Stars looking to prove skeptics wrong

The Stars need to show that they can do more than score goals. Jonathan Kozub/Getty Images

DALLAS -- It's picture day for the Dallas Stars. A moment in time in a most curious of seasons for the hometown hockey club.

If only head coach Lindy Ruff had all of those boys in green jerseys available for the team's upcoming stretch with games against the Central Division leading Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, the St. Louis Blues on Saturday and the Pacific Division leading Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.

But that's not going to happen.

Defensive scoring star John Klingberg will miss the next at least two games, top four defender Jason Demers is gone for six weeks with a shoulder injury, and defenseman Jordie Benn and forward Patrick Sharp remain out of action.

Picture day or not, there is a lot that is not quite in focus for the Stars.

The Stars remain very much in the hunt for a Central Division title, and they are tied for the league lead in goals scored per game at 3.18. Yet the question remains whether they will become easy prey to more savvy, defensive-oriented teams in this upcoming stretch and in the playoffs.

"It's going to be a fun three, four days," Ruff said in his office at the team's suburban practice facility.

"I think at the end, the expression is the cream's going to rise to the top, but somebody over these four days, you're going to write a story or you're going to look and say, 'geez, I like where they got to' or 'I don't like where they got to.' So it's like a little preview of the teams that are going the best in the West," Ruff said.

Entering Friday's play, Chicago and Dallas are tied for the Central Division lead with St. Louis one point behind.

Yet the narratives are markedly different for the three Central powers.

The Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions and likely boast the league's MVP and scoring champ in Patrick Kane. Artemi Panarin is running away with the rookie scoring race. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will garner some Norris Trophy love. And Corey Crawford is a lock -- or should be -- to be on the final ballot for the Vezina Trophy.

In short, same as it ever was on Madison.

The Blues are getting lots of love for persevering through a spate of potentially crippling injuries to key personnel.

The Stars?

After missing the playoffs last season, Dallas has had a season of great renaissance.

Crowds have come back in a big way, and the Stars play as entertaining a brand of hockey as any team in the league.

But there remains great skepticism that they are built for the playoffs.

Some of the skepticism is based on gut, some on raw data. Only Calgary and Edmonton have allowed more five-on-five goals than the Stars, this in spite of ranking 11th in fewest shots allowed per game.

Deductive reasoning tells you that the goaltending, then, must be at the heart of the skepticism.

Of goaltenders who have played at least 40 games, starter Antti Niemi ranks 21st in the NHL with a .903 save percentage. Kari Lehtonen, the nominal back-up or part-time starter if you like, has a .906 save percentage in 34 games.

But here's where it gets tricky.

Lehtonen is 18-8-2. Pretty good numbers for a No. 2 guy. Niemi, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, is 22-12-6.

Did we mention that the Stars are tied for first in the Central? Somewhere along the line, the goaltenders must have made a stop or two, no?

"They've got two guys that can be very good goalies but they're prone to soft goals," said former netminder and NHL goaltending coach Corey Hirsch.

If you can play them off each other in the playoffs and hope one gets hot, that's a possibility, but Hirsch said, "they're both almost the same.

"They're not upper echelon NHL starters, but they're still good goalies. They are what they are. And everybody knows what they are and everybody knows their weaknesses. Can you win a Cup with them? I'm not sure."

Frank Provenzano was a longtime NHL executive including a stint with the Stars and believes the issues for Dallas aren't just goaltending.

"Goaltending is average, but they don't play well defensively in front of them," Provenzano said.

"I would put this team in the definite 'win a round or two' but not in the 'win a Cup' category yet. Niemi has been there before, they have good depth, and their top guys are capable of winning a round by themselves. Having said that, this is also a team whose playoff success is going to be dictated heavily by matchups. They match up well against skilled, fast teams. If they get into a series with a team that can apply a heavy forecheck that would likely be difficult for them."

General manager Jim Nill isn't offended, nor does he seem to care about the outside notion that the team is lacking in goal.

"I know we've two guys that can be No. 1 at any time," Nill said. "I know that if we get injuries or one struggles we're not going to be worried about putting the other guy in. A lot of teams don't have that luxury.

"I think you look at Antti. He's done it. You can never take away a Cup. I respect that. And then Kari's gone through adversity here. He started his days in Atlanta and came here [and] went through some bad times. He's grown with the team. And we've seen that. He's had 10 game segments over the years I've been here, the last three years, and he's grabbed the team and put it on his back and I know he can do it in the playoffs."

There was a time when the Edmonton Oilers won Stanley Cups behind Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr when no one cared a whit about his save percentage. What mattered then and what matters now is wins.

Would Lehtonen and Niemi like to have better personal numbers? Sure. But not at the expense of wins.

"[Some] games we play good defense and other games we're the worst defending team that I've ever seen, you know?" ," Lehtonen acknowledged. "That's kind of the wrong way to put it, but I guess when you take a 60-game sample, yes we score a lot of goals and yes we have let lots of goals in, but overall when I look at it, I think me and Antti we have played pretty good.

"I'd rather have it this way. That our personal stats are maybe not as high as people would like but the wins are there. I want to look at it that way. It keeps me happier."

Niemi figures it's not necessarily a bad thing the Stars haven't found all elements of their game consistently yet.

"It's going to be interesting seeing how it's going to play out if we can dig in to get it at the right time. I'm sure we have all the tools here," Niemi said.

Whether this skepticism that dogs the Stars is well-founded cannot be known until mid-April or later. But over the next few days, we'll get a glimpse of how this season of many wins and just as many questions will come into focus.