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Hockey

The Stars Endured a Gauntlet, And They’re Better For It

No one expected the Stars to weather this much adversity before the All-Star break. The good news? It's made Dallas even more dangerous than before.
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The Stars are back to celebrating after weathering a rough month. Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

I sometimes wonder if I love anything as much as the Stars appear to love tantalizing their fans. 

I don’t think it’s intentional. The team is very good, and it’s only likely to get better with each new addition from a rather rich prospect pool. The Stars roared out to a 7-1-1 start, and after a rocky-but-joyous overtime win against Anaheim on Thursday, they’re now 29-13-6, a record that puts them top five in the NHL. 

But the price of success is higher expectations, and the Stars have often struggled to pay that bill in crunch time. This is the same franchise that went two years without making the playoffs after the wonderful 2016 season and another two years without a playoff series win after the bubble run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. These guys seem to love watching the boulder roll back down the hill almost as much as they love pushing it to the top. 

So after climbing back to the Western Conference Final last spring, you could be forgiven for flinching every time adversity has reared its head this season. And with Dallas recently losing both Miro Heiskanen and Jake Oettinger to injury for extended periods, the causes for concern had begun to mount even as the Stars weren’t dropping too many points. 

But adversity is the first path to truth, as Lord Byron said (though he probably didn’t say that when undergoing bloodletting as a medical procedure). And rather than derailing their season, the Stars have turned that adversity into a proving ground. 

Take the top line, for instance. Joe Pavelski has been a key element on this team for half a decade now, if you can believe it. After a slow start in 2019, he became a leader in ways seen and unseen: a playoff warrior who can drop four goals after coming back from a major injury, and a part of one of the best lines in hockey next to Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz. 

At least, it was one of the best lines in hockey. This year it just hasn’t been the same, for whatever reason. And rather than try to keep making fetch happen—think Rick Bowness with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov—Peter DeBoer and his coaching staff made a change, swapping Pavelski with Wyatt Johnston. 

As a result, the Stars turned one disappointment into a few great things. Not only is Pavelski still contributing on another line at nearly a point-per-game pace, but Johnston also has put any talk of a sophomore slump well and truly to bed, contributing seven points in his last seven games and looking every bit like a top-line forward in the process. The Stars were given some lemons, but they baked up a couple of gourmet lemon bars (which are still the only kind of bars the 20-year-old Johnston is legally allowed to frequent).

You could also make a case for how the top line’s struggles early this season allowed Seguin, Matt Duchene, and Mason Marchment to step up as a true 1B forward line when the team needed it. By picking up the slack for the former top unit, DeBoer was given enough time to be absolutely sure that moving Pavelski wasn’t done out of panic or desperation. Sometimes the best play you can make is to give your teammate enough time to make a better one.

The obstacles in the Stars’ path weren’t limited to the forwards, though. The lower-body injury that Oettinger suffered last month was scary, as any reaction that even vaguely hints at a groin injury is always going to be when it involves a goalie. Dallas’  depth in net was tested for a month, and there was every chance that Dallas would experience the horror of seasons past, when the backups for Kari Lehtonen were pressed into service yet found wanting. Or hey, what about 2018, when Lehtonen was the backup to Ben Bishop, and he was unable to stop the bleeding when Bishop went down, leading to the end of Ken Hitchcock’s brief return to the bench? 

Well, that’s not what happened. Not only did the Stars make it through a tough month without their All-Star goaltender, but they also did so with aplomb. Scott Wedgewood (along with a game from Matt Murray) went 8-3-2 during Oettinger’s absence, and while the stats don’t say Wedgewood was out there stealing games most nights, the bigger accomplishment for Dallas is that its goalies didn’t have to steal games. This team proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is far more dangerous than just A Goalie with Some Guys in front of him. (Unrelated note: Winnipeg, powered by Connor Hellebuyck, is only one point ahead of Dallas right now.) 

This wasn’t just a proof of concept for how the Stars can manage in the unpleasant even if Oettinger misses more time. This is an assurance that Dallas can afford to rest Oettinger more than it did last year, keeping him fresher for the playoffs—which should certainly have been one of the priorities going into this season. Wedgewood built trust the Stars haven’t often had behind their top goalie, and that might well be what they’ve needed to get the most from their top goalie. 

As it happens, Wedgewood’s presence turned out to be a problem for Miro Heiskanen, albeit in the most incidental of ways. When Heiskanen plowed into his goalie on January 4 and didn’t return, the Stars’ relatively shallow defensive depth could have become a gaping void. Heiskanen plays far more minutes than any other defenseman in Dallas (and more than most in the league), and his absence portended that a lot of dominoes were about to fall in all the wrong directions. When forwards don’t trust their defensemen, they have to drop lower in the defensive zone to support, which in turn slows down breakouts and transitions, leading to fewer offensive chances and fewer wins. It could have spelled disaster for a team already down its top netminder.

Instead, Dallas was forced to reckon with the truth of its defensive makeup, and that meant trusting everyone (including Nils Lundkvist!) to help share the massive load Heiskanen had been carrying since his arrival as a world-class defenseman back in 2019. 

It wasn’t always pretty—that Philadelphia game is best forgotten—but Thomas Harley was finally anointed as the top-pairing defenseman he has been capable of becoming all along, and Dallas went 6-3-1 in Heiskanen’s absence. But perhaps most importantly, Harley remained on the top pairing after Heiskanen’s return on Thursday, and it went pretty well. Despite the organization’s hesitancy to put too much responsibility on Harley too early, the season had other plans. And, like Heiskanen in 2019, Harley has proven himself more than capable of dealing with it. If Thursday night’s gorgeous overtime winner was any indication, Harley has been waiting for the training wheels to come off for a while. The Stars finally have an elite top pairing on defense, and they look poised to have it for a long, long time. The depth still needs work, but it’s a lot easier to buttress a strong foundation than to keep replacing the cornerstone. 

Dallas will undoubtedly face other obstacles before the regular season is over. Other lines will cool off. Other players will get banged up. Mistakes will be made that bring frustration. But if the last month has taught us anything, it’s that this group is equipped to create opportunities from challenges. And the newfound confidence in the depths of the lineup means this is a stronger team than before, from top to bottom. Whether that will be enough to summit the mountain depends not only on what the Stars can do well, but perhaps even more on how well they continue to react when things go badly. 

Author

Robert Tiffin

Robert Tiffin

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Robert Tiffin covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has worked for SB Nation as a writer and editor, covering the…
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