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Are the red-hot Dallas Stars legitimate?

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Predicting professional sports team’s future is a fool’s errand. It doesn’t matter if you’re making guesses based on a summer’s worth of transactions, guessing which team will win a playoff series when an 82-game season boils down to a maximum of seven contests or – in this case – trying to see if a small sample size indicates a bigger trend. Whatever the situation is, it usually isn’t much more than a coin toss.

What makes it fun isn’t being right or wrong (correctness is the goal and is certainly more fun, naturally), but rather determining why something will or won’t happen. The Dallas Stars were picked to finish last in majority of people’s Pacific Division predictions (mine included) based on their faulty defense and two years of substandard results. As you probably know by now, the Stars stormed out of the gate so far, going 3-0 with some convincing wins.

The question is: are the Stars for real or just lucky? Let me break down what won’t continue, what might and the variables that will make-or-break their season.

What should change

  • The Stars’ remarkable luck could run out. 82 games is a big haul. Expecting things to keep coming up roses for Dallas is a little bit much. The team has given up far more shots per game (34.3 allowed vs. 21.7 shots on goal) but is converting on startling amount of those shots (4 goals per game). If high shooting percentages indicate good luck then the Stars are eating salads full of four-leaf clovers.
  • On the bright side, their penalty kill will improve. So far, they have killed a league worst 64.3 percent of man advantages. That will obviously change, but if their PK remains weak, something else will change: they’ll stop winning despite allowing a bunch of powerplay goals.

What shouldn’t change:

  • Brad Richards should still be really good. He might not remain in the top 10 point scorers (though he could very well be within shouting distance) by the end of the 2010-11 season, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he matched or even surpassed his 91-point output from last season. Oh yeah, he’s also in a contract year. The last time he had a contact year, Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
  • The Stars forward depth will still be strong. One strength even the most negative of critics would acknowledge is the Stars’ considerable talent at forward. It’s not just Richards, either. Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal and Loui Eriksson can bring a lot of offense to the table, too. Steve Ott can score at a decent clip when given meatier minutes, too.

The variables

  • Kari Lehtonen’s health is always in question. Lehtonen has been pretty impressive so far, but it’s rarely been about talent with the former No. 2 pick (at least by what I’ve witnessed). Nope, Lehtonen’s chief issue revolves around staying healthy. If he can, the Stars could expect above average goaltending. If not, they must rely on someone like Andrew Raycroft. If that happens, they better score a lot of goals.
  • Will Ribeiro and Morrow’s magic continue? It’s highly unlikely that they will maintain their scorching hot pace, but if both players can stay healthy, they might represent one of the best “second” lines in the league. Teams would have to pick their poison: do you put your best blue line assets toward stopping Richards or that duo? Ribeiro-Morrow was one of the most underrated pairings back in the 2007-08 season.

One reason to believe that things will keep going strong for Ribeiro and Morrow: many athletes don’t truly rebound from major knee surgery until the next season, so maybe Morrow really is “back.”

Considering the high risk factors (Lehtonen’s health) and notable flaws (I’m still not sold on their defense or coach Marc Crawford), I would be surprised if they took the Pacific. However, with staggering forward depth and a little luck on the injury front, a playoff berth is perfectly reasonable.

What do you think? Are the Stars on the verge of being elite, just a playoff team or is this hot start just a blip on the radar of another disappointing season? Let us know in the comments.

Can there be parallels drawn between the 2016 Ducks and 2014 Sharks?

Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler (17) takes the puck up ice on a breakaway with San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, center, and Ducks center Nate Thompson, right, trailing on the play during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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The Anaheim Ducks might not have suffered a reverse sweep at the hands of one of their biggest rivals, but they seem to have reached a breaking point when it comes to playoff disappointments.

After firing head coach Bruce Boudreau, GM Bob Murray was highly critical of the team’s core, even noting that at this point he’s not a fan of long-term contracts. That was perhaps a swipe at how he feels Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf‘s eight-year $69 million and $66 million contracts have worked out thus far. Meanwhile Ryan Kesler‘s six-year deal worth roughly $41 million is about to begin.

After San Jose suffered its first round loss to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, Sharks GM Doug Wilson said they were now becoming a “tomorrow team” and they began a cultural shift that included Joe Thornton losing the captaincy.

There are differences of course between the two situations. One notable one is that the Sharks’ guard was already starting to change hands in 2013-14. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were entering their mid-30s, but Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture were on the rise. Anaheim’s core of Getzlaf and Perry is significantly younger, but while Anaheim also has some promising forwards like Jakob Silfverberg, that generation of players doesn’t seem ready to carry the torch for the Ducks.

“We don’t have a lot of young guys in the lineup. … Today’s a much different feeling leaving the rink,” Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano said, per the Los Angeles Times. “In those [previous] years there’s been a sense of hope. Today, there’s zero feeling like that.”

Perhaps the Anaheim Ducks will find hope by watching the rest of the 2016 playoffs. If the San Jose Sharks continue to succeed, they will be an example of a team that once underachieved, hit a critical low, but then managed to fix that in a relatively short time without a massive turnover in terms of on-ice personnel. While we’re at it, you could make a similar argument for the Washington Capitals.

Maybe Murray will look to those franchises for inspiration as he moves forward.

Capitals, Penguins nearly perfect at stopping third period comebacks

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) and Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) chase down the puck during the first period of Game 2 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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Pittsburgh only won by a single goal in Game 2 on Saturday and that deciding marker came with 4:28 minutes remaining in the third, but that contest had the potential to be far more one-sided.

The Capitals were outshot 28-10 through 40 minutes and were consequently leaning on goaltender Braden Holtby to keep things close.

“First two periods, I thought they were way better than us,” Washington coach Barry Trotz told CSN Mid-Atlantic. Or has Justin Williams put it, the Capitals “were getting embarrassed out there” during the first 40 minutes.

Washington did rebound in the third period, though it wasn’t enough to prevent the Penguins from evening this series at 1-1. That puts the pressure on Washington to take at least one game in Pittsburgh before the second round’s over.

Starting the game off strong is always going to be important, but that’s particularly true when talking about the Penguins and Capitals. Pittsburgh was 39-0-0 in the regular season when leading after 40 minutes while Washington was 37-0-1. So far in the playoffs, both teams are 4-0-0 when they have the lead after two periods.

Hemsky finds his groove on third line

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 11: Ales Hemsky #83 of the Dallas Stars handles the puck against the Nashville Predators at the American Airlines Center on April 11, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)
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When the Dallas Stars inked Ales Hemsky to a three-year, $12 million deal, the hope was that he would be a valuable secondary scorer and help round out their top-six. Things haven’t gone as predicted, but Hemsky has emerged as a significant player for Dallas lately.

Hemsky is now playing on the third line with Radek Faksa and Antoine Roussel and he’s gone on to record 15 points in his last 16 regular season games as well as another four points in seven playoff contests.

“We had hard conversations about how I felt the game needed to be played, where I felt his game needed to go,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff told the Dallas Morning News. “Did it always go his way? No. But from his defensive responsibilities to really buying into shooting the puck a little bit more, I think he’s been a real good asset for us this year.”

The Morning News goes into much more detail about Hemsky and his resurgence, but taking a step back from that, having a third line that’s both impactful without the puck and capable of chipping in offensively is important, especially as we get deeper into the playoffs. There’s no question that the Stars have big time players on their roster, but that’s obviously not all you need in the playoffs.

A lot of the time when talking about the Stars’ areas of concern, their defense and goaltending come up and understandably so given that Dallas allowed more goals in the regular season than any other team that made the playoffs. But the value of a strong bottom-six shouldn’t be understated and perhaps Hemsky’s recent resurgence will play a role in the Stars having that going for them throughout the playoffs.

Dallas has taken a 1-0 lead over St. Louis in the second round and has an opportunity to build on that in Game 2 this afternoon (3:00 p.m. ET).

NHL schedules hearing with Orpik over Maatta hit

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Brooks Orpik‘s late hit in Game 2 on Saturday might keep him out of Monday’s contest.

At the very least, the NHL Department of Player Safety intends to discuss the matter with Orpik today, per the department’s Twitter feed.

The incident occurred early in the first period when the Capitals forward smashed into Olli Maatta. The Penguins blueliner collapsed and needed some assistance getting off the ice. He didn’t return to the game.

You can see that hit below:

“I thought it was a late hit,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told CSN Mid-Atlantic. “I thought it was a target to his head. I think it’s the type of hit everyone in hockey is trying to remove from the game.”

The Penguins didn’t have an update on Maatta’s condition immediately following the contest.