The Dallas Stars are halfway into the 2017-18 regular season, and if their recent upswing is any indication, the best appears yet to come from Ken Hitchcock’s club.
Through 20 games, the Stars were 10-9-1 and had a minus-3 goal differential. However at 40 games, Dallas is 22-15-3, including a 12-6-2 mark in its past 20 games and a plus-8 goal differential. The Stars allowed 61 goals through their first 20, but have allowed just 51 in the second 20.
They beat San Jose 6-0 Sunday. They host Columbus Tuesday night in the third game of a six-game homestand.
“I think we’re playing some really good hockey,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said. “We’re feeling really good about ourselves now, we’ve got some confidence going especially at home here now with a lot of games. We’re playing really good and that’s important.”
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Another area where the Stars have shown marked improvement over the past 20 games is their record against the rest of the Central Division. Dallas was 1-5-0 against the Central through the first 20 games, but the Stars are 5-1-0 since, evening their record against divisional foes at 6-6-0 thanks to a 4-2 win against St. Louis on Friday at American Airlines Center.
“I think you got to be able to beat the teams in your division if you expect to make the playoffs,” Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. “You can’t get a playoff spot winning outside of your division, you got to hold your own there.”
Dallas played eight of its 15 games in December against Central foes and went 5-3-0 in those contests, a nice showing within the division.
Central foe or not, veteran forward Tyler Pitlick knows the key for him and his teammates is to keep their focus on the game at hand and not worry about how many divisional, home or road games the Stars have looming on the horizon.
Pitlick had two goals against San Jose Sunday night. He has 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 38 games this season with Dallas.
“I think you’ve got to realize [the importance of these divisional games], but you also got to stay even keeled, just focus on doing the right things, playing hard and just letting that take over,” Pitlick said. “Sometimes when you get too worried about playing division teams or worrying about points, you can over-try, you’re over-skating or trying to make too many plays instead of just playing the right way and just trusting your work.”
The Stars have also remained strong on home ice, with a 14-4-1 mark, one of the NHL’s best home records. But one area Dallas has seen some slippage over the past 20 games is on special teams.
Through 20 games, the Stars’ power play had converted 27.4 percent of its chances and was ranked second-best in the league while the penalty kill snuffed out 83.3 percent of opposing power plays (11th-best in NHL).
But over the past 20 contests, the Dallas power play is just eight for 61. Overall, Dallas still has the No. 11 power play in the NHL (20.3 percent) and the 13th-best penalty kill (81.6 percent), but there is clearly considerable room for improvement.
However, the Stars figure to get a nice boost by the return of injured center Martin Hanzal (lower body) and defenseman Marc Methot, who has missed the past 21 games since having knee surgery in early November. Hitchcock feels Methot’s return should provide an immediate boost to the penalty kill.
“There’s a lot of goals that have gone in on the power play that wouldn’t go in if Marc was there because Marc knows angles and he knows positioning better than anybody on our team on PK,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a great player on PK and knows exactly how to play.”
Numbers aside, the veteran NHL coach still has a simple barometer he uses to assess how much progress the Stars, or any team he’s coached, have made from the start of the season, one area he’s immensely pleased with.
“Your confidence comes from your work. If you want your team to grow, it grows by how hard you are to play against,” Hitchcock said. “What’s changed for us is we are really taking pride in being hard to play against, and that’s helping us grow our group. Every week we play, we’re getting a little harder to play against. And that gives you confidence that you can outwork teams.”