Through 20 games, the Dallas Stars are 10-9-1 and occupy the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
On Saturday afternoon at American Airlines Center, Dallas defeated Edmonton 6-3 to put itself above .500 for the third time this season.
“I see a team forging an identity. It’s a process. I’m really enjoying the process because I’m seeing a team emerge,” Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. “It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be very challenging and we’ve got a long way to go.”
At the quarter mark of the season, the Stars have scored 58 goals, 18th most in the NHL, while allowing 60, 13th-most in the league, giving them a minus-3 goal differential. At the 20-game mark last season under Lindy Ruff, now an assistant with the New York Rangers, Dallas was 8-7-5, and had scored 53 goals while allowing 66 (minus-13 differential).
Hitchcock sees numerous signs for optimism, but still considers his team a work in progress, especially defensively.
“I’ve said that 75 or 80 percent of being a good defensive team is what you do with the puck and that’s where we’ve got ourselves in all kinds of trouble,” said Hitchcock, who was hired in April to replace Ruff.
Hitchcock was expected to help special teams immediately. Last season, the Stars had the league’s worst penalty kill at 73.9 percent and the NHL’s 20th-best power play at 17.9 percent.
Almost overnight, Hitchcock has transformed Dallas’ special teams from a considerable liability into an asset, as the Stars have the NHL’s No. 2 power play (27.4 percent) and the 11th-best penalty kill (83.3 percent).
“I think special teams has been one of the positives. They can help determine the result of the game,” Stars second-year center Devin Shore said. “That’s always good, when your special teams are doing well.”
The personnel changes Dallas made this summer have delivered similarly quick payoffs.
Fellow newcomer Alexander Radulov is second on the team with 19 points. Only captain Jamie Benn, who leads Dallas in goals (11) and points (21), has been more productive. When healthy, veteran defenseman Marc Methot, another new face, has helped stabilize the blue line. And young center Mattias Janmark, who missed last season with a knee injury, has rebounded with 10 points and is showing signs of being his pre-injury self.
Offensive stalwart Tyler Seguin, an NHL All-Star the past three seasons, is third on the Stars with 18 points despite skating with various linemates this season. Young defenseman John Klingberg is tied for most points (19) among league defensemen.
Dallas has done most of its winning at home, where the Stars are 7-2- 0. However, Dallas’ 3-7- 1 road record includes a recent 0-2-1 road swing through the Eastern Conference where they were outscored 14-5 in regulation.
Another number to watch is the Stars’ record against Central Division teams (1-5- 0). Starting four games under .500 in divisional play is a notable hole, but far from impossible to dig out of. The good news is the Stars have 23 more games within their division before the end of the regular season.
“I like our compete (level),” Shore said. “I think our team’s work ethic and compete is never in question, and that’s really important. Obviously, there’s adjustments we need to make. We need to play smarter and we need to play more consistent, we need to be better on the road. Those are all things we’re not going to dwell on, we’re just going to look ourselves in the mirror and try to get better at.”