There is a fine line between good and great. When hockey is played at the highest level, that line becomes the difference between playoff contender and Stanley Cup contender. After playing five games in five cities in eight days against four legitimate playoff contenders from the Eastern Conference, this version of the Dallas Stars might just be ready to be among the NHL’s elite.
Nine days ago, the Stars packed their hockey bags and headed east to face the gauntlet of some of the best teams the other conference has to offer. Coming off a homestand where the Stars repeatedly pulled horseshoes out of thin air to go 3-1-1, this excursion would be the toughest test of the season to date. If the Stars could get five points facing this crucible, it would be considered a success. Instead, Dallas made a bold statement to the NHL getting seven out of possible ten points. It was a great trip… perhaps one beyond imagination.
It's not only the end result of .700 hockey, but also the way Dallas got the job done that is most impressive. The team won with defense and especially goaltending. Five road games and two goals allowed in four of the five contests. Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger’s numbers were worthy of Vezina Trophy talk, with a record of 2-1-0, a goals against of 1.34 and a save percentage of .960. Just as impressive was the ability to close out games in hostile environments. Dallas held a one goal, third period lead three times on this trip, and closed out all three games without surrendering the lead even once.
With a 3.80 goals-per-game average at home, people expected the Stars to be able to outscore their problems at home. Trying to play high-event hockey on the road is rarely a path to success. The way Dallas has attained their lofty road numbers is a bit of a throwback to the way they played the past few years. The Stars have the fifth best goals-against average on the road at 2.61. On this trip, the goals against average was a stellar 2.00. Dallas allowed five goals in the OT loss against Carolina, which matched the total amount of goals in the four other games combined.
The Stars status of road warriors is another area where the team is vastly improved over last season. Last year Dallas was a slightly below average road team with a record of 19-20-2 and a point percentage of .488. The Stars current road record is 10-5-3, which translates into a point rate of .639. There is a hockey axiom on how the mathematics work out: a point percentage of .750 at home combined with a point percentage of .500 on the road equals making the playoffs 100% of the time. With a home point percentage rate at .700, the Stars fall well within the rate of success for postseason participation.
Maybe the most positive aspect of the current series of games is the consistency this team has shown. Hockey season is broken down into segments that are not always equal in length to the number of games played. The first segment is from opening night to American Thanksgiving. If a team is in a playoff spot on the holiday there is a better than 70% chance of making the postseason. Dallas finished that segment in first place in the Central Division with a 12-5-3 record (.675). The next segment is from Thanksgiving to the Christmas break. The Stars have continued their winning ways with a 7-3-3 (.654) record with just two home games to go until some time off. This continues to be the strongest start for Dallas since 2015-16, the last time the Stars won a division title.
Winning at home with dazzling third period comebacks and highlight reel OT game winners are nice, but teams that go far in the playoffs know how to win gritty road games. With this trip, the Stars have shown they are a squad that can win in any manner necessary. Two points in December count just as much as two points in March. For a team that has spent most of their recent last-season efforts trying to claw their way to a playoff berth, this is especially important. This is a team that wants to be worried about winning division titles rather than if they will qualify as a Wild Card. Every win is a step in the right direction and this road trip is a giant leap toward that ultimate regular season goal.