Maybe now's the time to take the Dallas Stars seriously.
As good as they've been all season, it's only lately that they've looked like a team that is capable of making real noise in the postseason. Their current 4-1-1 stretch, which includes a pair of wins over the defending champion Blackhawks, has revealed how they'll elevate their game when the playoffs roll around. And it should have teams in both conferences worried.
Here's what's been different during the past couple weeks:
• They're a heavier team
When the Stars have been at their best, they've terrorized opponents with their speed, their forecheck and a murderer's row of scorers. Now there are two more reasons for opponents to keep their heads on a swivel.
Defenseman Stephen Johns and winger Brett Richie have added a dimension of physical intimidation that was missing from Dallas's game. Johns, a 6' 4", 225-pound blueliner, earned a recall from AHL Texas for the March 11 game against the Hawks. He's a strong skater blessed with a cannon of a shot, but it's the looming sense of menace he brings in the defensive zone that has tested the will of opponents and limited their ability to gain purchase in the high-value scoring areas. He's averaging 4.2 hits per game, and while that's over a very limited sample size, it ranks Johns fourth in the NHL.
Meanwhile Ritchie, who made his season debut against the Devils on March 4, has established himself as an agent of chaos in the attacking zone. Though he has just one assist in seven appearances, he uses his 6' 3", 220-pound frame to make his presence felt every game. His 4.1 hits-per-game average ranks right behind Johns in fifth.
Neither player is a goon, but they keep opponents honest and buy space for their teammates. That heaviness will be crucial if they end up facing the Hawks, Blues, Ducks or Kings along the way this spring.
• Their depth
The Stars have sustained their share of significant injuries lately—fewer than some teams, more than most—but they've managed to cover for the losses of Tyler Seguin, Kris Russell, Patrick Sharp and others thanks to a deep and fluid roster that's been expertly managed by coach Lindy Ruff.
The key of late has been the play of the bottom six. The fourth line—currently comprised of Ritchie, Vernon Fiddler and Colton Sceviour—ranks among the best in the league. It can be trusted in any matchup and is effective at both ends of the ice. In the Chicago game, it accounted for three goals and set the tone with its speed and puck possession. All three players have played higher up in the roster at various times, as have the members of the third line, Radek Faksa, Ales Hemsky and Antoine Roussel (who has firmly established himself as the NHL's premier pest/most hated player). When Ritchie, Fiddler and Sceviour are going well, as they are now, there's a relentlessness to their game that wears down the opposition and opens the door for the top-six to take advantage.
Cody Eakin has stepped into that group lately, moving from his usual spot on the third line onto the top unit alongside Jamie Benn and Sharp. He's picked up the offensive slack for Seguin, scoring five goals and nine points in his past six games while delivering his reliable defense. Eakin has been so good in the role that there's talk he could remain there when Seguin returns.
And then there's Patrick Eaves, who has the ability to tailor his game to fit an assignment on any of the team's four lines. He's currently skating with Jason Spezza and Val Nichushkin on the second line and has scored in each of his past two games thanks to a role on the team's first power-play unit.
While the mix-and-match approach can hurt the chemistry on other clubs, it seems to be working out well for the Stars.
• Maybe Kari Lehtonen isn't so bad after all
No one is putting Lehtonen on their Vezina Trophy ballot after the season. Not when he ranks 45th in save percentage (.906) and 48th in goals-against (2.82). But while his individual stats fail to impress, he's loading up in the only category that matters. Lehtonen has won six of his past seven decisions, including a 27-save shutout of the Islanders over the weekend, followed by a 30-save performance in the win over the Hawks.
He put together a scoreless stretch of 100:04 over those two games, but's that's not really the point with Lehtonen. Instead, he's succeeding by channeling his inner Grant Fuhr and coming up with that one save when his team needs it most. That wasn't always happening during the past couple of months, when his positioning in the butterfly and his side-to-side movement were repeatedly exploited by opposing shooters. He'll still give up the occasional bad goal but there's a greater consistency in both his physical and his mental approach that's allowing him to minimize the damage.
• The Russell Effect
For all the heat that GM Jim Nill took after making his one bold move at the deadline, the much-maligned Russell has fully delivered on expectations. Before a nagging injury kept him out of the Hawks game, he'd established himself as the workhorse of the team's blueline, skating at least 26:30 in four of his past six games. As he's eaten those minutes, he's lightened the load for some of the team's younger defensemen. That's given Ruff greater control of match-ups and increased their effectiveness.
And as beat writer Mike Heika pointed out, Russell's shot-blocking tendencies have had an impact on the rest of the Stars as well. Dallas had averaged just 15 blocks per game before Russell's arrival. Over the past few games, though, the Stars have dedicated themselves to the art of self-sacrifice. Dallas registered 20 blocks in a come-from-behind 4–3 win over the Bolts last Thursday. Against the Isles, they posted 26, then matched that number—with Russell out of the lineup—against the Hawks.
"I think it really is a team effort, where it gets contagious when you see guys that don't normally block shots give up their body and block a shot," Ruff said. "It isn't your typical guys who lay their body out; and when that happens, it's a great thing for a club. The guys get up on the bench and some of those blocked shots are just like scoring a goal."
There are still some tough tests ahead, including a three-game California swing and a home date with the red-hot Predators. But the Stars seem to have conquered their demons. And they have to like their chances.
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