Just when Stars seemed out, they rallied
Three weeks ago the Dallas Stars were the subject of trade rumors as they dealt with injuries. They were uncertain about the future and on the outside looking in when it came to the playoff picture.
Today they are the object of praise as they sit in first place in the Pacific Division. They were riding a five-game winning streak and a 10-game point surge heading into Tuesday's game at Minnesota.
“We were not doing very well about a month ago but everybody started playing better. We started getting wins and with every win it gets more exciting,” goaltender Kari Lehtonen said after his 2-0 shutout of Anaheim last Saturday. “Guys are smiling here and working hard. It's just a great time of year to be in it.”
Lehtonen and backup Richard Bachman have been huge components in Dallas’ success. During the point streak, Lehtonen has posted a 7-0-1 record with two shutouts and a pair of one-goal games. Bachman has won both his starts, allowing a lean three goals combined.
Coach Glen Gulutzan praised both netminders and really heaped it onto Lehtonen after last Thursday’s 4-3 shootout victory over San Jose.
“I think he is an elite goaltender, there's no question about it in our minds here,” Gulutzan said. “Playoffs would be a big thing for him, to get us to the playoffs would probably solidify that in most people's minds.”
The goaltending tandem has anchored a phenomenal penalty kill. Dallas has allowed just one power-play goal over the 10 games in which it has been the hottest team in hockey.
“That's just commitment from those guys, our main killers and all of our D,” Gulutzan said after an unblemished performance against an Anaheim club with plenty of power-play pop.
Dallas has also played through injuries to core players. Most notably, the Stars persevered without captain Brenden Morrow, who returned for the first time in 18 games Saturday and fittingly scored the game-winning goal.
“It felt good. I was a bit nervous to make sure I didn't screw things up, the way the team was playing and rolling,” Morrow said.
Without Morrow, the Stars’ core forwards have filled the void collectively. Mike Ribeiro has 16 points in his last 13 games, Loui Eriksson has 12 points in his last nine, and Jamie Benn has six points in six games since returning from a knee laceration that held him out for nearly two weeks.
Michael Ryder has proven to be the best value free-agent signing of the offseason after his departure from the defending champion Boston Bruins. Ryder needs just one goal to set a new career-high in goals with 31. He has 17 points in his last 16 games and has been held off the scoresheet just once in that span.
“Look at our organization, Joe (Nieuwendyk) goes to free agency, picks up Michael Ryder to add some scoring and he gets 30 goals for us. That's a real good pickup,” Gulutzan said. “Not only that, we got a guy with Stanley Cup experience who's a quality guy in the locker room.”
Apart from a couple of day-to-day dings to veterans Radek Dvorak and Sheldon Souray, the Stars finally have their full complement of players at just the right time.
They have ascended to the top of the Pacific Division and are beginning to place designs on a playoff run.
Still, each game presents a new challenge. The versatile, defensive-minded Steve Ott missed the San Jose game with back spasms and minor injuries reduced the Stars to four defenseman in the third period as they mounted a successful comeback against the Sharks.
“Those guys are playing for each other and showing a lot of resiliency and character. It says a lot for our group,” Gulutzan said.
Dallas has received consistent play from defensemen like Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas as well as timely contributions from role players. Tomas Vincour had a game-winning goal against Vancouver last Tuesday and the shootout winner to tank the Sharks.
The Stars broke to a strong start this season and hope that they can finish their campaign riding the momentum from their current streak.
“Any time you get into these runs where you've had success, you just have to make sure you keep maintaining your game,” Gulutzan said. “You can win games without putting in the right effort or doing the right things, so you have to remind guys what's making you successful so bad habits don't creep into your game.”
Today, the rumors, doubts and derision surrounding the Stars seem like distant memories.
Their top six have played brilliantly, their goaltending has been marvelous, their defense has coalesced and their role players have chipped with key plays as well.
“Here, there isn't a hierarchy, the room is not cliquey. These guys genuinely like each other and that makes them a dangerous group,” Gulutzan said. “Going forward after the trade deadline, they've just banded together to play for each other.”