With 13 games left on the schedule, the Dallas Stars have a tenuous grip on the top wild card spot in the Western Conference. The squad will have to wring points out of the remainder of the schedule if they want to dance in the post-season, but the situation is a lot better than last year.
That disastrous campaign saw a pre-season Stanley Cup option miss the playoffs altogether, falling 15 points shy of a wild card slot and leading to the dismissal of coach Lindy Ruff. Porous goaltending and slipshod defense caused the Stars to finish second-last in the NHL in goals-against, with only the tragic Colorado Avalanche doing worse.
Enter Ken Hitchcock. The only coach to lead Dallas to a Cup title, which he did in 1999, ‘Hitch’ is well-known for his defensive teachings and in one season, he has turned Dallas into one of the stingiest squads in the league: Dallas now ranks fourth overall in team defense.
An upgrade in net to Ben Bishop definitely helped matters, but also a team-wide buy-in to what Hitchcock and his new staff wanted to accomplish.
“This year we brought our defensive game,” said center Tyler Seguin. “In the past we tried to outscore teams and this year we’ve been able to defend and it’s actually helped us score more goals.”
Indeed, for all the offensive sizzle the Stars had last season, they’re actually scoring at a higher rate under Hitchcock. But the coach himself is quick to point out that Dallas had a ton of roster turnover in the summer, so things aren’t apples-to-apples necessarily. As for the team’s goals-against, he looks at puck management as the key.
“Where we’ve gotten better is our play with the puck,” Hitchcock said. “It has allowed us to stay in the game, or not have a game explode on us, even if we get down a goal.”
Again, the improvement in that area is easily quantifiable. Last year, the Stars had a winning percentage of just .370 in games decided by three goals – this year, it’s up to .481.
There is still work to be done, of course. Injuries have dogged shutdown center Martin Hanzal for most of the campaign and now he’s out for at least six months due to back surgery. Bishop has also hit the shelf with a less-serious lower body malady, but it’s still a scary time not to have your starter in the crease.
Should Dallas hold onto its playoff spot, the Stars would likely draw the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round. While the speedy Knights have blitzed most opponents during their maiden voyage, it’s worth noting that Dallas has at least beaten them in Vegas this season.
But it’s never about the opponent when teams are gunning for glory. The Stars have experienced disappointment and are not in the mood to repeat the fall of last season. The potential of a team that boasts names like Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg is obvious and now they have the structure under Hitchcock. In their case, remembering the past isn’t such a bad thing; it’s a motivator.
“I just feel the whole team and myself were mentally prepared to change this year,” Klingberg said. “There’s a lot of redemption.”