Bishop’s shutout streak for Stars enhancing Vezina Trophy case

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There are two big points on the line Thursday night in Minnesota when the Wild host the Dallas Stars. Both are pursuing playoff spots in the Western Conference, but the Wild will face a tall task in trying to score on Ben Bishop, who’s been unbeatable of late.

Bishop has shutouts in each of his last three starts and hasn’t surrendered a goal since late in the second period of the Stars’ March 2 win over the St. Louis Blues. His shutout streak is currently 204:20, the second-longest in franchise history behind Eddie Belfour’s 219:26, which was set in 2000. He’s also the third goaltender in franchise history to record three straight shutouts, joining Belfour’s 2000 run and Cesare Maniago who did it in 1967.

“It’s just one of those things,” Bishop said after Tuesday’s win Buffalo. “I’ll take it. The wins are what’s important. Obviously the shutouts are nice but it’s not why we play the game. The guys are doing a great job in front of me, big blocks at important times, big penalty kills, and then a couple of posts. Things are going my way right now, just try to ride the high as long you can.”

Bishop’s play has NBCSN’s own Brian Boucher, who owns the NHL record for longest shutout streak at 332:01, a little nervous:

What this run for Bishop has also done is move the 32-year-old netminder into the Vezina Trophy discussion. He’s now tied for second in the league with six shutouts, tied for first among goaltenders with 35 appearances with a .935 even strength save percentage, and tied for third among goaltenders with 1,500 minutes played with a .869 high-danger save percentage (via Natural Stat Trick).

Another stat for Bishop’s Vezina resume? He’s third in the league with a plus-15.32 goals saved above average, which measures how many goals a goaltender has saved compared to a league-average netminder.

“There’s just a calmness to him, of when he’s stopping pucks and when he’s handling pucks, that you know when he’s really on top of his game,” said Stars head coach Jim Montgomery.

After falling short as a finalist in 2014 and 2016, could 2019 be Bishop’s year to take home hardware? At the moment, there are a good number of contenders with Frederik Andersen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Robin Lehner, and Andrei Vasilevskiy as some of the names in the mix. It will have to come down to who impressed the league’s 31 general managers the most when it’s time to vote.

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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.

Push for the Playoffs: Stars face busy stretch in hopes of securing wild card

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

Tuesday night begins a vital stretch of games for the Dallas Stars. They currently hold the first wild card spot in the Western Conference with 14 games to play. Seven of their final 14 will come in the next 12 days — and that’s before the four-game western Canada road trip to end the month.

The importance of these upcoming games considering their position will mean a reliance on depth. That’s head coach Jim Montgomery’s plan as he expects to use some rotation in order to get fresh legs in his lineup.

“Going back to the four in six it is really important that we keep people fresh,” Montgomery said via the Stars website. “We saw Saturday that I would say that everyone except [Andrew] Cogliano and [Alexander] Radulov looked tired. So it is important that we can move bodies in and out.”

Saturday’s loss to the Chicago Blackahwks ended a four-game winning streak as they now head on the road for games in Buffalo and Minnesota before returning for a five-game homestand. The games against the Wild and next week against the Colorado Avalanche will feature important points on the line. There’s been some division on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture as teams have finally started separating themselves a bit.

The Stars have been getting solid goaltending of late from both Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. They’ll need even more from them both as Montgomery will be leaning on them over this busy period hoping freshness can result in the accumulation of points that will provide a cushion.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Penguins
Islanders vs. Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Sharks vs. Wild
Jets vs. Stars
Flames vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Stars at Sabres, 7 p.m. ET
Capitals at Penguins, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream)
Bruins at Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET
Red Wings at Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Coyotes at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Sharks at Jets, 8 p.m. ET
Devils at Flames, 9 p.m. ET
Predators at Ducks, 10 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Lightning – In
Bruins – 100 percent
Maple Leafs – 100 percent
Capitals – 99.7 percent
Islanders – 99.5 percent
Penguins – 96.9 percent
Hurricanes – 93.8 percent
Blue Jackets – 56.3 percent
Canadiens – 44.9 percent
Flyers – 7.6 percent
Panthers – 1.0 percent
Sabres – 0.3 percent
Rangers – 0 percent
Devils – Out
Red Wings – Out
Senators – Out

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Sharks – 100 percent
Flames – 100 percent
Jets – 100 percent
Predators – 99.8 percent
Blues – 99.3 percent
Golden Knights – 99.1 percent
Stars – 86.5 percent
Coyotes 38.9 percent
Wild – 37.4 percent
Avalanche – 29 percent
Oilers – 5.0 percent
Blackhawks – 4.8 percent
Canucks – 0.3 percent
Ducks – 0 percent
Kings – 0 percent

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators – 18.5 percent*
Red Wings – 13.5 percent
Kings – 11.5 percent
Devils – 9.5 percent
Ducks – 8.5 percent
Canucks – 7.5 percent
Rangers – 6.5 percent
Blackhawks – 6 percent
Oilers – 5 percent
Sabres – 3.5 percent
Avalanche – 3 percent
Panthers – 2.5 percent
Wild – 2 percent
Flyers – 1.5 percent
Canadiens – 1 percent
(*OTT’s 2019 first-round pick owned by COL)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Lightning – 111 points
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 98 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 98 points
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 89 points
Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 88 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 46 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 42 goals
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 41 goals
Cam Atkinson, Blue Jackets – 38 goals
John Tavares, Maple Leafs – 38 goals

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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.

Zuccarello injured during Stars debut, out at least four weeks

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Mats Zuccarello‘s first game as a Dallas Star started off fantastic. The 31-year-old forward assisted on the Stars’ opening goal during their 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday afternoon. He would later add a cherry on top of his offensive debut with his 12th goal of the season to give Dallas a 3-0 lead early in the second period.

The good feelings about Zuccarello then went sour later in the period.

Zuccarello, who was acquired Saturday from the New York Rangers, left the game late in the second period after a blocking a shot. Following the game, the Stars announced that he would be returning to Dallas to be examined and the early assessment is that he will miss at least four weeks.

Zuccarello told reporters afterward the “upper-body” injury is his arm and there’s a possibility that it’s broken. Once he’s examined this week they’ll have a better of idea of whether he needs surgery and if/when he can make a return. And as if that injury news wasn’t enough, the team also lost captain Jamie Benn with an upper-body injury. He’s considered day-to-day.

It’s a brutal blow for the Stars who are in the midst of chasing the third spot in the Central Division while also holding on to a Western Conference wild card spot. They have 13 important games in the next four weeks, and they will miss not having a Zuccarello in their lineup.

This tough injury news now makes you wonder how much more active Stars general manager Jim Nill will be before Monday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline. If Zuccarello returns in four weeks, Dallas will have seven games left in the regular season. Considering how the bottom of the West has played out so far, those seven games will likely be incredibly important for their playoff hopes.

MORE: PHT NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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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.

Stars acquire defenseman Lovejoy in trade with Devils

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DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Stars acquired veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

The Stars sent defenseman Connor Carrick and a 2019 third-round draft pick to the Devils in the deal reached two days before the NHL’s trade deadline.

Lovejoy is an 11-year veteran and defensive specialist who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. He was second on the Devils with 77 blocked shots while playing a key penalty-killing role. He has two goals and seven points in 51 games this season and 20 goals and 99 points in 524 career games.

General manager Jim Nill called Lovejoy ”an experienced, battle-tested player who has a track record of performing in meaningful late-season games.”

With Marc Methot out after season-ending knee surgery last month and Stephen Johns (neck/head) having not played this season, Lovejoy is a boost to the Dallas defense. The Stars reacquired defenseman Jamie Oleksiak from Pittsburgh in a trade last month.

The trade comes with Dallas seeking to keep pace in the congested Western Conference playoff race in which five points separate the seventh-place Stars and 12th-place Vancouver.

Dallas was 2-4-1 in its past seven games going into Saturday’s home game against Carolina. The Stars were coming off a 5-2 win Thursday over St. Louis that snapped a franchise-record 11-game winning streak by the Blues.

New Jersey was 14th in the 16-team Eastern Conference.

The 24-year-old Carrick had a goal and four points in 14 games with the Stars this season.

Lovejoy was a healthy scratch when the Devils played Thursday against Ottawa. Lovejoy had a plus-one rating in his 51 games, one of only two New Jersey’s regulars in the positive.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

After CEO’s criticism, Seguin leading Stars’ turnaround

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The most noteworthy thing to happen to the Dallas Stars this season came at the end of December when team CEO Jim Lites loudly and profanely criticized his team’s two best players, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and pretty much blamed them entirely for the team’s underachieving.

In doing so he absolved general manager Jim Nill of any and all blame for the team’s shortcomings, and ignored the fact that even though Seguin and Benn were, at the time, having “down” years for their standards they were still by far the best and most productive players on the team.

It was an outrageous rant at the time, and it looks even more outrageous now that the Stars are sitting on fairly solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race thanks in large part to the play of their top players.

Specifically Seguin, who was one of the main targets in Lites’ off the rails rant.

Please do not misinterpret that point.

This is not a commentary about how the criticism inspired their top players to play better.

That is an insult to the motivation of professional athletes and ignores the fact that, again, they were already carrying the bulk of the weight for the Stars early in the season. It is also an insult to their ability as players. They were highly productive NHL players before that, and would have continued to be whether or not those comments were ever made.

Top-tier players have the hardest job, the highest expectations, and the most pressure. When they only fulfill even 90 percent of those expectations they are going to get criticized for underperforming, even if their 90 percent is better than most everyone else’s 100 percent. That is what was happening with the Stars through the end of December.

Seguin and Benn may not have been on their usual scoring pace, but they were still outperforming everyone else on the team by a substantial margin, while also outscoring and outplaying their opponents on a nightly basis. At the end of December when Lites sounded off, the Stars were outscoring teams 24-11 at 5-on-5 play when Seguin and Benn were on the ice together.

The Stars’ goal differential without either of them was a minus-14 (34-48).

Where was the problem again?

In the 18 games since then, Seguin, Benn, and Alexander Radulov have still been the most productive players on the team.

Even though Seguin and Benn have been split apart a lot more often and used on separate lines, they’ve still outscored opponents by an 8-4 margin when they are together at 5-on-5. Without either on the ice the goal differential suffers an eight-goal swing (minus-4 … four for, eight against) in the other direction.

Seguin alone has 22 points in the 18 games since then and has been absolutely dynamite on a line with Radulov and is now on pace to exceed his normal career average for points in a season.

Benn’s offense hasn’t quite picked up, but given how much time he’s spent away from Seguin and Radulov and has been asked to carry his own line that probably says more about the lack of depth the Stars have assembled than anything else. And that, again, falls back on the job of the GM for not assembling more talent around his two franchise players.

After all of that drama caused by the CEO the perception of the Stars immediately became that they were a dysfunctional mess of an organization and a sad-sack underachieving team going that was going nowhere instead of what they actually are. What they actually are is a team that has a handful of high-end, impact players in Seguin, Radulov, Benn, John Klingberg and an emerging star on the blue line in Miro Heiskanen that is probably actually overachieving this season.

The lesson to take away from all of this: Maybe don’t publicly put your best players on blast for ruining your season unless you have a damn good reason for it. Because those best players are probably going to be the ones that end up saving your season in the end.

If Lites was so eagerly willing to call Seguin and Benn “f—— horse s—” for what he thought was them underachieving earlier in the season, he should be just as willing to publicly thank them (and especially Seguin) for the added gate revenue his team will get for making the playoffs on their backs and saving all of their jobs.

More: Stars’ CEO ire should be directed at GM, not Seguin and Benn

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.