Dallas Stars coach Marc Crawford proves critics wrong

If the Dallas Stars continue to follow the path they’ve laid out over a surprisingly successful first 31 games, a lot of people will be eating some Marc Crawford crow. I must admit that I would be a member of that group.

For a while, there was a slight feeling that Crawford was largely the right guy in the right place in the beginning of his coaching career. After all, he happened to coach a Colorado Avalanche team that boasted the likes of Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Rob Blake. How many coaches would fall short of the mark with a roster that includes those stars plus plenty of great support players, really?

After a nice (if ultimately a bit disappointing) run with the Markus Naslund/Todd Bertuzzi Vancouver Canucks, Crawford fell flat with the the Los Angeles Kings. After earning a winning record in 10 of his first 11 years as a head coach between Los Angeles and Quebec/Colorado, Crawford went 59-84-12 with Los Angeles.

It seemed to me that he was a coach who had either lost his touch or was lucky to be so successful in the first place and his debut season in Dallas didn’t dispel that, as the club missed the playoffs once again.

Yet the NHL’s 11th all-time wins leader among coaches is putting together one heck of a season in 2010-11. The Stars hold a paper-thin lead for first place in the Pacific Division right now and with 39 points on the season, they only trail the Red Wings for first place in the West.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News writes that maybe the guy can coach a bit after all.

But 31 games into this season, Crawford is looking a lot smarter. His players seem to be buying in. His system doesn’t look all that challenging after all. GM Joe Nieuwendyk has made some tweaks to the roster and added a nice complement to the coaching staff in Willie Desjardins. And, to be honest, Crawford has had a year to get his message across.

It might just mean that the guy still can coach a little. He tossed Tom Wandell up onto the checking line Thursday and was rewarded with a goal from the speedy and versatile forward.

There’s probably a lot of reasons the Stars are 18-10-3 this season, but don’t doubt for a second that Crawford is one of the biggest. He has handled the pressure well. He has kept a positive attitude. He has walked the line between motivator and supporter.

Crawford moved to 525-402-173 all-time. He has won a Stanley Cup. He has been coach of the year, he has coached in the Olympics … and it looks like he still has a few things left to accomplish.

Now, I might say that the combined brilliance of Brad Richards and Kari Lehtonen might rank a little higher than Crawford’s coaching, but let there be little doubt that Crawford has done an excellent job with the Stars. Honestly, I felt like the team’s defense was such a huge weakness that the team would be doomed, but so far they’re making it work.

Crawford deserves plenty of credit for that and other components of the Stars’ success. If he can keep this balancing act together to win the Pacific, then it’s quite possible that he might add another Jack Adams Trophy to his resume.

The Leafs’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk

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The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business last night, sending the floundering Florida Panthers to a 3-2 defeat at Air Canada Centre.

Now comes the hard part for the young Leafs. They have seven games left to book their first playoff appearance since 2013, and their schedule is no cakewalk.

The Leafs’ next three games are all on the road, in Nashville Thursday, Detroit Saturday, and Buffalo Monday. After that, it’s a four-game home stand to close out the schedule, all against formidable opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.

With a four-point playoff cushion, the Leafs can afford to lose a few games down the stretch. But head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead.

“I really believe with our group if we just focus on the day we’re playing and play right, we have a real good chance to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what we talk about and that’s kind of our mantra every day is just play right, play fast and we have an opportunity to be successful. We don’t get all caught up in the race. We know the standings, it’s in the paper every day, so we know that.”

The Leafs today sent goalie Garret Sparks back to the AHL. That can only mean good news for starter Frederik Andersen, who could play Thursday after missing last night’s victory with an upper-body injury.

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the nod against the Panthers, calling it the biggest game of his career. The 33-year-old then went out and made 25 saves to earn the win.

“It was great,” said McElhinney. “Getting a couple of goals in the first period there helped out a little bit and let me settle into it. It was a nice win.”

Parise ‘pretty black and blue’ after Wilson high stick, but injury not serious

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Zach Parise looked in bad shape after taking a Tom Wilson high stick to the face in Minnesota’s loss to Washington on Tuesday.

Thankfully for the Wild, Parise’s early diagnosis is a good one.

“He can see and is fine as far as that goes,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday, per the club’s Twitter account. “He’s sore in the upper body. I don’t think he’ll be out long.”

Boudreau went on to add that Parise was “pretty black and blue” and unlikely to play tomorrow, when Minnesota hosts Ottawa. That said, the club expects the 32-year-old to return next week.

It goes without saying that losing Parise is huge. The alternate captain has 17 goals and 37 points through 64 games this year, and is averaging 17:33 TOI per night. And for a Wild team that’s mired in a horrific slump — just three wins in its last 15 games — being down the services of such a vital contributor is costly.

Related: Stewart fought Wilson in response to the high stick

Stamkos ‘getting really close’ to return

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It probably won’t happen Thursday against the Red Wings, but Steven Stamkos is getting close to making his return for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think we can start putting him in the day-to-day category right now,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, per team beat writer Bryan Burns. “I don’t see him playing against Detroit. After that, I’d say it’s getting really close.”

Stamkos, who hasn’t played since November due to a knee injury, practiced today with his teammates. He took line rushes and even worked with the second-unit power play.

“Today was probably the best day yet,” the captain said. “Doing better than last time we talked and really feeling better each day now.”

Tampa Bay’s next game after Thursday’s is Saturday against Montreal.

The Lightning are three points back of Boston for the second wild-card spot in the East, but they do hold a game in hand on the Bruins.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game in regulation after they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part, so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty of term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski