TORONTO -- There are still times when the Dallas Stars treat their own zone like it's a house on fire. But the key so far this season is that those instances happen less often, a key point of emphasis before the season and a major reason they carried a 9-2-0 record into Monday night's game with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"I mean, you got to be smart about it," Stars captain and NHL leading scorer Jamie Benn said after Monday's morning skate. "Our team is really trying to focus on being on the right side of the puck. The better defense you're to play, I think the better offensive chances you'll get. We know we can score goals, but it's keeping them out of our net that we're really trying to focus on."
The Stars under this current roster composition are never going to win the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against. But last season only the Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers gave up more goals than they did.
So far this season, the Stars are 16th in the league in this department, averaging 2.73 goals against per game. It's not great, but it's more than adequate for a high-octane club that is third in the league and tops in the West at 3.64 goals per game.
"Our identity and strength is our speed and how we compete," Benn's high-flying sidekick, Tyler Seguin, said. "If we're going to be competing super hard for scoring goals, then we have to do the same thing in our own end. That starts with our forwards, how hard to want to come back and compete. That's been the biggest thing."
The difference this season is that the top players on this team are truly embracing a better team game. Change doesn't occur until your most important players buy in.
"Definitely," a rival Western Conference head coach responded via text message Sunday when asked whether he saw that change in the Stars this season.
"What I see is their top players working harder away from the puck."
That's the leadership of Benn taking another step.
"Jamie Benn is now Jamie Benn the captain, the leader of the team. He's got it," Stars general manager Jim Nill said Monday morning. "He's always had it in him, but it's really coming out now. He's taken it upon itself."
The look on Mike Babcock's face Monday morning when asked about having Benn for two weeks in Sochi on Team Canada said it all, too.
"Yeah, he's not bad," the Maple Leafs' head coach said, smiling, at his purposed understatement. "I'm a big fan of him because he's got some nastiness to him. He has fun playing the game, he's not scared of any situation. I like good pros that love being a good pro. He loves to score, loves to check, he can play any way you want. He just shows up to play, he's a good player."
The reigning Art Ross Trophy winner is still piling up the points but is trying to do so while being just as effective on the other side of the puck.
And that seeps down throughout the lineup.
"We know we can score," Nill said. "It's doing the other parts of the game that make you a playoff contender type of team. That's where we need to get to, and we're getting there."
Especially when you see a top-end forward like Sharp not cheat and commit to a two-way game, that message is powerful.
"You watch him, he makes the big backcheck at the right time, strips the puck away, just a good all-around player," Nill said. "You can tell he's got the pedigree and knows what it takes. He's got a calming effect."
Sharp credited the Stars' coaching staff for the defensive turnaround, wanting to downplay his role. But the reality is when you see a talented forward like Sharp with three championship rings on his résumé leading the way on the backcheck, it can have a profound effect on a team trying to learn how to win.
"It's been an emphasis of ours to play well away from the puck," said Sharp. "I don't think there's any shortage of goal scoring in this room, but it's keeping the puck out of the net that's going to make us successful."
Newly acquired netminder Antti Niemi has made a difference, too. His .915 save percentage isn't Vezina-worthy, but he's making the big saves that matter; that's something the Stars rarely got last season.
"It would erode their confidence a little bit," Stars broadcaster Daryl Reaugh said Monday. "They still give up a lot of Grade A opportunities with the way they play, but Kari [Lehtonen] a little bit and Antti Niemi a lot, have given them just that clutch save at the right time that allows them to survive a major brain fart, and then it goes the other way. Because you know they're going to score."
In a lot of ways, the Stars right now are what the Colorado Avalanche aspire to be: a team that not only can win games but also do so in a vastly entertaining fashion.
That's important in a southern market like Dallas.
And the market seems to have responded. When owner Tom Gaglardi took over the team in November 2011, the Stars were at about 5,500 full-season-ticket equivalents; today they're over 11,000 and trending north.
Take this past weekend's game, a sellout at home against the San Jose Sharks.
"A few years back, if we were playing on a Saturday in the heart of college football season, the announced crowd might have looked decent but the actual, through-the-turnstiles number would have been different," Reaugh said. "There we are Saturday on an afternoon game against San Jose, and it's packed to the gills. So, not only has Jim Nill and [Stars coach] Lindy Ruff done a great job on the hockey side of things, the business side has been incredible."
These are promising times in Dallas.
It's still early, of course, and you could tell from listening to Ruff and Nill on Monday morning that both veteran hockey men were trying to downplay their team's fast start.
"We haven't played great, we've played good in spurts, we've played well at the right time," Nill said. "But we can get better."
There's still lots to prove, to be sure, but after the Stars won only four of their opening 14 games last season, things look a lot prettier from today's vantage point.