At last- the long-awaited return of forward Alexander Radulov. And for a Dallas Stars team clinging to hope for the fourth playoff spot in the Central division- it couldn’t have come sooner.
Radulov returned to the lineup for the first time since Feb. 12 and scored the shootout winner in Sunday’s 2-1 road win over Columbus on Sunday. Dallas was 5-3-3 when he left due to a lower-body injury, and has emerged just a notch above National Hockey League .500 at a 4-3-3 clip in the ten contests without him.
After a dominant win over Chicago last Tuesday, the Stars sputtered in the second game against the Blackhawks- but grabbed three of four possible points in the weekend road series at Columbus and were very close to sweeping the Blue Jackets.
Here’s a look at unit-by-unit grade for the Stars as they continue to chase the Blackhawks.
Tuesday’s win over Chicago was a step in the right direction for the Stars offense, and as NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire affirmed several times on the national broadcast- Dallas looked much more like the team that made a surprise run to the 2020 Cup Final. Jason Robertson was incredible with 4 assists in a breakout game, and when healthy, Roope Hintz has proven to be a catalyst- averaging nearly a point per game with 15 points in 17 games.
Things flattened in the past three, but Dallas scored enough to keep with Columbus and showed comeback ability in Thursday and Saturday’s losses. Radulov’s return could send things in the right direction for this unit- his play completely changes the complexion of Dallas’ attack.
Dallas’ defensive unit has been the only healthy part of the team n 2021. This continuity has helped the Stars maintain their backchecking identity from its successful 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons- but the 2021 installment has been inconsistent as best. This group is still the strength of the Stars, however- currently ranking 8th in the NHL at just 2.54 goals allowed per game.
Special Teams: C
Dallas’ power play has finally regressed to the mean. After being propped up from the red-hot start to the season against lower-tier foes Detroit and Nashville, the Stars are now just 11th in the NHL at 24 percent with the man advantaged.
Joe Pavelski continues to lead the league in power play goals with 10- a one-goal edge over Edmonton’s Leon Draisital. Pavelski added two even-strength goals this week for 14 on the year- matching his total from the entirety of the 2019-20 season.
The Stars’ penalty kill has been average all season long- and has leveled out a 17th in the league, killing off 77 percent opponent penalties.
There’s a controversy brewing in Dallas. Rookie Jake Oettinger got the start over Anton Khudobin in Sunday’s win- and proved Rick Bowness’ gamble pay off with a 30-save performance despite allowing four goals on 30 shots in Saturday’s loss.
Both goalies have been strong, but the rotation of netminders has been confusing to say the least. Khudobin still has the edge with 14 to Oettinger’s 10- but didn’t play in the traditional back-to-back this weekend. When asked about his decision making by the Dallas Morning News’ Matthew Defranks, head coach Rick Bowness failed to offer any clarity in his typical close-to-the-chest style.
Tried twice to ask Rick Bowness about how he landed on Jake Oettinger tonight. Same response both times: "I made the decision and that's it."
— Matthew DeFranks (@MDeFranks) March 15, 2021
Oettinger has earned playing time with his play- currently ranking 14th in the NHL with a 2.10 goals against average. But as Dallas waits on Ben Bishop’s possible return, it will be interesting to monitor who starts and how often.
Given how rough it’s been over the past month-and-a-half for the Stars, seeing the team return to NHL-.500 at 9-9-6 is encouraging. There’s no questioning the fight that this veteran-heavy group brings each night. The Stars still have played the least amount of games thanks to two separate pauses with just 24, but are running out of time to catch up as we approach the half-way point in the season.
Playoffs were the minimal expectation for the defending Western Conference champion- but given a slew of injuries- particularly, Tyler Seguin and Bishop- who we still haven’t seen any sign of halfway through March- paired with Chicago’s rise in the team’s new bizarre division has made it tough. There’s still time- but the Stars need to grab 3 of 4 every week for the forseeable future. Or, at least 5 of 8 possible points like they did this week. With winnable games at Detroit and Nashville, this week is a great place to start.
Upcoming schedule: Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay, Thursday at Detroit, Saturday at Detroit, Sunday at Nashville.
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