It may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the Dallas Stars are arguably the hottest team in the NHL right now. Playing their best hockey of the season, Dallas has been on a roll, dismantling nearly every team they have faced recently all the while eluding most media coverage.
If you haven't been paying attention to Dallas the past few weeks, here's a quick refresher course to catch you up. Heading into their game tonight against Winnipeg, Dallas has won their past six games in a row. Looking a bit further back, the Stars have won 10 of their last 11 contests, propelling them from the fringe of playoff consideration to being the top dog in the Pacific.
It's time for the NHL to take note - Dallas is becoming a contender. Is it time to buy into the belief that the Stars could truly contend for the Cup?
On the season, the Stars are 39-26-5 heading into their game on Wednesday night. Prior to Wednesday's action, the Stars lead their division by four points following a run that has seen Dallas secure 20 of 22 points in the past couple weeks. The Pacific has been a major disappointment in 2011-12 with several teams failing to make a name for themselves despite carrying big expectations. Surprisingly, Dallas has now emerged as the top dog thanks to their perfect hockey at the end of February and so far in March. Their run has kept the Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings at bay in what has been a mad scramble to the finish.
All year long the Dallas Stars have quietly been a very tough opponent. They've gone through rough stretches but for the most part they have been extremely competitive each and every night. Do they have enough quality in their ranks to maintain this hot streak and ultimately be a Cup contender, or is their recent run a mirage?
Why Dallas is a Contender
Goaltending - Kari Lehtonen may currently be the most underrated goaltender in the NHL. On the year, Lehtonen is 29-15-4 with a tidy GAA of 2.21. Just like the rest of his squad, Lehtonen has seen his fair share of ups and downs in 2011-12 but has recently put all the pieces together and has been the backbone of the club's recent run. Lehtonen only has four shutouts on the season but has picked up three of those in his last nine starts. Lehtonen has the talent to be a formidable netminder. When he is locked in, he is as tough as any other goaltender in the NHL to score against.
Defense - During their run, Dallas has received decent to good defensive efforts from their defenseman. They haven't been great but they have been good enough to get the job done. Sheldon Souray, a player at the heart of several trade rumors in February, remained with the club providing valuable veteran leadership and experience. Souray has missed a couples game recently due to a lower-body injury but has still been an anchor on a Dallas roster that has several young members that lack big game experience.
In their last six games, Dallas has only allowed eight goals - a testament of how they have closed down the areas of the ice where high percentage opportunities develop. On the year, Dallas is allowing 2.56 goals a game (11th) and 30.7 shots a game (22nd). These areas have been greatly improved in recent weeks and will need to persist in order to make Dallas a true contender.
Offense - In this writer's opinion, the Stars have arguably a few of the most individually underrated offensive talents in the league. Loui Eriksson has been a force all season long, scoring 23 goals and 39 assists for a total of 62 points in 70 games. Joining Eriksson is Jamie Benn, an immensely talented forward skating in just his third NHL season. Benn already has 56 points in 2011-12, tying his career-high. When you count in Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro, the Stars have four players with 53 or more points.
In March, the Stars have outscored their opposition 18-8 in six games.
Why Dallas is NOT a Contender
The Stars are on a roll, there's no doubt about it. However, we can make the argument that their run is mostly caused by good fortune and that there are some glaring negatives that expose Dallas as a Cup pretender as opposed to an actual contender.
As mentioned above, Kari Lehtonen has talent - there's no arguing that. However, he is streaky. Extremely streaky. This trait is a dangerous trait to have when talking about a playoff series. If for some reason Lehtonen is to start struggling, the Stars would have to place Richard Bachman in net, a goaltender playing in his first full season at the NHL level, or ride Lehtonen until the sour streak ends.
Defensively, the Stars have been a mixed bag all season long and it's tough to believe that their recent run will persist. The Stars allow a ton of shots to find their net and it's safe to assume that a higher percentage of pucks will start finding their way to the back of the net if the Stars aren't able to cut down on this figure.
Offensively, the Stars have a group that can be as good as any on any given night. Like with many other teams, the issue is consistency. Like Lehtonen between the pipes, when the Dallas offense is on they are a tough group to contain. Unfortunately, they haven't been able to harness their power each and every night until the last couple weeks.
It's tough to predict where Dallas will go from here. Their run as carried them to the top of their division but they still have a huge task at hand as San Jose, Phoenix and Los Angeles are all within striking distance. Dallas' recent run has shaken things up in the Pacific and has placed them firmly into the playoff hunt. However, the Stars will need to keep firing on all cylinder if they want to be in the postseason. The Pacific may be the tightest battle in the Western Conference but it is also the weakest division. It's possible that the only team representing the Pacific in the playoffs will be the division winner.
Big tests loom ahead for the Stars. They play Vancouver twice before the month of March ends. They end the season with games against San Jose, Nashville and St. Louis.
For now, we'll label the big winning streak out of Dallas as that - a streak. The Stars have a lot of work to do before we can label them a legitimate contender for the Cup. This isn't to say their recent run hasn't been impressive but it does mean that the Stars have shown too often this season that their weaknesses are too large to patch over an extended period of time.
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