By Stu Hackel
The rise of the Dallas Stars -- who many doubted were even a playoff contender at the start of the season -- is among the most surprising developments of the season's first 11 weeks.
The Stars have picked up 24 of a possible 30 points within the last month and they took over first place in the Western Conference on Tuesday night by downing Montreal 5-2 to hop over the Red Wings by a point. Detroit has two games in hand and the West standings are packed so densely -- there's an eight-point spread between first and 12th -- we can expect teams to jump up and fall back every night. Still, the Stars have won 21 of 34 games this season, just one win less than league leaders Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
How are they doing it? First, they are playing a strong team game. When you watch how hard they work shift after shift, it's obvious they are going to be in a lot of games just based on effort alone, as this goal by defenseman Karlis Skrastins shows. Not known as an offensive dynamo, Skrastins was the late man on this rush. He took the puck behind the net and centered it....
[vodpod id=Video.5174797&w=425&h=350&fv=hlg%3D20102011%2C2%2C499%26amp%3Bevent%3DDAL822%26amp%3Bserver%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fvideo.stars.nhl.com%2Fvideocenter%2F%26amp%3Bpageurl%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fvideo.stars.nhl.com%2Fvideocenter%2F%26amp%3Bnlwa%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fapp2.neulion.com%2Fvideocenter%2Fnhl%2F]...and then went to the front of the net and battled until he knocked it in.
The Stars seem to have that elusive characteristic that many winning clubs in all sports have: they get contributions from everyone and can have a different hero every night. Their top player, Brad Richards, receives lots of attention (some of it because of his pending free agency and the team's uncertain ownership situation places his future in Dallas in jeopardy), but just behind him are less heralded guys like Loui Eriksson, who has five points in his last two games, eight in his last four, and 36 on the season, good for 10th best in the league. Raise your hand if you thought Loui Eriksson would be in the league's Top 10 at Christmas time. Raise your hand if you even know who Loui Eriksson is.
Steve Ott set up the Stars first two goals on Tuesday night and, apart from his role as Dallas' irritator-in-chief, is a real leader on this club. Jamie Benn had a big shorthanded goal (video) to give Dallas a 2-0 lead. Mike Ribeiro chipped in an assist (he's got four points in his last five games) and continues to be an elite playmaker. Defenseman Stephane Robidas picked up three assists.
Eriksson also scored this important goal ...
[vodpod id=Video.5174675&w=425&h=350&fv=hlg%3D20102011%2C2%2C499%26amp%3Bevent%3DDAL950%26amp%3Bserver%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fvideo.stars.nhl.com%2Fvideocenter%2F%26amp%3Bpageurl%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fvideo.stars.nhl.com%2Fvideocenter%2F%26amp%3Bnlwa%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fapp2.neulion.com%2Fvideocenter%2Fnhl%2F]...with assists from Ribeiro and Robidas to restore a three goal lead after a Habs shorthanded goal by Brian Gionta threatened to give Montreal some momentum in the game's last 10 minutes. It shows how well the Stars have functioned on the power play lately. Blogger Mark Stepneski of Andrew's Stars Page notes that Dallas has gotten PP goals in each of its last six games, scoring 7 in 26 attempts. The penalty killing is also faring well, as Benn's shorty shows. The Stars killed all four Habs power plays and 48 of 54 (88.9 percent) over their past 16 games. Special teams are largely about coaching and Mark Crawford is clearly pushing all the right buttons with his group.
And no team plays this well without getting strong goaltending, which Kari Lehtonen is providing. A great acquisition by GM Joe Nieuwendyk last February, Lehtonen shines night after night. His name doesn't come up in conversations about the best goaltenders in the NHL, but he outdueled Carey Price, whose name does come up. Lehtonen doesn't have insane numbers like Tim Thomas and Ondrej Pavelec, but he's doing pretty well in the stat that counts most: victories. He's got 15, the same as Thomas, more than Pavelec's 12, and not too far behind Price's league-leading 18.
“We compete, we’re all here for each other, we have great goaltending in both guys, strong forwards, a young defense that is gaining experience and our special teams are doing the job. Throw that all together you are going to have a team," Ott said after the game (quoted by Stepnedski). "I don’t think we are surprising anybody anymore.”