The Dallas Stars traded haymakers with the St. Louis Blues over the weekend, and both teams provided an increasingly chippy and antagonistic playoff preview.
Somewhat lost amid the Dallas Stars‘ scorching hot start to the 2015-16 campaign is the fact that they haven’t played very many games against other NHL Central Division teams. Of the teams that are currently in playoff contention, the Stars have played the least amount of divisional opponents. This has created some speculation about the team’s strength of schedule and the true meaning of their league best 27-7-3 record.
Answers are starting to come into focus, however, on the strength of a four game Christmas week run against their Central bunk mates. On December 21st, the Stars fell behind the Minnesota Wild 2-0, prompting head coach Lindy Ruff to pull starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen. The tactic worked, as they stormed back to overwhelm the Wild, 6-3.
The next test was back in Dallas the following night against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. The two teams seemed content to feel each other out during a scoreless first period. In the second, the Stars seized the lead on a power play goal from centerman Jason Spezza. The lead would hold going into the third, and the Stars would vehemently serve notice in the final stanza.
Left winger Patrick Sharp opened the scoring less than a minute into the period with a sinister wrist shot from the right circle to stretch the lead to 2-0. From there, the Dallas Stars found another gear and proceeded to bury the the Blackhawks with additional goals from forwards Colton Sceviour and Mattias Janmark. The 4-0 final looked every bit the one-side tail kicking it appeared to be, and the Stars looked to be the fresher team, despite having played the night before.
The drubbing of Chicago set up the weekend home-and-home against a St. Louis Blues squad that has recently become Dallas’s Western Conference kryptonite. The Stars were nursing a precarious 2-1 lead in the third period on Saturday, and looked poised to win on a night in which the Blues were the better team. But a late goal from Blues’ center Robby Fabbri tied the game at 2-2 and extended the contest to an overtime period.
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After the 3-on-3 extra frame couldn’t determine a winner, the two teams engaged in a crazy nine round shootout. The Stars had three different chances to pull out the extra point in the process, but couldn’t convert. In the end, center Vernon Fiddler was denied by St. Louis goalie Jake Allen, and the Blues skated off the ice with a well-deserved 3-2 shootout win.
The weekend festivities culminated in Sunday’s tilt in Dallas. In an affirmation of the old axiom that styles make fights, it was the Dallas Stars who took the game to the Blues from the opening faceoff. St. Louis was badly outplayed in a first period that ended 1-0, thanks to a power play goal from Patrick Sharp. The 16-5 Dallas shot advantage was every bit indicative of the lopsided nature of the opening frame.
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The level of pain in the Blues’ collective posterior was apparent in the opening ticks of the second period, as two fights occurred within the first ten seconds. The tone was thusly set. Blood boiled, tempers flared, and it all served to make the Stars further focus on righting the previous night’s wrong. Although no scoring occurred during the period, they continued to dictate the pace of play and would not back down from the Blues’ attempts to bully them.
Captain Jamie Benn quickly struck on the power play to give the Stars a 2-0 advantage in the opening minute of the third. Center Cody Eakin potted an empty net goal to salt away a 3-0 domination. The Stars continued their recent trend of playing well in the second game of a back to back, and again issued a statement against a Western Conference power.
In the process, the two sides showed some genuine ill will towards each other. Given their close quarters over the weekend, it’s easy to see how and why animosity developed. A healthy hate is evolving between these two, and the Blues seemed particularly irritated by the nature of the beating they received on Sunday.
So now, after a slight wobble, the Dallas Stars are 8-2-3 in December, which translates to picking up nineteen of the twenty-six points the month has presented. They picked up seven of eight points in playing four divisional games in the last seven nights. This bunch looks entirely capable of greatness, and right now it’s difficult to see how another team could hang with them in a seven game series.