When the Pittsburgh Penguins called a timeout early in the second period Saturday night, it was a sign that the Dallas Stars were on top of their game. It wasn’t just that they had a 2-0 lead and a 15-5 shots advantage at the time. It was that they had the Penguins on their heels.
“I think it was two games ago where Lindy said let’s make them play on their heels, make them call a timeout,” said Stars center Cody Eakin. “The past three games I think they’ve called timeouts when we’ve been pressing. I think that just shows our commitment to the systems and just being relentless.”
In Tuesday’s win over the Wild, Minnesota took a timeout after Erik Cole scored on a power play to put the Stars up 2-0 late in the first period. Toronto opted for a goaltender change to stem the tide after Valeri Nichushkin scored early in the second to put the Stars up 3-1 in that game. And then there was Pittsburgh’s timeout on Saturday, which came after the Stars had a couple of shots go off the post as they pushed to extend their 2-0 lead in the game.
“It means you’ve got in the zone, you’ve done something good with it, you’ve created a couple good opportunities and you’ve extended a shift where you’ve been able to get a fresh line out against their same line,” said Ruff. “You really have no alternative but to call the time out and slow the game down. That’s a sign you’ve got it going pretty good.”
The Stars have had it going pretty good over the last three games. They’ve won all three and outscored their opponents 14-1. They’ve started strong and pushed hard to extend leads. Over the last three games, they’ve outscored the opposition 5-1 in the first period and had a 33-15 advantage in shots. They haven’t taken the foot off the pedal in the second, outscoring their opponents 7-0 and outshooting them 40-20.
“We want to establish our game right off the bat. We don’t want to wait how to see the other team is going to do things,” said Stars defenseman Brenden Dillon. “I think in the last few games we’ve forced the other team to take a timeout to change the momentum or try to change the momentum. That’s a good sign for us when any team has to do that because that means we’re in control at the time and playing to our strengths.”
The goal is to play that way every night. Talking about it is one thing, and doing it is another. Their 1-8-1 slide the first three weeks of January is proof of that.
“I think we had a little trouble backing teams off there for a while, but we are getting back to the way we played earlier in the year,” Stars forward Ryan Garbutt said. “It’s working hard in practice and translating that over into games. It’s doing all the little things you have to do as a team to win.”
“It’s a lot of little things. It starts with execution,” said Ruff. “When the passing is crisp and we’re entering the zone, whether we are laying it in there and going after it, or if we are entering with speed and have them backed off, when your passes are crisp through the neutral zone, I think that is a great indicator of where you are at inside a game.”
And right now all indicators point to the Stars being on the top of their game, and the goal now is to stay there.
“When we are sitting back, thinking too much about plays and not playing to our strengths, that’s when we are not on our game. We have to stay away from that,” said Dillon. “We have to stick to the plan. We’re a fast team and we move the puck. That’s when we are on our game.”
Penalty kill on a roll
The Stars power play has gotten a lot of attention recently, scoring in seven straight games and going 9-24 (37.5 percent) during that stretch. But the penalty kill has been on a nice run as well. It’s gone five straight games without allowing a goal and is 15-15 during that stretch, including 4-4 against Pittsburgh’s top ranked power play Saturday night.
Coach Lindy Ruff said the Stars have taken a different approach on the PK recently.
“We’ve tried to take a little bit more aggressive mentality,” Ruff said. “We’ve tried to use six penalty killers up front, try to keep them real short, use our speed. Maybe give up a few lanes, but be ready to attack the pass. If they are going to have a real good opportunity, make them make three real good plays under pressure.”
The Stars held a short practice in Frisco Sunday morning. Forwards Jamie Benn and Alex Chiasson were not on the ice. It was a maintenance day for both players and both are expected to play Monday vs. Colorado, according to Stars coach Lindy Ruff.
“They’ve had an excellent year so far. They are probably the surprise of the West. They have as good a group up front with speed and creativity on those top couple lines. We are going to have to be really on top of our game.”
Stars coach Lindy Ruff on the Colorado Avalanche, the Stars’ opponent on Monday
“I’ve been feeling good, mentally and physically. Being a goalie is kind of a funky business, you can feel great and sometimes things just don’t go your way. The last three have gone my way and I just have to be happy about that.”
Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who has allowed just one goal in his last three games and has two shutouts
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