Stars seeking more push at quarter pole
Wednesday, 11.24.2010 / 10:35 AM CT / News
By Bob Matuszak
Brenden Morrow likes the youthful attitude and enthusiasm. Steve Ott can't get enough of the tenacity. Marc Crawford? He's impressed with the way his team has shown it can score goals at key times.
There's certainly a bunch to enjoy about this Stars team, including the ability to secure bonus points in overtime and shootouts, something they struggled to do last year early on. But there's also disturbing trends, like the disparity of play at home versus on the road, and a penalty-killing unit that ranks near the bottom of the league.
Indeed. As opposed to the East, where nine points separate the top team from the eighth-place slot, the West is much more balanced. As the Stars get ready to hit the quarter-pole of the season, they find themselves in 12th place in the West, but only two points out of the eighth and final playoff spot which is held by Vancouver. The Canucks are just five points back of conference-leading Detroit.
Last year, Dallas finished in 12th with a 37-31-14 mark, but the 88-point total was seven behind eighth-place Colorado.
"The hockey that I've seen around the league, the games are very intense and some games are playoff like," Los Angeles Kings coach Terry Murray said. "There's a lot of urgency in the league right now for teams to get points early, and you're seeing great hockey because of it."
The value of earning points was magnified last year when the Philadelphia Flyers snuck into the postseason by garnering the bonus point in a season-finale shootout win over the New York Rangers. Philadelphia rode the momentum all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to Chicago in six games.
The Stars were done in by those lost bonus points last year, as their 14 overtime/shootout losses were tied for the second-most in the NHL. Conversely, through the first 19 games this season, Dallas has picked up the bonus point in all but one of the five games that have gone past regulation.
"Come playoff time or right before, you always wish you had those valuable points or those extra ones that you could have held onto in October, November, and December," Ott said. "If you don't have those in the bank, it makes it tougher. For us, we've been a couple of points short of the playoffs the last couple of years, and those would definitely make a difference."
In all but one of those five games, the Stars have had to rally from deficits, which is both a good and bad thing, according to winger James Neal.
"It's great for us to come back and have the confidence to come back in games and bring them into overtime and win in overtime," he said. "At the same time you don't want to put yourself behind by three goals in the first period."
"We might not be the most skilled team in the last eight years, but we're right there with our work ethic and play," Ott added. "We've stuck together and we've believed in our off-ice work and on ice-work. Put that together, and the will always finds a way. A lot of our wins have come from that. We've stuck around games and have battled hard. I believe that everyone in the lineup is working hard every time they're on the ice."
The Stars began the season on fire, winning five of their first six. But since then they've slipped, due in part to a road game that has failed to live up to its home counterpart. Dallas was 3-5-0 on the road heading into Wednesday's game at Ottawa -- compared to 7-3-1 at American Airlines Center -- after finishing last season with a disappointing 14-20-7 road mark, which tied for fourth-worst in the Western Conference (the Stars were 23-11 7 at home last season).
Morrow ties the inconsistency to the Stars' youth. Dallas opened the year for the first time without a member of the 1999 Stanley Cup-winning club, and its average age of 28 years ranks in the middle of the pack in the league.
"We're young and there are growing pains and mistakes that are going to happen," he said. "I think we learn from them. Guys are getting opportunities with ice time that they haven't had in the past. With that comes success. There's been some problems and mistakes here and there, but overall I think it's made us better. Guys have great attitudes in the locker room, and come in smiling and ready to work. I think that's going to pay off in the long run."
One of those guys getting more chances and being counted on to produce is Neal. Now in his third season, the 23-year-old has delivered eight goals through 19 games -- the third-highest total behind linemates Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson -- and he's averaged over 18 minutes of ice time, the fifth-most among forwards.
The "Real Deal" set the bar high with two outstanding years to begin his career. He scored 24 goals as a rookie, and his 27 goals last season were just two fewer than Eriksson's team-leading 29.
"It's a learning curve during your first year," Neal said. "Just like any young player coming into the league, you're going to grow and mature, and that's happened for me over the last couple of years. You get a feel for what's going on and you want to establish yourself as a good player in the league and a top player on your team."
After scoring five times in the first 10 games, Neal endured a six-game goal-less drought before registering a pair of tallies in a 5-4 overtime win over San Jose on Nov. 18.
"There's highs and lows playing in the NHL, and you're going to go through those slumps," he said. "It's about how you deal with them. The main thing is how the team is doing. If it's winning everything is good."
Everything has been more than good for Richards, who anchors the top triumvirate that has helped carry the team early on. Richards has found his comfort zone after being obtained from Tampa Bay in a mid-season trade in Feb. 2008, and the offensive catalyst leads the team in scoring while being held off the scoresheet on only five occasions over the first 19 contests.
"He means a great deal to our team," Crawford said. "He plays in just about all situations. He's a player that can create something out of nothing if the flow of the game isn't going our way. He's very good with his linemates, and he can school his teammates…that's why we have James Neal playing with him. He's very nurturing and a very informative type of player. Brad is the leader for us in all areas. He's been around for 10 or 11 years now, and is wise in the ways of the NHL. He's a big part of our club."
It's been over two years since the Stars went on that magical run to the Western Conference finals after exhilarating series wins over Anaheim and San Jose. Morrow, for one, thinks his team has what it takes to be invited to this year's postseason party after a two-year absence.
"I think that's the next step for us," the captain said. "I envision us doing that. It's going to take a lot of work, and there's going to be some struggles along the way, but I'm pretty confident in this group being willing to pay the price and do the work to get us there."
"We've got to be a hard working team, and push to be even better," Crawford said. "We're where most people thought we should be, maybe a little bit better because not many people picked us to be in the (playoff) hunt. But we have to be able to put points on the board if we want to get to where we want to be."