The Dallas Stars and (future Leafs center) Brad Richards come into town tonight looking to extend a recent streak of hot play (2-0-1). Despite a respectable record and a potent offense, the Stars sit at the bottom of a very competitive Pacific Division. Meanwhile, Toronto will be eager to bounce back from a blanking at the hands of Carey Price and the Canadiens while regaining the offensive groove that had seen them win their two previous games.
The Matchup Stats
Dallas and Toronto only met once last year, with James Neal scoring in overtime to secure a 4-3 win for the Stars.Â The Whitby native has had his way in 2 career games against Toronto, tallying 4 goals and a total of 5 points.Â Slippery center Mike Ribeiro has had similar success against the Leafs in recent years, throwing down 5 points of his own in 3 games.Â Contrarily, most of Toronto’s young attackers have had fairly pedestrian careers against Dallas thus far.Â Kris Versteeg has had the most experience with the Western Conference team, notching 7 points in his last 10 games against Joe Nieuwendyk’s group.Â One can expect Versteeg to be sharing what he knows about the Stars’ tendencies with his teammates in an effort to prepare for this unfamiliar foe.
Similarly, Eastern Conference mainstays such as Tomas Kaberle should have a lot to say about Kari Lehtonen.Â The former Atlanta goaltender has had his ups and downs in his first year as the franchise tender for another team.Â However, he has only won once in his last four meetings with Toronto and the Leafs will be looking to expose a goalie that has posted a mere 0.887 SV% and 3.25 GAA against them in the recent past.Â Mikhail Grabovski is now ticking at a 0.74 PPG pace on the season.Â He will look to continue his current 1 PPG pace against the Stars with another determined effort tonight.
Toronto and Dallas feature stunningly comparable numbers across the board.Â The Leafs and Stars are ranked 14th and 16th respectively in powerplay proficiency, while suffering the 29th and 28th best penalty kills.Â Moreover, they both direct a relatively low amount of shots at the opposition net (27th and 24th respectively in shots per game).Â The one area that the Leafs hold a distinct advantage is in shots against per game, as their defensive group and improving shot blocking has limited their opposition to just 28.3 SA/G (6th best in the league).Â Toronto will need to continue to limit the chances of a Dallas team currently boasting one of the most potent lines in the league (Neal-Richards-Eriksson).
Furthermore, the Leafs will need to have an impact in the first period.Â At the very least, they should not fall behind to a Dallas team that rarely loses after leading after the first.Â Indeed, a strong start could shake the confidence of a Stars team that has been struggling on the road, as indicated by forward Steve Ott:
“These arenâ€™t going to be easy — you’re kind of going into a bee’s nest and our road performance hasn’t been so great lately.”
While not reflected in the statistics, Toronto’s penalty killing has seen a marked improvement over last year’s debacle.Â They still need to focus on differentiating between appropriate aggressiveness and when it is suitable to play in a passive box.Â However, the propensity of forwards to go down and block a shot has clearly risen, due in large parts to the workmanlike efforts of players such as Mike Brown and Tim Brent.Â Brent happily shared some of the more extreme wounds that this dangerous habit can inflict:
“Iâ€™ve broken fingers (in the past). I took a slapshot in the ear one time, that was probably the worst. I had 20 (something) stitches in my ear and my ear blew up and turned black â€” Mickey Mouse ear”
Regardless of body parts suddenly resembling Disney characters, Brent and the Leafs are beginning to realize this sacrifice is necessary in the current era of the NHL for any defensively-apt squad:
“If you want your penalty kill percentage to be in the better half of the league, you have to block more shots than other teams.Â Thatâ€™s something that both our forwards and defencemen have decided was pretty important and have done a very good job in doing it.”
Brent, Brown and their “plumber” colleagues embody a hard-working mentality that will have to percolate throughout the rest of the Maple Leafs for them to achieve success in their current form.Â If the playersÂ put it all out there, on both ends of the ice, Toronto will begin to collect some wins.