Stars Defense Faces Big Test

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MARCH 28: Miro Heiskanen #4 of the Dallas Stars skates with the puck during the first period of their NHL Game against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on March 28, 2024 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. | Photo by Ethan Cairns/Getty Images

The Dallas Stars put their seven-game winning streak on the line as they host the Edmonton Oilers team with a deep offense on Wednesday night.

While the Stars have a significant lead on the Oilers in the Western Conference standings, Edmonton still poses a threat on any night as Dallas looks to solidify its place in the conference ahead of a critical matchup with the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday.

“They’re important games, not just for the playoffs,” Stars head coach Pete DeBoer explained to the media on Wednesday. “They’re important games for the standings. We’re fighting for home ice, a division championship, and a Presidents’ Trophy. There’s a lot on the line for us, and I know there’s a lot on the line for Edmonton. Nevermind playoffs. I think this just, in the moment, these are big games.”

Edmonton’s offense features several players who can do damage offensively, including 126-point star Connor McDavid, center Leon Draisaitl, 76-point defenseman Evan Bouchard, and 52-goal scorer Zach Hyman. The test comes as the Stars have been playing lights out defensively, allowing more than two goals in a single game just once since March 16.

“Any time you get to go up against a team, when you dive into the analytics, Edmonton might be the best analytical team in the league; it’s a great challenge to see where you’re at,” DeBoer added.

Dallas’ defensive surge can be attributed to many aspects of the roster, but one critical component is the improved depth among the three pairs of defensemen. Even with an injury to Jani Hakanpaa, the Stars have remained in good shape thanks to the structure and development of their roster, led by the top pair of Miro Heiskanen and Thomas Harley.

“For me, the best defensemen in the world have to be able to defend,” DeBoer said. “You have to be the guy the coach is putting out against the best players when you’re out there holding a lead late in the game. I think that’s where Miro comes in. I think we use him in all those situations, and he might be better defensively than offensively, and that tells you a lot about his game because he’s a 70-point defenseman.”

While Heiskanen has come to embody the quintessential defenseman in DeBoer’s eyes, Harley has continued to impress this season. He is second on among Dallas defensemen with 40 points this season (eight behind Heiskanen) and has almost twice as many goals as his defensemate.

“The element that has impressed me the most, and this goes back to last year’s playoffs when we brought him up, is just how unflappable he is,” the coach said. “We played Minnesota in the first round in a seven-game series — a physical team, really tried to run us out of the rink in a lot of the games. He didn’t take a backseat in any situation. That told me a lot about him, and his character, and his ability in the playoffs to play that type of game, and I think he’s added the offense this year, and he’s going to be a star.”

Playing alongside Heiskanen has allowed Harley to up his game with more and more experience and gives the Stars a defensive pairing with two players that excel at both ends of the ice.

“We’re both good enough skaters that we can get up the ice, and if the play doesn’t work out, we can still turn around and catch guys,” Harley told the media. “Now, we’re not going to catch McDavid, but the vast majority of the league we can chase down, so it allows us the freedom to get up and try things.”

DeBoer also credited the trade deadline addition of Alex Tanev for the increased effort on defense and the call-up of Logan Stankoven for providing a needed jolt to the team.

“I think the addition of Tanev really solidified things for us back there,” DeBoer added. “… He’s been a big addition there. It gives us a top-four that can really play against anybody and play any way you want to play … and I think our team has defended better over the last two months.”

Wednesday’s game might give Dallas’ new-found defensive confidence its most significant challenge yet as McDavid and the Oilers come to town looking to steal a win. The puck drops at 8:30 p.m. CT.

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