As the soaring Dallas Stars embark on a weeklong road trip, their first stop doesn’t appear to be too big an obstacle.
The Stars look to continue one of the best starts in franchise history in Monday’s matchup with a Toronto Maple Leafs team still in search of the second win of the Mike Babcock era.
Dallas (9-2-0) enters a four-game trek against Eastern Conference foes having won eight of nine to match its best record after 11 games, set in 1996-97 and equaled in 2006-07.
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”This has been an amazing start,” goaltender Antti Niemi said. ”And I think we can play even better than this with more hard work.”
An ability to win close games has been a constant throughout the surge. After rallying for home victories over Anaheim and Vancouver last week, the Stars received third-period goals from Antoine Roussel and Tyler Seguin to record a 5-3 decision Saturday over San Jose and improve to 8-0-0 in games decided by two or less.
"We’ve got a lot more confidence going into the third this year," defenseman Jason Demers told the NHL’s official website. "We feel we are more resilient with the guys we’ve added this year, Niemi, Johnny (Oduya) and (Patrick) Sharp. They bring that calmness and experience."
Sharp has four goals and an assist during the three-game winning streak and John Klingberg has two goals and seven assists over a seven-game point streak, the longest by a Stars defenseman since Sergei Zubov’s nine-game run from March 24-April 15, 2006.
Toronto (1-7-2) finds itself on the opposite end of the spectrum, having scored just nine goals over an 0-5-1 stretch. The Maple Leafs own the league’s worst power play at 7.4 percent and are 0 for 17 in such situations over the last seven games.
The Leafs managed just 21 shots in Saturday’s 4-0 setback to Pittsburgh that marked Phil Kessel’s return to the Air Canada Centre since Toronto traded the high-scoring forward in July.
”I believe you have a responsibility as a good pro to bring it every day. And when adversity hits, you dig in a little bit harder and you stay with your structure and you stick with the program," said Babcock during a terse postgame press conference. "I didn’t think we gave our fans that (Saturday) at all.”
Toronto’s 2.0 goals per game also ranks near the bottom of the NHL, while the Stars possess the league’s top two point leaders in linemates Jamie Benn (17) and Seguin (16).
The Maple Leafs have won five of six from Dallas over the previous four seasons, however, and the Stars are 0-2-1 in Toronto since an 8-2 rout on Dec. 23, 2008.
Jonathan Bernier started both of Toronto’s 2014-15 victories over the Stars and made 43 saves in a 4-0 win in Dallas on Dec. 23. He allowed six goals while starting consecutive contests on Friday and Saturday, though, and could give way to James Reimer for this one.
Niemi improved to 6-1-0 this season after registering 26 saves against his former San Jose team and is 5-1-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average in six career starts against Toronto. He’ll likely split duties with Kari Lehtonen on a back-to-back that concludes Tuesday in Boston.
Lehtonen posted a 4.12 GAA in two losses to the Leafs last season and hasn’t played since being pulled early in the second period of a 6-2 defeat to Florida on Oct. 24.