LOS ANGELES – Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill has tried to build the Dallas Stars in his unconventional image.
When most contending teams in today’s NHL look for defense, Nill has pushed for offense. While winning teams almost always favor one starting goaltender, Nill likes his two-goaltender system.
“We’re all dealt certain cards, we’ve built our team a certain way,” Nill said. “We’re probably still not where we’re going to get to. I think we’re going to be a better team the next two or three years but our makeup, the way we are, it is kind of what we are and (coach) Lindy (Ruff) and his coaching staff are playing the way we think we’ll be most successful.”
The Stars are arguably the NHL’s biggest Wild Card going into the playoffs. They’re leading the Central Division – the NHL’s toughest – and have played some of the best hockey down the stretch.
But because of their offense, less-than-stellar defensive numbers and different goaltending philosophies it may seem hard to pick them as a Western Conference playoff favorite.
They understand this and have spent the last several weeks fine-tuning their team in order to be more playoff ready. They’ll find out in a little over a week whether this mix is the type that can contend in the postseason.
“We know we can score. Now to win it I think you still have to play good defense. You’re not going to win a championship – in hockey or what sport you play, you have to play good defense,” Nill said.
After back-to-back losses where Dallas gave up 10 total goals to the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues, the Stars clamped down considerably. In their last nine games they’ve given up 18 goals, a stretch where they’ve gone 7-2-0. Seven of those games have come against playoff-bound opponents.
“I think we’re finding our way and feeling more comfortable,” Dallas defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “You have to have a good kill and keep pucks out of the net, not give the other team momentum, maybe kill some of theirs. Throughout a series that’s really important and we have two great goalies that can make big saves in games for us. The cocktail is there, it’s a mix of everything. Now it’s a matter of playing.”
Shoring up the defense for the Stars is important if they want to win the Stanley Cup this year.
Since 2010-11, the league Stanley Cup champion has ranked either first or second in goals allowed per-game. In 2009-10, the champion Chicago Blackhawks ranked fifth in goals allowed per-game.
Dallas would trend more towards the Pittsburgh Penguins template in 2008-09. That team scored 3.15 goals per-game and allowed 2.84 goals per-contest. This year’s Stars team allows 2.80 goals per-game, but scores 3.23 goals per-game.
“We know we can score a lot but we have to play defense well too and I think we have done a much better job of that the last couple of months,” goaltender Kari Lehtonen said. “There were of course games that don’t go our way and we have to be extra opportunistic in the offensive zone and that creates stuff for the other team too but that’s like with any other team.”
Lehtonen is one of the central parts of the Stars defensive plan for the regular season. Dallas traded for goaltender Antti Niemi in the summer to try to give them more flexibility with their netminders. With Western Conference travel they figured that having two strong starting goaltenders sharing the net could give them some advantage. They’ve both drawn rave reviews by the team so far.
“I’ve said since Day One, those two guys are the reason we’re at where we’re at,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “They’ve really played some good hockey, they’ve had a couple of tough times themselves at different times but down the stretch both of them have played extremely well for us.”
Both have similar numbers on the season. Niemi has started 47 games and has a 2.68 goal-against average and .905 save percentage. Lehtonen has a 2.78 goal-against average and .907 save percentage.
Normal hockey wisdom says that you pick one goaltender and use him for the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs. Is it possible we’d see two netminders from the Stars over the course of a postseason? That doesn’t seem to be the case.
“It’s about getting wins and we’re going to play it by ear,” Nill said. “If one guys gets on a roll and wins two or three in a row, he’s in net. If you lose one or two, we can shake it out. Both goalies have been very confortable. They’ve worked well together and we like the setup, so it’s been good.”
This has only ratcheted up the competition between the two the last few weeks.
“I’m sure we both want to play,” Niemi said. “I know only one can. We’ll have to see what happens. You have to play well, work hard and see what happens.”
In the Stars’ 3-2 comeback win over the Los Angeles Kings on April 2, the team took the physical play by their opponent and pushed back with their own brand of hard-nosed hockey.
Pesky forward Antoine Roussel was annoying enough to get under LA’s skin, but never put his team down with lack of discipline. Captain Jamie Benn fought through tight-checking match ups to score a goal. Lehtonen stopped 24 of 26 shots on goal.
It was a big win for the Stars, one that happened without injured center Tyler Seguin, the team’s home run hitter who has been out since March 18, but is scheduled to return for the start of the playoffs. It showed that Dallas could play that brand of hockey against a team that’s won two of the last four Stanley Cups and has mostly the same core in-tact.
“It was playoff-style hockey and that’s what it’s going to be from now on and we came out to win,” Oduya said. “It’s a tough place to win here but with that said, it’s still not the playoffs yet. We’re happy with the points and it was two big points for us.”
If the Stars go deep into the playoffs, will it be a win for offensive-minded teams? It would more show Dallas’ versatility and how they figured out to tighten their style mid-year. If not, it’ll involve some tinkering.
“I think we’re learning and we’re doing a better job with that stuff. Before we were maybe trying to force things a little bit more and now we tend to play a little safer and a little smarter,” Oduya said. “We still get opportunities and some guys that are able to put pucks in the net, we’re very skilled up front. For us it’s been using our speed and having patience.”
MORE FROM YAHOO HOCKEY
- - - - - - -