Once again, it what seems almost routine, the Stars are playing great hockey. This season has been a real rebound from two tough seasons, and after 2010 ended with back to back home losses, the Stars have begun 2011 with 11 points out of 12 in the first 6 games, including a Saturday night affair where they played with their food a while, before laying the smack down on Atlanta, 6-1.
The game demonstrated much of what we have enjoyed this season in Dallas. Special teams have improved quite a bit, and the Stars cashed in 3 times with the man advantage - Trevor Daley with 2 - and the penalty kill cleaned up any disadvantages. And Goaltending. Plenty of goaltending has been the story of this season and seems like it will continue to be given that Kari Lethonen and Andrew Raycroft have been exchanging fine performances.
And let's not forget why you should really get excited about where the Stars are, and we have seen it plenty during this stretch - it is the play of the guys up and down this lineup. You know, we get caught up in marginalizing sometimes the role of guys who do not score gaudy statistics. Fantasy hockey and video games have taught us for years that there is nothing quite as awesome as a 40-goal scorer, unless it is a 50-goal scorer. Raised on Brett Hull and Pavel Bure, it would be easy to notice the play of the top line of Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, and James Neal - only to not notice what really is making the Stars what they are this year.
And that is the purpose of this particular entry on the blog. In my opinion, there are a number of reasons why the Stars are playing well this year. Special teams and goaltending are the obvious ones. But, allow me to nominate the award for "biggest reason that is not talked about enough". That one is simple. The biggest reason the Stars are looking the part as a possible division champion and threat in the playoffs that nobody talks about enough is simple: They have a checking line that is a factor on both ends of the ice every single night.
The line is not completely set in stone. It always contains Steve Ott and Adam Burish. The third spot is now somebody named Jamie, whether that be Benn or Langenbrunner. But all season long they have rotated guys in and out of there to join this line and skate like those two maniacs on ice or rotate someone else up to the equally fluid line with Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro.
Regardless, the Ott-Burish-Jamie line has been a force to be reckoned with all season long, and it has been missing since....the Guy Charbonneau years? Surely I am getting carried away, but for too long, the 3rd and 4th lines have been a mismatch of names and skill sets that sometimes made more sense than others, but never has clicked like 2010-11.
You have to understand why I feel so strongly about this group. They are "tough to play against". They skate with pace and energy that is unmatched. They annoy, instigate, shut down, pester, and hit. And lately, they do much of that in the offensive zone. Which is worth noting, because they are a beast of great burden as they are asked to start most of their shifts in the defensive zone. Or at least most of the team's tough shifts start with Ott-Burish-and that night's Jamie about 175 feet from goal. But, they can handle it. That is their job. And they welcome it.
Say nothing about the net presence. All goalies detest 16 and 29 for their unwanted meetings in the goal-mouth.. So do defensemen that meet them on the forecheck. It seems like such a small thing, but then you realize that when Joe Nieuwendyk and Marc Crawford wanted a team that wasn't pleasant to play against, he was basically saying that they need a checking line that irritates the heck out of the opponent.
They have always had Ott. But, they need a group of guys who buy into the concept. They needed a full line with the same purpose and a 4th line that could pitch in, too. They could not hide guys down on those lines who did not share their style of abrasiveness. This explains why a guy like Fabian Brunnstrom could only be useful in Dallas if he could crack the Top 6. But once he couldn't, you cannot find a spot on the bottom 6. And yes, as much as it pains me to admit it, that was no place for Mike Modano either. Mike is a legend and a hall of famer. But he never lived one day like Adam Burish. And this particular job called for more Burish than Modano. And Mike knows that, too.
You see, there are Top 6 guys and then grit forwards. Some guys can do both. In fact, Steve Ott can. But, the best checking lines are guys who seem born for it. Guys who know the only way they can stay in the NHL is by being a guy who will fight for every inch of ice every single night.
Finally, it fits. This group is playing well every night. Sometimes, it is a huge check. Sometimes a huge goal. Other times it is just a night where they show the opposition that you are not going to enjoy trying to do what you do against our guys.
Difficult to play against. Look it up in the dictionary and there is Steve Ott, Adam Burish, and some guy named Jamie.