurt. But he returned yesterday against the Canes, which means the Hawks will get Anton Khudobin today. Khudobin has been an excellent back-up this season, but having to take the main role broke his reserves, and he’s surrendered 14 goals in his last four appearances. Perhaps getting the break with Bishop back is all he needs to throw 35+ saves at the Hawks today, but let’s hope not.

The Stars are kind of like the Wild, in that they surrender more of the opportunities than they get but as you rate the chances better and better so do their numbers. So they create better chances than their opponents, and are happy to let them let fly from the hinterlands. Their problem of late as been they’ve been the anti-Motley Crue, they can’t get their heart kickstarted. They have a league-low 26 goals in the 1st period, and of late their stout defense has leaked first, which has them playing catch-up every game. As they were just playing some 20 hours ago or so, the Hawks would be wise to try and jump on them from the word go and see just how much they have in the tank to catch up again.

As always with the Stars, despite the bleating from their CEO, they’ll go as far offensively as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn can carry them. They’re on different lines at the moment, but no one else on this team is scoring. The Stars simply haven’t gotten enough from anyone else you look at other than John Klingberg, who was hurt for a chunk. Further complicating matters for Gang Green is that Alex Radulov was sick yesterday and missed out, and his status for today is up in the air. Without him, there is a whole lot of not much here.

It’s not that the Hawks would be charred if they don’t get a regulation win here, but the coals would be certainly heating up. But if they do get the win, the Ducks and Kings are lined up next, and that’s four points they’re begging you to take. You’re also getting a team on the second of a back-to-back that had to travel, while the Hawks were simply waiting around. Quite simply, this is a game you have to have. So go get it.

 

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Let’s get this out of the way up top. While the CEO swearing about the team’s two stars is good for comedic value out here, isn’t it nonsensical as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are just about the only reason the Stars are anything? (not to mention Benn’s long-standing place with the team and fans)
– First of all, Bishop and Khudobin have been absolute brick walls this season. They’re a large factor of why the Stars are still in a playoff position this late in the season. Second, Miro Heiskanen is a godsend for this team, especially when half the blue line was injured during the first half of the season. Okay, on to the real question. CEO Lites’ comments were beyond nonsensical. Not only did the tirade tarnish the team’s reputation around the league (what high-profile player would want to sign with the team now?), but it also made them a laughing stock. Benn and Seguin have proved Lites wrong with their on-ice performance, but those comments are continuing to hang over them and the team almost two months after they rocked hockey Twitter. Benn and Seguin are the faces of the franchise and are fan-favorites, and they were definitely fan-favorites for their classy responses to the comments. In the end, Lites’ comments backfired, I think, landing egg on his face – while getting some good splatter on the team that will come off with time. CEOs come and go, but Benn and Seguin are here to stay for a long, long time. In the end, it’s their on-ice performance and leadership in the locker room that matters the most. The team and coaching staff still support them, so why should fans do any different?
Why has Julius Honka not worked? The pedigree is there, he seems to have a coach that wants to play faster, and yet four points is four points…
– Do we have time for me to draft a graduate dissertation on why Honka hasn’t worked? No? Okay, let’s give this a shot: The yo-yo effect under Hitchcock last season did absolutely nothing for Honka. Not only was he bounced between the Dallas Stars and their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, but he was bounced with such frequency that he never had a chance to settle into the lineup and make a real impact. When Honka did spend time in Dallas, it was most often as a healthy scratch or with sub-par ice time. None of that helped his development and can only have hurt his confidence on the ice. We’ve seen flashes of his brilliance on the ice, but not this season. He’s been a healthy scratch with regularity under Montgomery, which leads me to believe that Montgomery doesn’t know where to slot him in within the current lineup. There’s just not room in the lines for a player struggling to produce (hush, let’s not talk about Nichushkin) and who needs time on the ice to get his skates back under him, so to speak. At this point, I would say it’s time to trade Honka, use him to bring in fresh talent that’s capable of producing at a steady rate.
Jim Nill has gotten three coaches. At what point does the cannon point at him?
– If the Stars fail to make the playoffs this spring, I think there’s going to be a turnover in the front office. It’s pretty clear that management expects this roster to be a repeat contender, yet they’ve failed to make a real postseason splash. If the Stars fail to make the playoffs (or fail to make it past the first round), I would place good money on Nill being let go. The lack of postseason performances and his lackluster record at the draft table would definitely be grounds for his exit from the team. At a certain point, it’s not about the coaches, but about the guy in the front office saddling said coaches with questionable trades, picks, and players.
What are the Stars gong to do before the deadline (assuming they don’t do anything before we print this, in which case I’ll just switch whatever you said to what they did and make you look like geniuses)?
– Nill has gone on record saying they’re looking for offensive power and depth at the deadline, and Dallas scouts have been checking out Zuccarello and Panarin. I would keep an eye out for the Stars to make a move for either of them on a rental basis (with an extension option on the table). One thing to watch for: the picks and/or players they send the opposite way. Just what is the front office willing to part with in exchange for a player that just might help the Stars get to the playoffs? In the past, Nill has been pretty good about not giving up first round picks or developing players that will aid the team. However, the Stars are getting desperate to make that playoff push this year, so is this the year Nill finally parts with the golden ticket of a first round pick?

 

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In the end, it was just a publicity stunt.

That’s all you can make of CEO Jim Lites airing out his team’s two biggest stars, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, in the press before he had ever talked to them. It’s hard to think of another CEO, who doesn’t hold GM duties as well, in any sport who decides to go so public with his criticism players on the team. Sure, Jerry Jones might in Dallas as well, and maybe that’s what Lites thought he was doing. Maybe they like blowhards in Dallas. And if you’re in Texas, we guess you have to be the biggest blowhard you can be.

The Stars problem has never been Seguin and Benn, of course. Maybe they weren’t having their career-years, but the main issue is that Lites has let GM Jim Nill create a Top-Of-The-Muffin-To-Ya roster. Jason Spezza is going to be put on display next to Sue at the Field Museum soon enough. Their kids like Janmark, Faska, and Ritchie have done jack and shit. They’ve been injured, but the blue line has John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen and that’s it. He’s been allowed to pick up trash like Jamie Oleksiak and Roman Polak and now Ben Lovejoy.

If this were any other sport, Lites’s tirade would have been met with a response of one finger up from each Seguin and Benn, a trade demand, and scorched future of the entire franchise. But you can’t do that in hockey, and maybe that’s what Lites was counting on. It seems especially harsh on Benn, who has only ever been a Star, the captain, and could have asked out at many points when the team wasn’t up to the standards he has always set.

Maybe he just wanted to make a ripple in a Dallas sports scene where the Stars are falling behind. The ‘Boys will always be #1, #2, and #3. But the Mavericks now have Luka Doncic, and next year when he’s paired with Kristaps Porzingis the Mavs will be one of the more watched teams in the NBA. The Stars have won one playoff series in a decade. It’s now how you keep up.

If the Stars fail to make the playoffs, it won’t be because Seguin and Benn didn’t do everything they could. It’ll be because Lites let a GM fail to back them up for a good five years.

 

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 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 11-19-6   Stars 17-14-3

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

SOME WERE SHOUTIN’ “TEXAS #1!”: Defending Big D

I don’t know if a team rooted to the bottom of the standings, with the worst goal-difference in the league by open lengths, can have anything resembling “momentum.” Especially when it was only two games ago it gave up a touchdown and PAT while their goalie sank back into the abyss. But hey, the Hawks played what may have been their most solid game all season against the (admittedly beat-up) Predators. And though there isn’t much to make out of the rest of the season, they won’t feel that way. So hence, they will try to build on it in North Texas, facing the same confounding Stars team they always find there.

If you thought the Predators were injury-filled, wait until you get a load of these guys. The Stars have used 12 d-men so far this season. Now you may think, “Wait a minute, the Hawks have used 10! So is 12 really that much!” Well, the Stars have had to go through their entire organizational depth on the blue line because of injuries, not because they’ve populated it with a collection of fuckwits and jackwagons.

John Klingberg has been out for weeks, but he returns tonight, so that’s great for the Hawks. So has Marc Methot and Connor Carrick, though I leave it to you to decide if that means anything, or should. Stephen Johns hasn’t played a game due to concussion problems. Klingberg has obviously been the big miss, as he’s one of the best puck-movers and passers in the league. The Stars base most of their offense on what he can do, and he can’t do anything from the trainer’s room.

And yet, with all that the Stars have been a top-10 team in goals-against at evens and overall. A lot of that is THE BISHOP! having an excellent season. Some of that is Jim Montgomery being able to keep whatever defensive unit he has on a given night playing a tight system. Or maybe it’s still the frame of Hitchcock lingering around. Either way, the Starts have survived.

Up front, it’s basically Colorado-Lite. There’s a great top line here of Jamie BennTyler Seguin-Alex Radulov. While Seguin couldn’t throw a grape in the ocean right now, compared to his career shooting-percentage, these are three players over 25 points. The next forward on the list is Jason Spezza at 18, and he’s sick anyway and might not play tonight either, aside from being three days older than water. This has been the issue for the Stars for years, that they can’t seem to produce a second line, much less a third, that can support the top one. We go into this heavier in the Spotlight, but all the kids the Stars were depending on have basically gone flaccid.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom, or meh and feh as has been the Stars case. Rookie Miro Heiskanen is making everyone go weak in the knees, and will dovetail nicely with Klingberg as a support, second-pairing player. Taylor Fedun has been an analytic revelation filling in for the depleted defense. Which is a good thing, because when you’re rolling out Roman Polak with a straight face, you’re supposed to be in trouble. And we mean literally “rolling,” because Polak can’t skate. He’s basically what Donkey Kong throws on the ice now.

All that said, the Stars are still aimed for another 88-92 points season without a jolt somewhere here soon, the same kind of season that no on remembers when it’s over. It’s also the kind of season that doesn’t push a team forward. This is not a rebuilding team blooding a lot of new kids. They won’t be bad enough to get a real piece in the draft that can help in the next couple years. They’re not contending for banners. They’re just scenery right now, and that’s the absolute worst place to be.

As for the Hawks, you would think changes would be on the minimum. Cam Ward looks to start, which means Collin Delia gets to deal with Galactus’s playthings tomorrow night in Denver in the form of MacKinnon and Rantanen, which seems a tad harsh for a second NHL start. Given the defensive effort on Tuesday, one would imagine there would be no changes there. So Brandon Manning can continue to blame everyone else while munching popcorn. Marcus Kruger didn’t make the mini-trip, and SuckBag was called up yesterday and he’ll probably slot in ahead of Chris Kunitz, because no one wants to watch Chris Kunitz ever again.

This is where we usually try and include some sort of higher meaning to the game and streak the Hawks are on. There isn’t any. They were enjoyable to watch on Tuesday. Let’s hope they are enjoyable tonight.

 

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Taylor is the editor-in-chief at DefendingBigD.com. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorDBaird.

The Stars switched from Ken Hitchcock to Jim Montgomery before the season. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed from the two coaches, other than the team playing hockey that doesn’t feel like an existential crisis?

It’s hard to tell what Monty wants this team to be as they’ve been absolutely devastated by injuries on the backend. They’ve been without John Klingberg for 6+ weeks, longer for Connor Carrick and Marc Methot. Stephen Johns has yet to play a game this season. At one point, 12D on the depth chart was playing in the top six at the NHL level. That is…less than ideal. They’ve been one of the best defensive teams even with all those injuries, so it’s safe to say being responsible in their own end is part of the identity. The offensive side of the puck is less clear, as Dallas relies on their blue line to generate offense, and with that position decimated by injury…

Seems like everyone is awfully excited about Miro Heiskanen down there…

All aboard the Heiskanen hype train! He looks like a veteran out there, and as he’s been thrust into a 1D role with all those injuries, he’s only grown in confidence. He has the trust of the coaching staff and is a big part of the Stars being a top 10 PK team. His game is already close to complete, and he’s drawn comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer. He’s only 19.

The Stars have been waiting for a bust-out from the likes of Faksa, Janmark, and Shore for what feels like forever. Is this all they are by now?

Maybe? Faksa seemed to have a bit more spark when he was shifted to wing last game, so maybe his scoring comes back a touch. He’s still one of the best shutdown forwards the Stars have, and having a guy that’s been in the discussion of Selke nominations last season is not anything to sneeze at. Janmark and Shore are likely what they are now, though if they had a more shoot-first linemate maybe they’d find some apples more often as they both make some good plays.

Tyler Seguin‘s shooting percentage seems to have cratered. Just bad luck or is there something in his game?

He’s having the worst of luck. He’s not going to shoot at a career low percentage for too long. He’s due for a hot streak, and there’s no better time than the present to get that going with Dallas finally getting some time at home instead of spending like 30 of 52 days on the road or something.

 

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That’s probably not fair. Because for once, Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars didn’t do something in the summer that had every hockey writer falling off their chairs and onto a Timbo’s wrapper(s). That’s usually been the M.O. in Texas. Whether it was signing Ben Bishop or trading for Jason Spezza or Tyler Seguin or whatever draft pick it was this time, it felt like very summer they were telling us the Dallas Stars had “arrived.” Arrived at what exactly I couldn’t tell you, because they’ve won one playoff series in 10 years. At least no one is expecting them to do that again.

I’ll give them this, I’m really all for teams hiring coaches from outside the normal, old-boys, well-I-drank-with-him-in-an-airport-bar-in-Manitoba crew. Jim Montgomery turned Denver into one of the premier hockey programs in the country, clearly has a knack for developing players, and it’s worth a shot. Sure, it hasn’t gone all that well with David Hakstol in Philly, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try.

What’s he got in his team? Let’s do the scooping.

20170-2018: 42-32-8 92 points  235 GF 225 GA 51.0 CF% 53.5 xGF% 7.6 SH% .927 SV%

Goalies: THE BISHOP! We was too late…

We’re only two years removed from Ben Bishop being a Vezina finalist, and deservedly so. But the intervening years have just kind of been “meh,”with a .910 split between Tampa and LA and a just a tick above league average .916 in Dallas last year. If he were truly special, one has to wonder if the Lightning would have been so happy to turn the job over to Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Bishop will turn 32 this season, so he’s not ancient. He’s had groin problems the past few seasons, which for a goalie who is 6-6 isn’t ideal. It’s very unlikely that Bishop will sink this team, and there’s still a chance that he finds that Vezina finalist form he’s produced on two different occasions. Though this isn’t the Lightning he’s behind, and it’s a pretty leaky defense, now that Ken Hitchcock isn’t prioritizing it.

Backing him up is Anton Khudobin, Khubes was more than serviceable as Tuukka Rask’s backup last year, and he’s actually the last goalie to not turn into masticated potatoes in Carolina, all the way back in 2014. He’s never been a guy you want to turn a whole season over to, but if Bishop gets hurt for a few weeks he can get you out of it. And he can certainly give you the 20-25 starts needed to keep the starter fresh through the season. Sadly, this is not the Niemi-Lehtonen Axis Of Confusion it was before at the American Airlines Center.

Defense: It’s the same defense as it’s been, except they added Roman Polak to it, which is not something anyone would do if you were trying to make it better. It will be anchored by Esa Lindell and John Klingberg’s moderately-poor-man’s Erik Karlsson act. It’s been a few years now where Klingberg has dominated possession and put up a fine collection of points, so we have to concede he is one of the league’s best even though you can go games without noticing him. His style is just kind of understated, and yet he remains perhaps the best passer from the back end in the league today.

Stephen Johns and Marc Methot will be the second pairing, at least until some part on Methot goes “TWANG!” which it always does. The underlyings haven’t been kind to Johns, but it is he who both Lindy Ruff and Hitch trusted with the tougher shifts than Klingberg, and Montgomery probably won’t be different. He provides the platform for Klingberg, much like Vlasic and Braun did for Burns in San Jose until this season. He’s also been paired with a collection of stiffs since he arrived.

The third pairing is where it gets ugly, and literally so, as that’s where Polak and youngster Dillon Heatherington reside. These are both monoliths, and in Polak’s case one that can’t move. If Montgomery is smart he’ll play the other two pairings 25 minutes a night and try and keep these doofuses off the ice as much as possible. But if Methot gets hurt, which he will, one of these heavy bags is going to have to take harder shifts with Johns, and that’s where it might go balls-up for this team.

It’s not a bad blue line, it’s just awfully thin. They have to stay healthy. And why isn’t Julius Honka part of this? If they replace one of the security guys on the third pairing with Honka and let him run wild, then this has a chance to be a real strength of the team.

Forwards: Montgomery is going to have the same problem the two veteran coaches had before him. There’s a great top line here in Jamie Benn (and his fear of all things southern), Tyler Seguin, and Alex Radulov. But below that there’s borderline mummy in Jason Spezza and a raft of younger players who have just been “not quite” their whole careers. Matthias Janmark, Radek Faksa, Devin Shore, Brett Ritchie are names we’ve heard for a while who promise to break through this time because now they get it, and then April rolls around and they all have 35 points and the Stars are out of it again. Let’s just say they have to prove it to be nice.

Valeri Nichushkin, who in his rookie year looked like he was going to tear the sky off the world at times and then just was kind of there, has returned from a sabbatical in the KHL. Injuries didn’t help him, as he missed a whole season in his first go. He didn’t really do dick in Russia either, so counting on him to be the secondary scoring the Stars have been crying out for for three seasons is probably folly.

Outlook: The Stars didn’t miss out by much last year. You can squint and see where things might improve for them. Maybe Bishop has one more brilliant season in him. Maybe being free of Hitchcock-shackles turns the defensive corps into more of a weapon, especially if Honka flowers. Maybe those kids just were too suppressed under Hitch (and you can easily see why). But they had their chance under Ruff too and never did quite enough.

The top line will score. Klingberg will be great. If they can get one or two others in on the fun, they could sneak back into the playoffs. If anyone important gets hurt, they’ll be sunk.

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Taylor is the editor-in-chief of DefendingBigD.com. Follow her @TaylorBaird.

Last time we saw the Stars, they were in the muddle of the last playoff spot along with the Hawks. They’ve since separated themselves into the first wild card spot and are hot on the heels of the Blues for the third spot in the Central. What’s been the change?

The Stars defense continues to improve. They’ve climbed from somewhere in the 20’s in the league in terms of goals against average to 5th in the league, allowing only 2.56 goals against on average per game. It’s been improvement in both even strength defense and penalty killing (where they rank 9th in the league today at 82.2% of penalties killed.) The goaltending has been fantastic of late, with Kari Lehtonen having a renaissance in terms of stats (.919SV% and 2.22 GAA) and Ben Bishop’s performance nothing to sneeze at, either (.919 SV%, 2.44 GAA). The offense has also come on of late, averaging slightly more than three goals per game on average now. It’s a big change from the first roughly 15 games of the season, when the team was struggling in all aspects other than the power play.
Jason Spezza only put up 50 points last year, and is on pace for way less this year. He’s been shuttled between center and wing. Is it just time that’s caught up? Is this a major problem?

The Stars have struggled to figure out Spezza’s role on the team. It’s driven by Radek Faksa emerging as a premier two-way center on the team as well as the offseason signing of Martin Hanzal. Spezza struggled offensively at the beginning of the season, and his ice time suffered because of it. He’s also been paired with wingers that haven’t been known for finishing, and think the game a pace behind Spezza. That’s contributed to his offensive decline. One thing I will say is that Spezza has looked better since being reunited with Mattias Janmark, so there’s still hope that it might turn around for him in the last 20ish games or so. As they say, it’s all about how you roll into the playoffs, right?
There are two players in Brett Ritchie and Julius Honka who don’t have the scoring stats you might want, but have glittering underlying numbers. Are the Stars happy enough with these two just pushing the play?

I think they are happy to a degree, yes. With Ritchie, the coach has come out and even said that he’s struggled mightily this year. That’s why he’s found himself pushed down the lineup or eating some healthy scratches at times, as other players look better and produce. But he’s still getting the chance to play through his struggles for the most part, even if it’s to the chagrin of some fans. As for Honka, it’s tough for fans to see a young player with that much potential get jerked around in terms of playing time, but at the end of the day, the Stars need a defense that works. Honka seems to have taken his healthy scratches in stride, and his games of late have shown he’s listened when the coaching staff has said he’s been too cautious in terms of offense. I feel like he will be tough to fit into the lineup when Marc Methot returns to the lineup healthy, if only because I’m not sure he’s done enough to beat out Stephen Johns for the 6th D spot, and Hitch seems to love him some Greg Pateryn (even if the underlying numbers are just blah with him…)
Is. a 2.44 GAA and .919 SV% what you expected out of Ben Bishop? Is that enough to go where the Stars want?
The last few years, all Dallas would have needed was LEAGUE AVERAGE goaltending to go far. Those numbers are far and away better than what Stars fans have seen in the past 5ish years, so we’ll happily take it.
What will the Stars be looking to do at the deadline?
To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much that the Stars will do at the deadline. I think they like their lineup, and it’s been working for them of late, so it’s possible that they won’t want to overpay for a deadline rental. If they target anyone, I’d bet on a top six right wing to add some depth to the second line in terms of scoring, or someone that adds to the second power play unit to make that player set more lethal. But with the draft coming to Dallas this summer, they likely won’t want to deal too many of their picks — and their pipeline of talent isn’t in a position to deal too many of those (though if they are going to do so, blueline seems to be a position of depth but not necessarily strength, and they have a few forwards that could be of interest to other teams.)

 

Game #54 Preview

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Just when you thought the Hawks had pulled their shit together, they played the Stars again to remind everyone that they’re not that good at stuff sometimes. To the bullets:

– Proving yet again that wins and losses, and a team’s record in general really, can be deceptive in this league, one would have thought that the won-five-in-a-row Hawks would have wrestled a win out of this, especially since the Stars have been on a (brief) losing streak. But alas, this did not go the way you thought. And early on the Hawks didn’t even play that badly. They hit the post twice in the first half of the game, and that was kind of a metaphor for their night: trying to do the right thing, attempting to put yourself in the right place at the right time, but just striking out. This game could easily have been tied at three midway in the second, if the posts had gone another way and if Bishop hadn’t robbed Kane of his 300th goal early in the first period. Coulda woulda shoulda.

– Naturally with a loss by four goals one suspects shitty goaltending, but as so often happens with the Hawks it was actually shitty defense. Well, let me qualify that: it was shitty defense mostly by a couple guys, and I’ll give you three guesses who it was, but you really only need one. Seabrook and Forsling were bumbling around the net, particularly on the fourth goal. Not that the fourth one was the goal that changed the game, but it signaled that the fork had truly been stuck in the Hawks before they even got to the third period. Meanwhile, Michal Kempny did things like break up a dangerous 2-on-1 in the second, and he played much of the game with Connor Murphy, who also had three shots. I liked the two of them together, but if it comes at the cost of having Seabrook and Forsling being paired up, then it’s not really worth it. Hopefully this doesn’t give Q an opening to put Kempny back in the press box.

– Obviously it would have been great if Crawford had stood on his head, but don’t let that dismal .818 save percentage fool you—he had morons in front of him most of the night. It would have been worse if not for some key stops by Crow throughout the game.

– The Hawks led in possession and shots, but the Stars had all the momentum once Jamie Benn scored the first goal (maybe he took Fels’ advice from earlier today? I mean, it’s what we all really want so…maybe good for him?). Tyler Seguin’s first goal came on a power play for Hartman’s tripping penalty, so I guess we should expect Heart Man to get the press box treatment this weekend.

– Speaking of the press box, it’s hard to argue that Patrick Sharp would have changed this game in any meaningful way, but it’s also hard to argue that Panik did. Weiner Anxiety’s possession numbers were above water (59 CF%), but he wasn’t particularly noticeable.

– Before it turned into a blowout, there was a lot of stupid posturing by guys on both sides. I guess it’s not that surprising given that these teams have played each other like 15 times already, but it definitely had the feel of a nature show where the male of the species puts on a gratuitous display of hopping around and showing off plumage to chase away rivals.

It was a frustrating loss, no doubt, since it’s a division opponent and they were tied in points going in. But shit happens—nights like this just happen sometimes and it didn’t look like the bottom fell out, they just took a step back after taking a few forward. With the streaky nature of things lately, we should be equally prepared for them to crap the bed for a while or inexplicably bounce back against a good team. Onward and upward.