On Thursday night the New York Rangers will come to the AAC to take on the Dallas Stars. The Rangers are in third place in the Metropolitan Division and when they looked ahead at their schedule a month ago they probably circled this game as one of the very few easy road wins out of the 41 away games each team plays in a season.
Like all professional sports, winning on the road in the NHL is never easy. The travel, the hostile crowd and untrustworthy food servers that try to give you food poisoning affect all away teams. The fundamental rules of the NHL add one more element that makes a road hockey game more difficult than the rest.
At each faceoff the coach for the visiting team is required to put his lineup on the ice first. He sends out the five players that he feels the situation calls for and the coach for the home side gets to react. The home coach always gets the matchup he feels is the best opportunity for his team to succeed. It’s a tactical advantage that when used properly can tilt every situation in the home team’s favor.
Let’s say you are the home team coach and your opponent puts his best scoring line on the ice. You send out your best defensive team and there is nothing he can do to counter. If he puts his weakest defensive line on the ice, out comes your best scoring line. Now, it’s not as simple as all that. Other factors like where on the ice the faceoff takes place, which line is playing well, which players have a history of playing well against another or seem to be getting the better of a line this particular game are some of the multiple variables considered in any situation. Each situation is unique but always slanted in the favor of the home team.
That’s what makes the Stars recent road success so impressive.
The Stars have won six games in a row on the road and seven of their last eight on the road overall, culminating in a three game sweep during a trip through Western Canada in which they beat Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver by a combined score of 12-4. The road streak is even more impressive when you factor in that has occurred in just the last three plus weeks. By the time they play the Rangers they will have played two home games in twenty-four days, picking up 14 of a possible 16 road points overall.
Oddly enough, the two home games the Stars have played in the last 25 days they lost.
The keys to winning on the road in the NHL are most always; get great goaltending and have your best players be the best players on the ice. If those two things can happen then the matchup advantage the home team is awarded is erased.
If your top line scores against the home team’s best defensive options their advantage is negated.
If your goaltender and checking line clamp down on the opposition’s scoring line the advantage is negated. Over the last few weeks the Stars have been able to accomplish both.
Kari Lehtonen has been nothing short of miraculous since his return from the disabled list. He is 8-4 overall and like the team, has won six in a row on the road. His masterpiece this season being a 41 save performance against the Vancouver Canucks this past weekend to finish off the road trip.
Kari is the most important player on this Stars team and is the most underrated goaltender in the National Hockey League. He is currently in the top ten in both Goals Against Average and Save Percentage despite playing for one of the most porous defensive teams in the league. Dallas gives up an average of 33 shots per game, 6th worst in all the league.
This being an Olympic year, you might normally think that with his numbers Kari would be a no-brainer for a spot on the Finnish National team but Finland has a ridiculous well of talent to choose from. Tukka Rask’s continued excellence for defending Eastern Conference Boston makes him the front runner. Pekke Rinne in Nashville was nominated for a Vezina Trophy in 2012 but is undergoing some serious medical issues right now.
Finland also has Antti Neimi, the first Finnish goaltender to win the Stanley Cup. His San Jose Sharks are currently in second place in the new Pacific division and he is just two years removed from his Cup win with the Blackhawks. Kari will have a hard time making his case to be the starter in Sochi despite his dominant performance over the last few weeks. All of this only adds to his status as most underrated player in the NHL.
As competitive as the Finnish goaltending spot may be, every spot on the Canadian roster is treated like a knighthood in the country that invented hockey. A spot on the Canadian National Team may be the most honored position in all of hockey.
At the beginning of this year Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn weren’t quite considered Team Canada potential. No one questioned their ability but their promise wasn’t quite up to snuff with a Canadian team that features Crosby, Toews and Tavares. They would need to earn a look.
Well, the two top scorers in road points in the NHL are Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. They are two thirds of the Dallas Stars top scoring line and as of right now the most feared one-two punch in the league. The duo absolutely torched the competition over the last few weeks. Against Calgary they combined for five goals and eleven points overall.
They are continually matched up against the other team’s best defensive lines and they just keep producing. The Stars have not had an offensive pairing as capable as this since Modano and Hull some ten years ago. No matter what the opposition throws at them they are always better.
The two are now very much in the mix for a starting spots on Team Canada. They dominated three games in Western Canada with Canadian Television watching. They performed at the right time to make an impact on the Canadian team selection committee. Offensively and Defensively they were by far the best duo on the ice every single night. Men among boys they were.
With the Olympics still a few months away and the final roster date in the future as well expect the audition to continue.
The Stars are finally back at home with four of their next five games at the ACC. Hopefully home ice with will be as kind to them as the road was. They will have the matchup advantage; they should have some decent fan support with the Holidays coming and people’s work schedules dying down making it easier to get out to a game. They get to sleep in their own beds and trust the waiter.
Hopefully those things will keep the winning going but if it doesn’t they do have 7 more road games in December.