Why Dallas Stars went from ice-cold to red-hot

Why Dallas Stars went from ice-cold to red-hot
Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

What a difference a month makes. A month ago, the Dallas Stars were sputtering, leaving Rick Bowness searching for answers. Now, the Stars take a seven-game winning streak into Wednesday’s game, and they’ve also won nine of their last 10 games.

So, does that mean all of their questions have been answered?

Not necessarily. You know how people say “the truth is somewhere in between?” That feels especially appropriate for the Dallas Stars.

During a season between extremes, it’s fitting that the Stars remain out of the Western Conference playoff picture. Naturally, even that doesn’t tell the whole story, either. The Stars possess games in hand on most of their Central Division/Western Conference brethren, leaving them right in the thick of things.

Let’s look at the big picture and specifics of this hot streak. How much of it is luck, and how much of it might just be a sign of a formidable Stars team?

First, the big picture of the Dallas Stars’ hot streak

The short version: the Dallas Stars’ hot streak is powered by a deadly scoring line (Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, and Jason Robertson) and a red-hot goalie tandem of Braden Holtby and Jake Oettinger.

We’ll delve into those driving forces shortly. Zoom out first, though. Check out the difference in simple stats (via NHL.com) and underlying numbers at even strength (Natural Stat Trick) between roughly the first month of the Stars’ season and the second, hot one.

Why Dallas Stars went from ice-cold to red-hot chart

[Dallas Stars rising in PHT’s Power Rankings]

Broadly, there are some similarities. Even during this hot streak, the Stars focus on quality more than quantity (the latter seen in stats like Corsi For% [CF%]). Interestingly, their power play was dynamite during the slump, and remained strong (23.3 percent tied for ninth-most efficient).

As usual, the changes are more interesting.

  • Unsurprisingly, the Stars’ puck luck started off dismal (that 5.72-percent even-strength shooting percentage ranked second worst in the NHL). Lately, that luck swung drastically. They more than doubled their shooting percentage (12.02) and received elite goaltending.
  • Their penalty kill went from one of the worst, to unsustainably stingy. Most likely another case of the truth being between two extremes.
  • Amid the good and bad bounces, the Dallas Stars have also “made” their own luck — to an extent. After struggling in quality areas like expected goals percentage and high-danger chances, they played like a top-10 or even top-five team in those areas during this hotter month.

No, don’t expect the Stars to get so many saves or shoot so efficiently for the rest of this season. But there’s a lot to like about their process; they’re owning the high-priced real estate in the high-danger areas.

Let’s go deeper on that hot line, and keyed-in goalies.

No denying it: Hintz, Robertson, Pavelski drive Stars’ offense

Through 12 games, defenseman Miro Heiskanen was the only Stars player at double-digits in points (12). Every other Stars player generated seven points or fewer.

Then again, Jason Robertson only played in six of those games (tellingly generating five points).

During their hot streak, the Stars are witnessing — once again — the power of the Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, Jason Robertson trio. If you missed it last season, that line was absolutely deadly — when Hintz was healthier enough to complete it.

In the past 10 games, Hintz and Robertson lead the Stars with 13 points, while Pavelski is just behind them with 12. No one else scored more than seven points during that 10-game span.

Questions of balance, and the future

Ideally, the Stars would love better scoring balance. After all, in a playoff series, a strong opponent might nullify (or at least slow down) Robertson – Hintz – Pavelski.

It’s worth noting that some of the top-heavy scoring is somewhat by design. As Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy recently noted, Rick Bowness slices up roles in very deliberate ways, setting the table for that trio to score.

In the margins, maybe you can spread the wealth a bit. But as McCurdy also noted, feeding Robertson – Hintz – Pavelski chances is generally wise.

Perhaps the key would merely be to squeeze out more of a good thing? Even during this hot streak, Jamie Benn‘s receiving average ice time (17:16) than Pavelski (17:09), Hintz (16:47), and Robertson (16:13, less than Radek Faksa‘s 16:18).

Obviously, the Stars have to be careful with Pavelski, who’s somehow 37 years old. But Hintz (25) and especially* Robertson (22) should be able to handle a larger workload. Worst case scenario, you try it out, then dial it back?

* – Considering Hintz’s injury issues last season.

Generally speaking, the Stars clearly have a great thing going in Robertson – Hintz – Pavelski. In a more hockey-mad market, they’d be getting more press. To get to the next level, the Stars should aim for some combination of more out of them, and more out of those around them.

Bad news for the rest of the NHL: Stars’ goalies are red-hot again

It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Dallas Stars have had a knack for manufacturing strong-to-elite goaltending. No doubt, much of that comes from being one of the stingiest defensive teams from Jim Montgomery’s run through to Rick Bowness. (Ken Hitchcock likely didn’t hurt, there, either.)

As usual, the Stars’ defense nurtures a goalie’s stats.

Yeah, it’s a bummer that Anton Khudobin rapidly slipped from feel-good story to the trading block. But the Stars were clearly wise to roll with a Holtby + Jake Oettinger combo instead.

For the most part, Holtby gave the Stars chances to win during that slump. Khudobin, not so much.

Over the long haul, Holtby and Oettinger generated unsustainably strong goaltending over the last month-ish …

Unless the Stars have two secret peak Dominik Hasek clones in Oettinger and Holtby clothing, even that defense won’t generate .950+ save percentages often. We don’t see .940+ very often, either, really.

(Frankly, the best Khudobin + Ben Bishop years already seemed tough to replicate.)

Yet, if the Stars can count on Robertson + Hintz + Pavelski more often than not, and put their goalies in position to succeed, they could be a scary opponent. We’ve seen formulas like these work in the playoffs, and this team isn’t that far removed form that 2020 Stanley Cup Final run.

Just don’t expect the Dallas Stars to stay this hot.

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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