Nobody would blame the Dallas Stars if they started the 2011-12 season slowly, as it’s been a rough few months for them. After going 30-15-6 to start the last season, the team imploded in the second half but stuck around to put themselves a victory away from the playoffs on the last day of the season. They lost that game to the Minnesota Wild and conceded the eighth spot to the Chicago Blackhawks. Departing star center Brad Richards refused to waive his no-trade clause prior to the July 1 free agent signing period so that the team could get a few assets for him before he moved on. And to put the cherry on the sundae, team owners decided to file for bankruptcy and put the team on the auction block.
While the above circumstances sounds like fodder for a Johnny Winter Texas-blues song, the Stars have seemingly used it as motivation and jumped out to another early lead in the Pacific Division. The biggest reason is the outstanding play of goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Florida Panther fans got a good look at Finnish goalie in the preseason where he was spectacular (before his team put him in bad situations late in the game) so it should be no surprise to see him carry his strong play over into the regular season. He’s currently sporting a 7-0 record with a 1.54 GAA, with a .955 save percentage. And it’s not like he has a great defense in front of him. In all but one of his seven starts, he’s faced at least 35 shots so he’s been the biggest factor in all of their wins. There’s never been any doubting his talent. He certainly was a killer of the Panthers when he played for the then-Atlanta Thrashers. The question is can he healthy enough to come close to last season’s 69 starts. If he can, the Stars will once again be in the playoff hunt.
But Lehtonen hasn’t been the only factor in the early success, as expected Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn have been up to the task of carrying the scoring load as each have seven points through nine games. Captain Brendan Morrow and Mike Ribeiro have also come out of the gates with strong starts, combining for 14 points. But the biggest surprise on this team? Well, that would be Sheldon Souray
You remember Sheldon Souray, don’t you? You’re forgiven if you don’t as it’s been awhile. He was last seen in the NHL in an Edmonton Oilers sweater in January 2010. After a broken hand sidelined him for the rest of that season, the Oilers decided that they’d rather not have him around their team and told him to stay away after he cleared waivers in July of that year. After failing to catch the attention of the other 29 teams (some even saying he’s too slow to play in the NHL), he was loaned to the Hershey Bears of the AHL, where he tallied 19 points (4 goals) with a +10 rating in 40 games. The performance was enough to draw the attention of Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk who has been rewarded thus far for his faith in him. To start the season, Souray has 6 points (2 goals) and a +6 rating. Think the defense-starved Oilers could use him back on the blueline?
The challenge now is for the players to keep focused amid talk of the team being up for auction, new buyers, threats of relocation and nightly analysis of their attendance. Last season, they couldn’t win that final game when the playoffs were a win away. But there’s recent history of team’s facing similar problems and using it as a rallying point (2009-10 Phoenix Coyotes) so new head coach Glen Gulutzan has that trick in his bag for when he needs it. They have enough of the right parts to stick around in the playoff race but, can the Stars close the deal this time?
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