Roope Hintz

Injuries mounting for surging Stars

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Thanks in large part to starting goalie Ben Bishop returning to form the Dallas Stars are in the process of digging themselves out of the deep hole they jumped into at the start of the season.

They will have to continue that process over the next couple of weeks without two of their top players.

Already without John Klingberg, their top defensemen who will be sidelined for at least the next two-to-four weeks, coach Jim Montgomery announced on Thursday that leading goal-scorer Roope Hintz will also be sidelined for the next two weeks. Hintz already missed the Stars’ most recent game when they beat Colorado, 4-1.

He already has nine goals this season in 17 games. No other player on the team has more than five goals as of Thursday.

Obviously it’s not an ideal situation, especially with a difficult stretch of games ahead of them, but with Bishop and Anton Khudobin playing the way they have been in goal they should be able to stay in games. Joe Pavelski and Alexander Radulov are also starting to pick up their production, while their top duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn has been snakebit so far this season and should hopefully be on the verge of a breakout sometime soon.

Related: Ben Bishop is back on track and so are the Stars

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Ben Bishop is back on track and so are the Stars

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You could not have possibly drawn up a worse start to the season for the Dallas Stars.

They collected just three out of a possible 18 points in their first nine games, did not win a single one of those games in regulation, their big offseason acquisition (Joe Pavelski) could not find the score sheet, their other big signing (Corey Perry) had not played due to injury, and their goaltending — one of their biggest strengths — had abandoned them early.

It all seemed like they were one or two losses away from either making a coaching change or having Jim Lites publicly blow another gasket after another slow start.

If nothing else it put them in an early hole that was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to crawl out of. But just a couple of weeks later, they are in the process of doing just that.

After beating Colorado on Tuesday (their second win over the Avalanche in a week) the Stars are back to .500 on the season with an 8-8-1 mark and have won seven of their past eight games.

Obviously, a lot of things have started to turn around for them during that stretch, including Pavelski starting to get hot (six points, including four goals), improved play from second-year standout Miro Heiskanen, and complementary players like Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov contributing to the offense.

But no development has meant more than the turnaround of the two goaltenders, and especially starter Ben Bishop.

The Stars’ biggest strength entering the season was always going to be the fact the top of their lineup is capable of competing with any team in the Western Conference on any given night. They have a top line that can be great, two outstanding defenders (John Klingberg and Heiskanen) and a Vezina caliber goalie (Bishop is a three-time finalist for the award). That may not be enough to win a Stanley Cup, but it is enough to give you a chance.

Bishop is probably the biggest X-factor out of that group because as a goalie he can be the ultimate game-changer and someone that can mask a lot of team flaws. He was one of the top goalies in the league a year ago and was one of the biggest keys in their second half turnaround.

He is also one of the biggest factors in their recent hot streak.

During this 7-1-0 stretch, Bishop has appeared in six of the games and allowed just eight total goals (with two of them coming in one game) with a .955 save percentage.

Combined with a couple of great games from backup Anton Khudobin, the Stars have allowed more than one goal just twice since Oct. 19. You can’t realistically expect a team to give up only one goal every game for a full season, but the play of Bishop and Khubodin has at least given the Stars a chance to stay afloat in the West while the other top players get things figured out.  And you have to think they can. The trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Klingberg has combined for just five goals in the first 17 games and have a combined shooting percentage of 4 percent (five goals on 123 shots!), far below their normal career averages.

There is no way that is going to continue, because just like last season when they slumped at the start they are still way too good, and way too talented to not score more goals given the number of shots they are getting.

Klingberg is set to miss the next few weeks due to injury, and that will hurt, but with Bishop playing the way he is they should be able to get through it.

The Stars still have enough question marks to limit their potential ceiling, but they have enough impact players that their floor should be better than they showed early in the season. Right now their most important impact player has gotten it together. Once the other ones follow this season might once again become interesting in Dallas.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg sitting at three points (after Thursday’s goal and assist).

Things should improve to some extent, even if it’s foolish to count on all-world goaltending once again. With six of their first nine games on the road, maybe Dallas is having some trouble bringing its small-margin-of-error style out of Dallas.

While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving, so Dallas needs to shake out of this funk as soon as possible.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

[MORE: What’s wrong with the Stars?]

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

What’s wrong with the Dallas Stars?

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The Dallas Stars were an overtime goal away from playing in the Western Conference Final last year. Unfortunately for them, the St. Louis Blues got a goal from Patrick Maroon in double OT during their second-round matchup last spring and the Stars were sent packing.

But heading into this season, expectations were sky-high for Dallas partly because they managed to sign Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry in free agency. Let’s just say they haven’t lived up to the hype so far.

Through eight games, the Stars have gone 1-6-1. Only the Minnesota Wild have collected fewer points (two) than Dallas (three) so far this season.

Look, it’s early enough that head coach Jim Montgomery could get this figured out, but they have to at least be concerned about where this season is heading.

“As frustrated as we are right now, there’s 90 percent of the season left,” goalie Ben Bishop told NHL.com after Wednesday’s loss to Columbus. “There’s still time to fix this ship, but there’s got to be more urgency from everybody from start to end. We’ve got to find ways to get [wins], no matter how it is.”

So what’s gone wrong for Dallas through eight games? What can they correct?

• Where are the Stars’ stars?

Alexander Radulov (four points in eight games), Tyler Seguin (four points in eight games) and Jamie Benn (two points in eight games) simply aren’t producing enough right now. Again, the sample size is small, but it’s hard for teams to win when their three most important offensive players aren’t putting the puck in the net.

That trio has spent a good amount of time together and it should be the best line the team has. There’s no way the Stars can have success if the all three players don’t produce at a 70-plus point clip. Even though it’s encouraging to see a youngster like Roope Hintz take the next step in his development, they still need their three veterans to come through for them.

The Stars are averaging less than two goals per game (they have 15 goals in eight contests) and their 4.2 percent power play isn’t striking fear in anybody. Is the power play being bad tied to their stars’ lack of production? Probably. No matter what the reason is, everyone involved has to get this figured out as soon as possible.

• Where are the new guys? 

The Stars invested big money in Pavelski and smaller dollars on Perry. Let’s just say that the return on investment hasn’t been there for them yet. In Perry’s case, it’s not really his fault. He was forced to miss the first seven games of the year because of a foot injury, but he was finally able to make his season debut on Wednesday night. The 34-year-old finished the game with an even rating and one shot on goal in just under 14 minutes of ice time. He was a nice addition, but not one the Stars were counting on to dominate offensively.

Pavelski is in a different boat. The 35-year-old changed teams for the first time in his career and he’s clearly not as effective as he was as a member of the San Jose Sharks. Pavelski scored his first goal as a Star late in Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jackets. Is that something he can build on? We’re about to find out. But they brought him in to be a secondary scorer behind Benn, Seguin and Radulov. Not only are those three not scoring, but Pavelski is also failing to do his part in that department.

They better hope the veteran figures it out because there’s still another two years left on the free-agent contract he signed in July.

The encouraging thing for Dallas, is that they rank ninth is high danger chances for percentage and they’re 13th in expected goals for percentage. Does that guarantee that the offense is coming? Probably not. But it’s something positive. (Stats provided by Natural Stat Trick)

• Bishop needs to get back to Vezina form

Bishop didn’t necessarily have the heaviest work load last season, but he managed to put himself in the Vezina Trophy discussion thanks to a solid season. Yes, the Stars did a great job of limiting high-quality scoring chances, but he still managed to step up when called upon.

Blaming him for the early-season struggles his team is having isn’t necessarily fair. It’s not so much that it’s Bishop’s fault, it’s more that he has to take his game to another level while the offense in front of him is struggling. It’s hard to imagine Dallas winning many games when they score less than two goals per game. The only way they can do that is if their goalie stands on his head.

The 32-year-old has a 1-4-1 record with a 2.84 goals-against-average and a .899 save percentage this season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Blue Jackets’ Milano scores ridiculous between-the-legs goal vs. Stars

Sidney Crosby scored a wonderful highlight reel goal despite hard-working defense, yet he has some competition for Wednesday’s best one-man effort.

Sonny Milano hasn’t always been able to justify being selected 16th overall in 2014 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there have been flashes of brilliance when he’s avoided landed in John Tortorella’s doghouse. The 23-year-old authored his best NHL effort so far against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, beating Esa Lindell, Roope Hintz, and Ben Bishop, making a great move and then finishing his chance with the sort of between-the-legs move you’d see in a shootout.

You’re just not supposed to be able to that at full speed in NHL action, particularly against quality players and Bishop, who finished second in Vezina voting in 2018-19.

That goal ended up standing as the game-winner as Columbus beat Dallas 3-2 on Wednesday, too.

So, which goal do you prefer: Milano’s (above this post’s headline) or Crosby’s from the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 OT win against the Colorado Avalanche?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.