On the Radar: California Dreaming
Fresh off a three-game road trip, this week the Stars get a trip down memory lane as they take on three former Pacific Division rivals from California. Thanks to the new realignment, the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks have transformed to conference rivals instead of division. Still, the long, checkered history between the Stars and the trio from California should provide plenty of motivation in the games ahead. Plus, even with the new playoff format, seeding for the two wild card postseason spots is based on conference standing rather than division seeding, maintaining the extra importance of all conference games. Two of the three games will come in the Golden State, as Dallas continues their stretch of five of six games on the road. First up however, comes a Thursday night hosting of the San Jose Sharks at the AAC. Following a tough loss in Colorado in the road trip finale, the Stars will get a crack at the only other perfect record thus far this season, against the 6-0 Sharks. From there, they head to Southern California for a Saturday-Sunday set against LA and Anaheim, respectively. Here are a few things to keep on the radar as the Stars revisit their former Pacific rivalries.
Carousel in the Crease
The 1-2 record wasn’t the only bad news for the Stars on their recent road trip. Midway through the Oct. 11 game at Winnipeg, Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen suffered a lower-body injury, and was placed on IR. Very little has been disclosed about his injury, other than he has been on the ice the last couple of days testing out whether or not he’ll need more time off. Lehtonen is eligible to come off IR in time for Saturday’s game against the Kings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will. He is unavailable for Thursday’s contest with the Sharks, which likely means Dan Ellis will make his third straight start. Ellis was very good in his first appearance of the year, reliving Lehtonen in Winnipeg following the injury. He wasn’t as good the next night, when he was torched in his first start of the year, against Minnesota. The veteran rebounded nicely Tuesday night in Colorado, even though the stat line suggests otherwise. All three goals that beat Ellis were not his fault, and he made several key saves to keep Dallas within striking distance. Still, Ellis was brought on board this summer to back up Lehtonen, and regardless of how he performs, the longer Dallas goes without their regular number one, the worse the situation becomes for the team. Adding to the drama between the pipes is that the Stars in the midst of a four games in six nights span. If Lehtonen is not ready to return by the weekend, it’s almost a certainty that Ellis would not be called upon for all four games. That means that this weekend would mark the debut of the Stars top draft pick in 2010, Jack Campbell. The former #11 overall pick is in his third professional season and was recently called up from the American Hockey League when Kari went down. If Lehtonen is not activated, Campbell would almost assuredly see his first taste of NHL action in a Saturday or Sunday start. Ellis is likely to get the start vs. San Jose, but after that, the door is wide open. Saturday could see Ellis, Lehtonen, or Campbell in net. It all depends on Lehtonen’s injury, and certainly merits watching closely.
Blue Line Shuffle?
Despite the loss on Tuesday, the Stars played a strong game in Colorado. They were, however, victimized once again by bad turnovers in their own zone. Based on giveaways and takeaways stats this season, the Stars have lost the puck 35 more times than their opponents through five games. For a coach in Lindy Ruff who preaches the importance of puck possession, that is a glaring negative statistic. Prior to the game against the Avalanche, Ruff said he met with his defensemen and issued individual challenges. The club responded by suffering 4 more giveaways and 11 fewer takeaways than the Avs in that game. While those aren’t exclusive to the defensemen, Ruff already seemed willing to make a change. Rookie defenseman Kevin Connauton, who earned his way onto the roster with a strong pre-season, has been a healthy scratch for every game so far this season. Fellow defenseman Aaron Rome is trying to recover from off-season hip surgery, and has started playing in the AHL on a conditioning assignment. There is no official timetable for Rome’s return, but given that he’s playing games suggests that his NHL arrival is rapidly approaching. The starting six defensemen have remained the same for all five games so far this season. After a 2-3 start, warnings issued, that -35 number, and a mending Rome and serviceable Connauton waiting in the wings, it will be interesting to see if this week Ruff makes a change to the back line for the first time this year.
Spread the Wealth
The Stars have scored only 11 goals in 5 games this season, averaging just a shade over two goals per game. In four of their five games, they’ve been held to two or fewer goals. The main culprit has been the lack of diversified scoring. The Stars have played 300 minutes, and in the majority of games, they’ve rolled four lines pretty regularly. Regardless, they do not have a single goal all season from their third or fourth line. (Note: Erik Cole, who currently resides on the third line, does have a goal this season, but it was scored when he was on the Stars top line in that game). With the margin between a win and loss paper thin in the NHL, sometimes secondary scoring can be the difference between making the playoffs and not. Key production from the bottom two lines swing games, inject life into teams, and has so far been non-existent for the 2013-2014 Stars. With three games against solid competition with strong goaltending coming up this week, players like Cole, Shawn Horcoff, Antoine Roussel, and Valeri Nichushkin could provide a huge boost by chipping in offensively.
Swimming with Sharks
Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the ice…the San Jose Sharks have been feasting on their opponents this season. Not only are they one of two unbeaten teams this season, but they have been crushing the opposition. San Jose has scored a NHL-high 30 goals in six games this year, and allowed just nine-against over that span – tied for second fewest in the league. Their +21 goal differential is far and away the best in the NHL. That combination makes for a very dangerous matchup on Thursday night. Colorado had a similar stat line entering Tuesday’s game vs. Dallas, and the Stars found a way to dictate the play, but just fell short in a one-goal loss. While most of the players didn’t care much for talk of moral victories, the fact remained that the Stars had more positives than negatives in that loss, and on most nights it would have been enough for a win. That experience could serve them well 48 hours later going up against a similarly confident and dominant team. However, goals will likely still come at a premium, and attention to detail defensively will be paramount. The Stars will have to contend with the likes of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, and rookie YouTube sensation Tomas Hertl (Watch), who are all averaging better than a point per game this season. Becoming the first team to knock off the Sharks this season would accomplish a lot. It would lift the team back to .500 on the season. It would springboard them into the weekend set on the road. It would showcase that they’re capable of playing with - and ahead - of two of the top teams in the league. It would entertain the AAC crowd in the only taste of hockey at home over a 3 week span. And it would replace the moral victory on Tuesday with one in the standings. It won’t be easy, but coming off a good, yet point-less performance in Colorado, it’s a challenge to which they are looking forward.
As an aside, while moral victories are not the objective this week, here’s hoping the Stars get at least one, by ensuring that Thornton doesn’t score four goals on Thursday. The entire civilized world says thanks in advance.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310 The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.