The parity in the NHL is too much to play catch up from the start.
It’s what ultimately doomed the Dallas Stars’ playoff chances last season. The Stars suffered a seven-game losing streak from the end of October into November, and posted a 5-8-1 record in November 2014.
“Kind of our middle start, the second start, that window of 10-20 games wasn’t a good patch for us,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said before the 2015-16 season began. “We had that the year before where you can’t have a seven-, eight-game stretch where you don’t win hockey games. The math doesn’t add up in this league.”
This season, all of Dallas’ equations seem to be balanced properly as the Stars enter that “middle start.”
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The Stars sit atop the Central Division and the Western Conference with 20 points, thanks to a 10-3-0 record, trailing only the Montreal Canadiens ( 23 points) for the top spot in the league.
A year after an early seven-game skid, the Stars put together a five-game winning streak from Oct. 13-22 and have won four of their last six. Dallas plays at Carolina on Friday night.
“We knew we had to get off to a better start,” defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “We’re working on playing better at home, and that’s something to concentrate on all year, but games go a certain way sometimes and when they haven’t gone great, we’ve responded the right way. I think the urgency in our game has been there.”
For a team that has missed the playoffs six times in seven years, and returned most of the same players from last season, a turnaround of this magnitude seemed improbable. Unless you consider the way Dallas plays offense.
The Stars’ top two snipers, reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, are tied for the NHL lead in points with 20.
For the Stars to have success, it was assumed that Benn and Seguin would carry the brunt of the offensive load. The Stars have struggled in the past pulling offensive production from the remainder of the roster.
Ruff said one of the keys this season is how well the scoring has been spread throughout the lineup.
Second-year standout John Klingberg is in the league’s top 10 with 13 points, most among defensemen, and forward Jason Spezza, who had a hat trick earlier this season, has 12 points..
“That second year, it seems like there’s always points in the year where things can kind of go a little bit tougher,” Goligoski said of Klingberg. “But no, he’s a focused guy and he has a lot of confidence, so it’s gone well for him so far. I’m sure teams are definitely keying on him more. He’s handled it well, and I’m sure he will continue to.”
Also factor in the play of rookie forward Mattias Janmark, who made his mark with the organization in Game 1 this year, scoring his first NHL goal on his first shot. With three goals and three assists, Janmark was 10th in rookie scoring.
That kind of offense has given Dallas’ dual goaltending system, shared by off-season acquisition Antti Niemi and last year’s starter Kari Lehtonen, a bit of breathing room.
“If you’re scoring one goal a game, that puts an incredible amount of pressure on your goaltending,” Ruff said. “I think we’ve been able to supply them with a little bit of comfort, knowing that we can score some goals. Our goaltenders have been able to give us that big save at the big time, which has helped us win hockey games.”
Dallas’ offensive production, however, has also been out of necessity. The Stars have given up 37 goals, fourth-most in the league, an average of almost three per game. Also, Dallas’ penalty kill is 19th best in the NHL at 78 percent and 22nd while playing at home, killing off just 75 percent of man advantages.
Despite the positive start, the players and coaches say the team is still a work in progress.
“I’ll use the word comfortable,” Ruff said. “I’m comfortable with our start. I want us to continue to get better. For me, we’ve found ways to win several games and we’ve put a real nice road trip together, which really helped us in the start. So for me, I think the word comfortable.”