On the Radar: Continued Homecomings
The Stars homecoming tour continues this week with a light workload of just two games until next Wednesday. If it seems like the Stars have had a key member of their team making an anticipated return to the place they used to call home just about every road game, that’s because they have. I suppose that’s what happens when you get an off-season face-lift like the one the Stars had this summer. Still, it is quite remarkable that in just nine road games so far this season, there have been so many “Welcome Back” storylines for Dallas personnel. The Stars have had the Lindy Ruff tribute game in Buffalo, the Tyler Seguin media frenzy in Boston, the homecoming for the three (or is it Trois?) French-Canadian products in Montreal, Sergei Gonchar’s return to Ottawa, a pair of forwards and Assistant Coach going back home to Winnipeg. Just up ahead you’ve got Shawn Horcoff’s return to Edmonton. Heck, the organization itself even had a homecoming visit to Minnesota to take on the Wild. When reviewing the start to the 2013-2014 road calendar, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a hockey schedule or an episode of This is Your Life.
The latest stop down memory lane comes as General Manager, Jim Nill, returns to Detroit on Thursday. Nill won’t skate a shift or take a shot in Thursday’s game at the Joe, but rest assured that this return has a place alongside any of the aforementioned. Prior to being named the 11th GM in Stars history, Nill spent almost two decades calling “Hockeytown” his home. With 19 years as a member of Red Wings management – and the last 15 as Assistant GM, Nill was a part of four Stanley Cup winning teams, six President Trophies, and 12 Division titles. He is credited for being one of the key men behind the scenes of Detroit’s dynasty. His returning at the helm of a different organization will be just as surreal to him as it was for Ruff to walk into the visitor’s room at First Niagara. And just as the players knew how special a night that game in Buffalo would be for their coach, Ruff and Co. understand what kind of night this will be for Nill.
Getting a single game in one of the NHL’s most iconic venues will certainly be motivation enough for the Stars. But while it might not generate Ruff and Seguin-like headlines, rest assured everyone in Victory Green knows what this means to their off-ice leader, and they want to do everything possible to be able to hand him a game-winning puck before the trip home.
Once the Stars do make their way back south, it’s a date with the reigning Stanley Cup Champion, Chicago Blackhawks. Saturday’s game will surely draw a huge crowd at the AAC and make for a terrific atmosphere. It also will be the only home game in a 19-day span. The Hawks are always a tough test and swept the three-game series last year. This season Dallas better be ready for Chicago, because Saturday begins a set of four meetings with the Hawks over the next month. Chicago has shown no early signs of a hangover in their title defense, ripping off points in 13 of their first 15 games this year. It’s not quite a record-setting 24 straight, but still nothing the scoff at.
The upcoming pair of games make it three in a row for the Stars against Original Six franchises. The Stars got off to a great start with their exhilarating win in Boston. As they try to carry the momentum into Detroit and back home, here are some key elements to keep On the Radar:
One of the big knocks on this year’s Stars team has been their inconsistency. Not just from night to night, but also within a game. Everyone wants a great 60-minute performance out of their team every night, but it just doesn’t happen. Lindy Ruff was asked this week if he’s happy with his team’s ability to play 60 minutes so far. He answered, “I don’t know if there’s a coach in the league that’s happy with (that).” He also added, “I don’t know if I’ve seen too many teams (play a great) 60 minutes.” He’s right. Even the premier teams lay an egg on the odd shift, or period, or game. That’s the frustrating part about inconsistency. You know how good this team can look (see: third period at home vs. Colorado), you just don’t always see it. But that’s what separates the average teams from the great teams. Anyone who has ever picked up a bowling ball has, at one time or another, thrown a strike. But how many have ever bowled a 300 game? Consistency is the mark of greatness. If the Stars want be great (or even good) they need to play at the top of their game for as close to 60 minutes as possible. If 60 minutes of perfect hockey is the unattainable standard, then the goal has to be getting as close as possible on a nightly basis. For Dallas, there have been way too many lengthy stretches of sub-par hockey to accept. That’s what they need to clean up. Take a look at the last half-dozen games for some examples.
Dating back to Oct. 26, they had a bad start vs. Winnipeg. They then had a poor last half of the second period at Buffalo. A sluggish start plagued them in Montreal. They had a terrible open vs. Colorado. They got careless with a two-goal lead in the second period in Ottawa. And they were outshot 15-1 to open the game in Boston. The lengthy stretches, bad periods, etc. are standing in the way for Dallas. Within those same games, you can see the shimmers of brilliance that make it easy to get behind the Stars. Case in point, they allowed 18 first period shots on Tuesday night in Boston, and then allowed a combined 18 shots over the next 45 minutes through the end of overtime. You just want to limit those bouts of inconsistency. You cannot dismiss how good the Stars have looked at times within those games, and they’re getting results that showcase that. They are 3-1-2 in those games with points in five of the six. But even though the Stars have been able to eek out wins in Ottawa and Boston this last week, a more complete game would ensure that they don’t have to squeeze out wins. Ruff is right. Nobody’s perfect, and no one can realistically expect perfection. But Dallas needs to make sure they convert the long stretches of bad play into just fleeting moments. If they can do that, they can turn the corner as a team. They have points in six of their last seven games. They are not that far off pace. It just needs some tightening up.
Pondering the Power Play
We’ve talked about this before, but this week it bears repeating. The Stars must score on the power play. At home. On the road. Anywhere. The home power play struggles are the most glaring. Dallas is 0-for-18 this season at the AAC. To put that into more practical terms, three of the last four games in Dallas have gone to overtime. The Stars went a combined 0-for-9 in those games. Even a modest one goal in those nine opportunities greatly changes things. Not only do you rid yourself of the 50/50 proposition that is overtime in the NHL, but you also prevent your opponent from getting points. Considering that two of the opponents that the Stars took to OT are Colorado and Winnipeg that’s an important factor. While we’re still a long way from April, those are teams that were predicted to be contending for Wild Card spots along with Dallas. Colorado has obviously exceeded early-season expectations, but the point remains the same. Even average play on the power play at home would have increased the Stars point production over their home schedule, and at the same time reduced that of their division rivals. With the Western Conference being as strong as it is, limiting opposition points remains paramount. The power play could have done that in the past, but did not. The Stars have to make sure it does going forward.
As for their road power play, on paper things look pretty good for the Stars. They are 11th in the league, and convert just under 20% of the time. However, the majority of that success came in their first road trip of the season – nearly a month ago. The Stars have converted just 2 of their last 20 road power play chances over the last six games. That comes out to a lowly 10%. Overall, the Stars are just 2-for-33 over the last ten games.
Detroit has a solid penalty kill in Thursday’s matchup. Chicago, conversely, has the worst statistical PK unit in the league. Whereas last year they rode their #3 ranked unit all season, this year they are succeeding in spite of it. The Hawks are only killing 73.2% of their penalties. Part of the reason they’ve gotten away with it is by limiting the number of penalties they take. Chicago gives up the fewest number of power plays per game this season. Amazingly, entering their game on Wednesday, Chicago has only been shorthanded twice in their last three games combined. The Stars need to find a way to force the Hawks into penalties and expose their shaky PK. Dallas needs a breakout game badly on the power play. It’d be a bonus to have it come at home. Saturday night against Chicago provides an opportunity for just that.
Flight of the Valeri
He’s only scored one goal, but the Stars are finally seeing the display that they hoped for when Valeri Nichushkin fell to them at #10. After his first career NHL goal on Sunday in Ottawa, Nichushkin gave a subdued fist-pump and a look to the heavens. It looked more like a sigh of relief than a celebration. In truth it was both. No one could have predicted it would take so long for Val to break the seal on his NHL goal scoring career, but the goal was telegraphed by his elevated play as of late. Prior to Ottawa, Nichushkin had a number of quality chances to get on the board in preceding games. He just didn’t. Stats do tell part of the story, but not the entire one. Nichushkin has been skating better, back-checking better, finding more and more opportunities in front of the net. Now that the elusive first goal is out of the way, expect more chances to result in more goals. Not only is Nichushkin playing his best hockey of the season, Ruff’s line shuffling has given him a top-six role on the club. That combination makes for some exciting times ahead for the 18-year old, and some exciting hope from Stars fans. In two games since joining the top two lines, Nichushkin has a goal and an assist, and points in both games. As long as he remains on one of the top two forward lines, expect to see continued contributions from the kid.
Getting on the Board
Even though stats only tell part of a story, they are telling one that has to get better for Sergei Gonchar. After Nichushkin, Ray Whitney, and Antoine Roussel all scored on Sunday, Gonchar remains the only regular in the Stars lineup without a goal this season. Compounding the issue, he has been held to just a single assist through 15 games. This is foreign territory for the first-year Stars defenseman. Throughout a two-decade long NHL career, Gonchar has averaged about two points every three games. It is no secret that Gonchar struggled at the beginning of the season, and shaky defensive play overshadowed the lack of offensive production from the former All-Star. But Gonchar has been better defensively as of late. Since the pairing of he and Alex Goligoski was split up, both defensemen have benefitted. Still, we have yet to see any of the production that was expected when Gonchar was acquired and signed to a new
two-year contract over the summer. Defensemen have been very active in producing offense, as Dallas blue liners have combined for 17 points this season. To see Gonchar bringing up the rear of that list is surprising to say the least. Keep in mind you don’t have to travel back through the archives to find productive seasons for Gonchar. Last year he had 27 points (3g, 24a) in 45 games in the lockout-shortened season. The year before that he had 37 points (5g, 32a) in 74 games. If he can start producing more regularly, it would provide an already improving Stars team with a key additional weapon. The Stars are hoping this can be the week that weapon is unveiled.
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 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.