With only 14 games and three and a half weeks left in the regular season, a winless week can be difficult to recover from. But that’s the task at hand for the Dallas Stars following a 0-2-1 stretch. Through 68 games, Dallas has only gone winless in three straight games three times all season. The first two came during the 1-8-1, 10-game swoon to open up January. The third one came last week. Now the Stars have to make sure that this doesn’t turn into another January slide, because if it does there simply won’t be time to recover.
On the surface there are comparisons between the past three games and the opening to 2014. Last week the Stars allowed seven goals in a Sunday night loss to the Winnipeg Jets. That tied a season-high surrendered by the Stars. The other time they allowed seven came in January, on the road, against another non-playoff team in the New York Islanders.
Last week began with a blown third period lead at home to the second-worst team in the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames. The game was reminiscent of the January 12 contest when the Stars gave up three goals in the final five minutes to lose to the Islanders (A different game than the seven-goal night).
During January, a reoccurring theme was that, for the most part, the offense went dry. The Stars didn’t generate as many quality scoring chances as in prior games, and when they did, they could not finish. In the final six losses of their January streak, they never scored more than two goals. Last week the Stars had chances to either pull away from, or catch up to, opponents, only to miss out. How many breakaways and odd-man rushes failed to convert over the last three games? How many shots hit opposing netminders square in the logo on their jersey? It seemed all too familiar.
But perhaps the most startling similarity of all is that both January and last week came off the heels of the Stars playing arguably their two best stretches of hockey all season. After the Stars beat the St. Louis Blues in overtime in one of the most impressive regular season wins in recent memory, did anyone see them taking one of a possible six points with Calgary and Winnipeg on the schedule?
You can’t help but think about January again. As fans left the AAC on New Year’s Eve could anyone envision the bottom falling out the way it did? Of course not. But it all started with a wide-open, run-and-gun, game against Montreal (sound familiar to the first period vs. Winnipeg last week?), and…well…you know the rest.
So, yeah, there are a lot of similarities between what we all just watched and January. And that’s scary. But there is also one huge difference.
In January, the Stars didn’t have anything as a reference point. This time they do.
January’s losing streak was the first one the Stars had suffered all season. It was the first time they ever had to go through something like that as a group. They started to slip down the standings, and you could see panic and fear set in, and the Stars found themselves running in quicksand.
But now, they know that they can pull out of it. They know because they have. There is cleaning up to do, and there is an urgency that doesn’t allow the benefit of time to figure it out. But this team is the same team that rebounded from January. It’s the same team they just recently held opponents to a NHL-best, 15-game streak of holding opponents to 30 shots or fewer. It’s the same team that found ways to win games late vs. Minnesota and St. Louis. It’s the same team that went 6-1-2 into the Olympic Break, and 5-2-1 out of it.
Over the last week I’ve heard a lot of rumblings about late-season skids during the Stars five-year playoff drought. There’s a scary history to look at and some fans are understandably pessimistic. But those were different groups. Lindy Ruff wasn’t here. Tyler Seguin wasn’t here. Val Nichushkin wasn’t here. Shawn Horcoff wasn’t here. Erik Cole and Alex Chiasson just arrived late last season. Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel, Brenden Dillon, and Ryan Garbutt didn’t assume the same responsibility they currently do. Jamie Benn was not the captain. Heck, even the jerseys aren’t the same! The point is this is a different Stars team.
I’m not saying that the Stars are guaranteed to make the playoffs. And I’m not saying they are immune to a late season collapse. I’m merely saying that the missteps of teams before them do not apply directly to this year’s group. When looking to draw comparisons, I’d rather look at what this team has done. And in light of what happened last week, it’s easy to look at January. But the best thing that can be said of January is that they lived to tell about it.
I was asked in a recent interview how the Stars managed to win only one of ten games in January and still be in a favorable position to make the playoffs. I said that there were three factors. One was the calming influence of Ruff, who time and time again this season has steered the club away from seemingly inevitable disaster. Two was the impressive character and leadership inside the locker room. From older players, to young star players, to Benn who has shined in his first year wearing the C, the Stars have displayed a tremendous amount of poise in not allowing tough events or stretches to derail their season. And three was the cushion they had provided themselves just prior to the losing streak. That part is key. Poise and leadership matter, but it’s points that get you into the playoffs. And the Stars gave themselves a margin for error with their impressive play before the skid in January. They’ve done that same thing here.
Last week was bad. There’s no getting around that. But the Stars left themselves outs in prior weeks. Now, it’s time to go do what they did earlier, and claw their way back from it. The Stars still control their own destiny, but the house’s money has all been spent. Twenty eight points remain. Dallas needs to start stockpiling.
We’ve talked about this team’s resiliency all year long. Isn’t it fitting that they have to bounce back one more time to finish the job? It sure makes a great story. As long as they get to write their own happy ending.
There are three and half weeks and 14 more games to go. The pen is waiting in Philadelphia.
The Stars have four games this week, with a pair at home and a pair on the road. Here are some things to keep ‘On the Radar’ in the upcoming schedule:
Least Versus the East
Dallas is just 10-13-2 vs. the Eastern Conference this year, a winning percentage of .440. The eight Western Conference teams ahead of them all have winning records against the East, and have combined for a 137-57-26 mark. That’s a winning percentage of .682. Five of the eight teams are ten or more games over .500, and none are fewer than four games over .500. The Stars open this week with two more games against Eastern Conference teams, at Philadelphia on Thursday, and hosting Ottawa on Saturday. Half of their 14 games remaining are vs. Eastern Conference opponents.
Not so Magnificent Seven
When things are going badly, teams often narrow their goals. Instead of winning a game, they stress winning a shift or a period. They have been unable to do the latter recently. Over the last seven periods, the Stars have been outscored 14-3. They have allowed more goals than they have scored in each of the seven frames, and have surrendered two or more goals in six of the seven. Offensively, they have only scored in two of the seven periods. As the team streamlines their focus in an attempt to right the ship, winning a period is a great place to start.
Entering last week the Stars power play was 7 for their last 21, and a huge source of offense. However, a recent trend has developed where Dallas opponents have not been whistled for many penalties. Over the last four games, the Stars have only had seven power plays – an average of less than two per game. In those same four games the Stars have been shorthanded 13 times, almost double the opposition. In the seven games prior to the current stretch, Dallas had 34 power play chances – an average of nearly five per game. Whether it’s with speed, an aggressive forecheck, or getting under the opponent’s skin, the Stars have to find a way to draw more penalties. Guys like Roussel and Garbutt, who both take a lot of penalties, also draw a lot. They could lead the way, but somehow the Stars need to get more opportunities on what has been a good power play as of late.
Rising Like a Phoenix
While Minnesota is not quite clear of the pack, and teams like Vancouver and Winnipeg are not out of it, some separation has taken place over the last couple of weeks, and it looks more and more like it could be a two-team race between the Stars and Phoenix Coyotes for the final playoff spot in the West. The Coyotes are playing great hockey, having won six of their last eight. Included in those wins were impressive victories at Tampa Bay and Los Angeles. Like the Stars, the ‘Yotes have four games this week, and play on the same four days as Dallas. They have a favorable statistical matchup on Thursday as they host the lowly Florida Panthers, but three very tough games follow. Phoenix faces red-hot Boston on Saturday, and then travels to play the New York Rangers on Monday, and Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Phoenix has looked sharp lately, but that’s a difficult three games in four nights to close the week. Regardless of what the Coyotes do, the Stars have to start winning games, but this week could provide an opportunity to pick up points on Phoenix.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.
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