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.

Leafs’ Marleau becomes 18th NHL player to reach 1,500-game milestone

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Patrick Marleau’s three-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs will end two months before his 41st birthday, a summer when many believe his NHL career will come to an end.

But as he celebrated game No. 1,500 Wednesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the veteran forward was talking about reaching another kind of milestone.

“I’m going to keep going as long as I can,” he said Wednesday morning via Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “I don’t know if my wife’s ready to have me at home full-time yet. If I feel good and still think I can contribute then I’ll keep it going.”

Marleau is the 18th player in NHL history to reach the 1,500 game mark. Should he stay healthy and play the entire 82-game slate or close to that, he’ll enter the 2018-19 season 11th all-time in that category. Gordie Howe holds the record with 1,767 games played.

Health has helped the 38-year-old Marleau reach the mark in his 20th NHL season. He hasn’t missed a regular game since the 2008-09 season and hasn’t played fewer than 74 games in a full season in his entire career.

Marleau has gone from being the youngest player in the league to the sixth-oldest in the span of 20 years and considering his history of good health, better fitness regiments of players and treatment by training staffs, challenging Howe may not be a crazy idea.

Of course, that is unless Jaromir Jagr sticks around. If that happens then Marleau would likely have to settle for No. 2.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks at Blues

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This week’s edition of NBCSN’s Rivalry Night will feature a central division clash between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.

It’s still early days, but the two sides are battling atop the Central, with the Blackhawks powered by great starts from a number of players including Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman. The Blues, meanwhile, are looking to halt a two-game skid after winning their first four games of the season. The game also features the return of NHL on NBC analyst Ed Olczyk to the booth.

You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (8 p.m. ET) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Here are some links to check out for tonight’s game:

Blues get Alexander Steen back against Blackhawks

Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk’s ‘best medicine’

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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Former NHL agent Stacey McAlpine charged in fraud case

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) Former NHL agent Stacey McAlpine has been charged with fraud in a case involving former Ottawa Senators players Dany Heatley and Chris Phillips.

Winnipeg police said Wednesday that the 54-year-old McAlpine bilked Heatley and Phillips out of $12 million between January 2004 and June 2011. McAlpine is charged with two counts of fraud over $5,000, two counts of theft over $5,000 and laundering proceeds of crime.

Heatley and Phillips sued McAlpine and McAlpine’s parents, claiming money was being invested in unapproved real estate deals, including an Ottawa condominium. CTV Calgary has reported that Heatley was awarded more than $6 million by an Alberta court.

Rask hurt in Bruins practice; Spooner out 4-6 weeks

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Well, the good news regarding injuries and the Boston Bruins didn’t last very long.

Earlier this week, PHT noted that forwards Patrice Bergeron and David Backes are expected to return in the near future, possibly as soon as Thursday. That’s great, but Wednesday turned out to be lousy thanks to one injury scare and one sure-thing that’s a negative.

The biggest concern is that of Tuukka Rask, and it’s something that might not clear up for a while. Rask was helped off the ice during practice today after being “bowled over” by young forward Anders Bjork.

The Bruins might dodge a bullet there, which would be huge if their backup work in anyway resembles the woes of 2016-17.

While we don’t know the severity of Rask’s issues just yet, there’s flat-out bad news for Ryan Spooner.

The Bruins estimate Spooner’s window of recovery at four-to-six weeks for a (cringe) “right groin adductor tear,” which he suffered on Oct. 15. Adam McQuaid suffered an injury in that same contest, so that could go down as a costly date for a Bruins team that has been fairly described as top-heavy.

Spooner, 25, was off to a slow start so far this season. He didn’t score a goal and managed one assist in five games, averaging 13:17 TOI per game. Even during that time, he was deployed in a very protected way, so the B’s can’t really claim that this is more than a body blow.

Even so, the Bruins might sport a patchwork lineup if Bergeron and/or Backes can’t play on Thursday. They’ll likely chalk it up as a win if Rask avoids anything significant, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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