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Screen Shots: Praise the Stars, Ekblad Looks Great, Penguins Showing Muscle

This week on Adam Proteau's Screen Shots column, he looks at Pittsburgh and Dallas fighting up the standings and Aaron Ekblad's great play after returning from injury last year.
Aaron Ekblad

Welcome to another edition of Screen Shots, the THN column that takes a few areas of interest and bats them around in one file. Let’s get going right away with the first topic:

– How about those Dallas Stars?!?! Six wins in a row, and eight wins in their past 10 games, have got them challenging for a home-ice-advantage-in-the-playoffs spot in the Central. As noted in this space before the regular season began, the Stars are a dark horse pick to win the Stanley Cup this season. Right now, they’re just one point behind St. Louis for second in the Central, and they’ve got two games in hand on the Blues.

How have the Stars done it? With an emphasis on defence, just as we suspected they would. Dallas has arguably the best defense corps in the NHL, and the Stars’ defence has grinded its way to victory: in that 8-wins-in-10-games current streak, they’ve outscored opponents 31-12, and they’ve limited opponents to one goal in four of those games. Twenty-two-year-old goalie Jake Oettinger has emerged as a force to reckon with, posting a .951 save percentage, a 5-0-0 record, and a 1.41 goals-against average.

The Stars have rebounded nicely, but their schedule in the short term is difficult: after hosting the Arizona Coyotes Monday, Dallas goes on the road for three games, against Vegas, Los Angeles and San Jose, then they have a home-and-way two-game showdown against the Blues. Only three standings points separate second place from sixth place in the Central, and it’s likely to stay that tight all season long, so the Stars need to keep up their strong play right through the end of the year. They have the defensive depth and enough offense to do it.

– You know who’s had a low-key fantastic season? Panthers star defenseman Aaron . The Florida Panthers defenseman currently leads all NHL defensemen in points, with 23 in 23 games, including six points in his past two games. And he is just as good away from the puck, leading all Florida players in average time-on-ice (25:29) and ranking eighth overall in the league in the ice time category.

It’s nice to see Ekblad recover from the fractured left leg injury that wiped out his season in March of 2021 after only 25 GP. The 25-year-old is on pace to demolish his current personal bests, but it’s the way Ekblad calmly executes at his job that really makes a difference for the Panthers. He has a high panic threshold, and his vision makes him elite. If he continues to shine, don’t be surprised to see him at least get his first career Norris Trophy nomination as the NHL’s best defenseman.

Ekblad already has impressive awards to his credit, including the 2014-2015 Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie. He’s been a little banged-up the past couple of years, but he is just entering his prime, and the Panthers are the beneficiaries of his all-around excellence. He should be acknowledged more than he has been, but that will probably change this season as Florida regularly mauls opponents. And he’ll deserve the kudos. He’s quietly rounded out his game, and it’s apparent for all to see that he’s now the cream of the crop.

– The Pittsburgh Penguins started the season poorly, posting a 5-6-4 record. However, the mid-November return to action of Pens captain Sidney Crosby made Pittsburgh a more difficult team to beat, and the Penguins won five in a row to get back into the race for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.

They've since lost three in a row, but the most interesting part of their year is that Pittsburgh has played a league-high five shootouts, and lost four of them. Those lost single points in the shootout are the kind of thing that comes back to haunt a team at the end of the year when they're battling for a playoff berth.

Whether you like it or not, shootout prowess matters. The Penguins more recently lost two games in a row in the shootout, and won their only shootout game against Florida Nov. 11. You’d think a team with Crosby, center Jeff Carter, winger Jake Guentzel and defenseman Kris Letang would be better at shootouts, but alas, they have not been successful at them. Improvement in this area is likely mandatory if they hope to stake out a post-season slot.

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