On Tuesday night in Anaheim, the Dallas Stars (23-16-1, 47 points) will officially reach the halfway point of the 2011-12 NHL season. Year one of the Glen Gulutzan era started off with a bang as the club was among the league's best in the month of October.
Then came a November swoon, a dip in form that was largely brought on by a rash of injuries, including key contributors like starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen, captain Brenden Morrow plus top defensemen Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski out for varying periods of time.
But the Stars hung tough and now they sit just three points out of the top spot in the Pacific Division, making this week's short, two-game road trip to divisional foes Anaheim and Los Angeles especially crucial.
"Two huge division games, we obviously want to take it one game at a time and get a win against those guys in Anaheim who are having a tough go," Daley said. "You want to keep those guys below you. Then, you've got LA. Everybody had those guys touted to be contenders this year, so it's going to be a good trip for us."
And the man wearing the "C" for the Stars agrees with his longtime teammate about how big these games with the Ducks and Kings are for him and his club.
"Division games are always big. We know the teams well," Morrow said. "Anaheim's coming off a big game. Perry can put the puck in the net. I think he went dry for six or seven games but he's hot again now. That makes things tougher."
The Stars figure to get defenseman Sheldon Souray back after being out since Dec. 23, 2011 with an ankle injury for Tuesday's game with the Ducks. But Dallas could be without Mark Fistric, who missed practice on Monday due to illness and Gulutzan and company will definitely be without second-line center Mike Ribeiro, who scored multiple goals in each of the last two games and played through several injuries last week.
However, the tough Stars center knocked knees with Edmonton's Theo Peckham in a 4-1 win over the Oilers on Saturday at American Airlines Center. He did return for the rest of the game but missed practice on Monday, underwent an MRI later in the day and has been ruled out for the Anaheim game.
"Ribbie thinks he can play, which is a good sign and he finished that game, which is always a real good sign. However, for the player, his career, we've got to take a look at that knee," Gulutzan said after practice on Monday. "He won't be a player for Tuesday but we may fly him out Wednesday into LA once we get the results of the MRI."
Once the Ducks game is in the books, the Stars will have officially played 41 games or half the regular season, which is definitely time to not only reflect on what has happened so far, but also on what lies ahead for this club and their rookie head coach.
"At the halfway point, which is basically where we are now, I think we're exactly where we should be and need to be with the injuries and everything's that come up," Gulutzan said. "However, I think our best hockey has to come in February. Games 40-60 are the games we have to be concentrating on and be our best. This next run, especially up until All-Star break and after are very important for us."
Dallas will begin the second half of the season just up the road from Orange County at Staples Center to face the Kings for the first time since Darryl Sutter took over in mid-December.
The Stars are 2-2-0 against Los Angeles so far this season, but have won their last two meetings with the Kings, 2-1 at LA on Dec. 10, 2011 and 3-2 at the AAC on Nov. 23, 2011. If they are to finish the first half on a very positive note and also start the second half on an equally good vibe, then the continued high-level play of Jamie Benn could be key.
Benn had two goals in Saturday's win over Edmonton, his fourth straight game he has had multiple points. So it wasn't a shock to see him named first star of the week by the NHL following a stanza where he had seven points in three games.
The quiet scorer could become an All-Star for the first time later this week, an honor he could share with winger Loui Eriksson, who skated in the 2011 Midseason Classic.
"He (Benn) is a hard guy to handle for other teams. He's a big, strong, fast power forward. It doesn't matter what guys he's playing with, he's putting up numbers," Gulutzan said. "I think it's been up and down for him but now he's on a good roll. He's just learning that center position. Pretty soon he's really going to take off at that position. I think the best of Jamie Benn is yet to come. I think down the stretch you're going to see an even better guy but certainly his game's at a high level right now."