Penguins' stars come up big and bright

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Some teams seem to have it all and, a couple of months ago, the Dallas Stars looked to be one of them.

Pick just about any affliction that could beset a franchise -- shy of a plague of locusts, anyway -- and there's a pretty good chance the Stars had it.

Money problems. Personnel troubles. Attendance miseries.

Pile all that onto a club coming off a fifth-place finish in the Pacific Division -- one with a first-year coach, no less -- and it's easy to believe that Dallas would earn 22 points. By right around the Christmas break.

Scouting report
  • Matchup: Dallas Stars at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
  • TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Kari Lehtonen for Stars.
  • Penguins: Have three-game winning streak at home. ... D Kris Letang averages 27:10 of ice time, among highest totals in league. ... Penalty killing has reclaimed top spot in NHL (93.2 percent).
  • Stars: Have allowed seven first-period goals, tied for second fewest in league. ... LW Jamie Benn ranks among NHL leaders with 11 points in road games. ... Are 5-1 in games tied at second intermission.
  • Hidden stat: Dallas is 8-1 when being outshot.

Suffice to say, few, if any, observers anticipated that the Stars, who will face the Penguins at 7:08 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center, would have that many already, or that Dallas would be first in the overall standings going into Thursday.

"For a team that had to go make a trade [adding Eric Nystrom from Minnesota] to get to the [salary-]cap floor, they've been off to an impressive start," said Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, a Stars alum.

Never mind that Dallas' top player, Brad Richards, left via free agency over the summer, or that the guy running their bench, Glen Gulutzan, still is learning his way around NHL buildings, since he never had worked in one in any capacity before this season.

So many negatives.

So many more points.

"We have to be ready for maybe the best team in the league right now," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Thursday.

The Stars have won four games in a row and, while they aren't likely to maintain their current 11-3 pace, they have come by their success honestly.

Their formula starts with a couple of forwards, Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn, whose productivity is much higher than their profiles, at least in many Eastern Conference cities.

"[Eriksson] is a guy who, if he was in a bigger [hockey] market, everybody would know who he is," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "He's not in the spotlight as much, but he's a really talented guy."

The Stars record, however, reflects more than the contributions of a couple of players. Veterans Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder are off to strong starts, and ex-Penguin Alex Goligoski, while not performing to his potential, can be a difference-maker.

What's more, goaltender Kari Lehtonen has been excellent -- he has earned every Dallas victory to date, which means he has more than any other team in the league -- and defenseman Sheldon Souray, an accomplished Penguins-killer, is reviving his career in a big way after a full-season exile in the American Hockey League.

Souray has four goals, nine assists and a plus-minus rating of plus-11 in 14 games. If there was a Norris Trophy for the first sixth of the season, Souray would be contending for it.

"I'm surprised they got off to an awesome start, but I'm not surprised by the way they're playing, with the guys they have," said Penguins winger James Neal who, along with Niskanen, was acquired from Dallas for Goligoski.

"They have the players to be a good team, and Goligoski obviously helped their [defense corps] a lot."

What might help more is ownership stability, and reports Thursday out of Dallas said that Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi could get control of the franchise by the end of next week. Going from bankruptcy to a stable, deep-pockets owner should allow general manager Joe Nieuwendyk to patch any holes that develop on his depth chart before the playoffs.

What effect any of that will have on the support the Stars receive remains to be seen. Dallas has embraced the team at times in the past, but has pretty much ignored it this season.

Five of the first seven home dates have attracted fewer than 8,500 fans, despite the fact that the Stars have played some of the finest hockey in the league.

"It's definitely not a hockey town," Neal said. "There's not too much media attention over there. But I'm sure that if they keep going the way they are, they'll start bringing some attention."


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