As playoffs near, Stars are showing they’re the NHL’s most complete team

The events at the American Airlines Center on Wednesday evening were not merely that of a regular season NHL game. The home team used the Edmonton Oilers to show the rest of the world the the most complete team in the NHL resides in Dallas.

The Dallas Stars spent the entire season hovering at the top of the Central Division along with the Winnipeg Jets and the Colorado Avalanche. But Wednesday night was not about that. It wasn’t about what the Stars have been perceived as or where they’ve been. This was about where the Stars are right now. And right now, the Stars were easily the best team on the ice on Wednesday, have a decent edge for the division and are skating atop the conference. They set a new franchise record with their eighth consecutive win and numerous individuals — Wyatt Johnston and Jason Robertson, to name a couple — are writing their names in the franchise record books for their production.

If not for a third-period comeback by the New York Rangers, the Stars would have woken up Thursday morning in the driver’s seat for the President’s Trophy. They haven’t crept up on anybody. They were preseason favorites to win the Stanley Cup by many experts, including the panel at The Athletic. They’re coming off a season in which they were two wins away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final. They are littered with talent throughout the lineup, from young and veteran talents up front, two young studs on the back end and a franchise goaltender in the crease.

Let’s begin with that goaltender. Jake Oettinger has had a tough season. That’s not just a comment about his save percentage, which at a touch above .900 is below what anybody would expect from him, including himself. But going back a full calendar year to this time in 2023, Oettinger has had to battle unusually heavy workloads while playing through an injury, surgery for the said injury, and another injury, among other things. It has been, in Oettinger’s own words, “probably the hardest season, mentally, that I’ve had in my life.”

Wednesday night was especially sweet for him. Since Oettinger got pulled against the New Jersey Devils on home ice in mid-March and worked on a mental reset for a week, he’s consistently been playing at a different level. In the three starts after the Devils game, Oettinger only gave up two goals in each contest, which is manageable for what is currently the second-highest-scoring team in the league at almost four goals per game. But then, Oettinger started to heat up. He stopped 27 of 28 shots in Vancouver. Then, a smooth 17-save shutout in Seattle.

On Wednesday, the Oilers, second in the Pacific Division, came to town. Zach Hyman, second in the league in goal-scoring with 52, played 20 minutes. Leon Draisaitl, seventh in the league in points, played 19 minutes. Connor McDavid, the best player in the world and closing in on a historic 100-assist season, played 20 minutes. Oettinger saw 35 shots come at his net. He stopped the puck 35 times.

For many, the question mark surrounding Oettinger has been the only real reservation about the Stars. There is always some dialogue about some depth parts of a lineup, such as a third pairing, but for the most part, Pete DeBoer has been a wizard with the lineup construction. The top line may not be as dominant as it has been in years past but Roope Hintz is still one of the elite centermen in the NHL and the best forward on the Stars. Jason Robertson, a known goal scorer, just flexed his playmaking abilities by clinching back-to-back 50-assist seasons, the first time that’s happened in Dallas since 2009. And Joe Pavelski is still Joe Pavelski, leading and producing at a high clip.

Wyatt Johnston scores a goal against the Oilers as Radek Faksa looks on. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

The line that’s been the Stars’ best for most of the season has been their second line, and they’re back humming following Tyler Seguin’s return from injury. The third line has looked like a completely different unit the past two months since Logan Stankoven’s elevation completed that trio next to Jamie Benn and Johnston. Speaking of Johnston, on Wednesday he became the youngest 30-goal scorer in Dallas history and refuses to slow his upward trajectory that has been ascending since he hit the ice in the NHL last season as a 19-year-old. And speaking of depth, the Stars have landed upon something with their fourth line of Sam Steel, Radek Faksa and Craig Smith, a unit that has been impressing for a while now.

The defensive group, which was perceived to be the team’s weakness coming in, has been bolstered by the trade deadline addition of Chris Tanev, who has been as advertised. The pairing of Miro Heiskanen and Thomas Harley has been elite, not just the best on the team but one of the best in the league. Ryan Suter has been formidable, especially so with Nils Lundkvist at his side. On top of all of that, DeBoer said on Wednesday that Jani Hakanpää and Evgenii Dadonov, both players who have been shelved with injuries, should be available as options when the playoffs begin.

Many will look at the Stars right now and say they’re the hottest team in the league, which, to be fair, is an understatement. They’ve won eight consecutive games. The Vegas Golden Knights have won three straight and no other team has won more than two in a row right now. But the Stars aren’t just on a hot streak. The way they’re playing is basically who they’ve been, in segmented ways, all season. Now, they’re just putting it all together at the same time. And that’s scary news for the rest of the league.

(Top photo of Jake Oettinger stopping a shot by Edmonton’s Sam Carrick: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

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