The NHL’s regular season lasts about six months. Each team plays 82 games, worth a possible 164 points. It is amazing that over that span of time, a season which provides so many twists, so many turns, so many peaks and pitfalls of points gained and lost, can come down to the final days and games. Entering the last few days of the season, 28 teams in the NHL already know if they are in or they are out of the playoffs. Only two do not.
One of them is the Dallas Stars.
For the second time in the last four years, the Stars are mere hours away from the end of the regular season, but still do not know whether their calendar of games will continue beyond it. Back in 2010-2011, things literally came down to the final period of the season for Dallas. The Stars won four straight games to set up a win-and-in scenario in Game #82, and were tied 3-3 entering the third period at Minnesota. As you probably recall, things didn’t end well. The 5-3 loss became the final curtain of what was year-three of the current, five-year playoff drought for the Stars. Four holdovers who played in that game remain in the Dallas lineup today. They are Jamie Benn, Trevor Daley, Alex Goligoski, and Kari Lehtonen. Those four, along with the rest of this year’s team, are on the verge of exorcising half a decade of demons for the Stars organization. But there is still work to be done.
Unlike three years ago, this time around, if the Stars season comes down to the final game, it will be against the very team they are battling with for the final spot. The Stars and Phoenix Coyotes enter Thursday separated by just two points. Dallas has two games remaining and Phoenix has three. Adding to the drama, they end their seasons against each other on Sunday when they square-off in Arizona.
Thanks to a few key wins down the stretch – along with a five-game Coyotes winless skid – the Stars have the upper hand. Not only are they ahead in points, but they also own the tie-breaker of combined regulation and overtime wins. That puts the Stars in position to punch their ticket to the postseason in advance of that final game. With a magic number of four, any combination of four points gained by the Stars or lost by the Coyotes wraps things up for Dallas. At the earliest, the Stars could clinch on Friday. At the worst, it will once again come down to the final game. Dallas cannot be eliminated before then.
When we all wake up on Monday and know the answer to the question of whether or not the Stars made it this year, there will be time to reflect on the season. With 82 games in the rearview mirror, there are always a number of different nights that teams can look back on as missed opportunities. If you’ve been here all season, I’m sure you have your list. But teams can also look back on points they got that they weren’t necessarily supposed to collect either. Additionally, at a time like this, some single-point overtime or shootout losses that once seemed devastating, retroactively seem like huge points gained, and can serve as the margin of difference between two teams battling over one final spot. The comebacks that eventually fell short to Colorado and New Jersey certainly apply to that category.
Undoubtedly, there will be a retracing of steps after this weekend. How they are recalled, however, will be determined over the next four days. There is a stark contrast between the look back at a road that takes you to the playoffs, and one that leads to a dead end. And yet, just inches from the finish line, both look remarkably similar. So much so in fact, that on the last leg of this home stretch, the Stars still aren’t sure which road they’re on.
When you make the playoffs, there are no sleepless nights spent contemplating what might have been as you look back upon the regular season. Instead, you view it all as all part of the journey that got you to the postseason. But when your season ends after the 82nd game, you dissect every last detail of the prior six months. Nobody wants to feel that way. Just ask the four guys who played in that game in Minnesota.
But this time around they can change the result. This is their shot at redemption. This is the entire Stars’ shot at redemption. Even those who were not on that team in 2011 have something to prove. Look at this club and how they were assembled. Whether they know it or not, they have been battling long before they ever got to this fight for a playoff spot.
Their head coach was fired last season. Their leading scorer was publicly cast off by a Stanley Cup finalist. Their captain is a former fifth round pick, who was passed on by every other team. Their goaltender perennially gets overlooked despite his play. They have five undrafted players – a couple of whom not so long ago were playing in the Central Hockey League. They have former captains and alternates who were dismissed from their previous homes. They were too young. Or too old. Not ready. Or past their prime. In some respects, the Stars were the team that no one wanted.
But together, they’ve transformed into the team that no one wants to play.
Perhaps that’s why there was an instant bond with this team from day one. They are all united by their road to Dallas. Now, they have the opportunity to remain united on the road moving forward.
It’s somewhat fitting that all year long nothing has come easy for the Stars. It’s just not their style. Nothing has ever been given to them. This team has had to fight for everything. Every point, every win, every break was a battle. They’ve had to overcome things that no other team has faced. Their six-month fight has led the Stars to the door of the playoffs. It’s no surprise that they’ll have to kick it down if they wish to enter.
So, here it is. The Stars closing statement of the season. One last chance to return this organization to the playoffs. One last chance to officially announce their arrival to the rest of the hockey world. One last chance to make sure that any talk of what could have been is replaced by talk of what was.
This is it. The end is here. It’s time to find out once and for all where this road leads.
Hang on… Here we go.
Below are some things to keep ‘On the Radar’ during the final days of the regular season:
The Stars are trying to get back to the playoffs for the first time in six years. For many of the players tasked with getting them there, it would be their first ever trip to the NHL postseason. Twelve different Stars players have never played in a NHL playoff game. That amounts to over half of their active roster. Additionally, four veteran players haven’t played in a playoff game in five or more years. They are Shawn Horcoff (’06), Kari Lehtonen (’07), Trevor Daley (’08), and Erik Cole (’09). Clinching a playoff spot would mean a lot to the Stars organization and their fans. But it would mean just as much for a group largely comprised of players who have not been there, either at all, or in quite some time.
Fiddler on the Move
For all the players on the Stars roster who have not tasted the playoffs, one that has and is doing his part to get back there is veteran center Vernon Fiddler. Currently in his 11th NHL season, Fiddler has appeared in five different NHL postseasons. His elevated play of late has helped put the Stars in a position to give him his sixth. After registering points in just 12 of his first 65 games of the season, Fiddler has points in six of the last nine. Additionally, on Tuesday night he scored one of the more memorable shootout goals of this season, to extend the game in an eventual win over Nashville. This is the second consecutive late-season push Fiddler has provided to Dallas. Last year the veteran went on a career-long, six-game point streak and notched points in seven of eight games in April to keep the Stars in the playoff race after the trading deadline.
Welcome to the Club
Prior to this season, in the two-decade history of the Dallas Stars, only one man had ever totaled 35 goals and 80 points in the same season. That man was Mike Modano, who accomplished the feat four times in his Dallas career (93-94, 95-96, 96-97, 99-00). This year the Stars have already had one player join the exclusive club, and it’s possible they may add a second before the end of the week. Tyler Seguin has 36 goals and 83 points this season to lead the Stars thus far in both categories. However, just off pace is captain Jamie Benn, who has a career-high 34 goals and 77 points through 80 games. If Benn can nab one more goal and three more points in the final two games, he would join Seguin and Modano as the only Dallas Stars to ever put up those numbers in the same campaign.
Over the last ten Stars games, the team to score first has also gone on to score second in nine of them. This stat includes the Columbus Blue Jackets who took an inherited a goal into Wednesday’s game, but also managed to score the first two in play that evening. As one would imagine, the early advantages have led to positive results most nights out. The team to score first has won nine of the ten games over that span. The Stars have scored first in six of those ten. The lone loss when scoring first came in last Sunday’s 3-2 defeat in Florida, when the Stars squandered a 2-0 lead in the finale of their road trip. The only game in the last ten that has not featured two goals by the same team to open the scoring was Tuesday’s Stars win over Nashville. Dallas took a 1-0 lead, but it was answered early in the second period, before Dallas went on to win in a shootout. Part of the reason the Stars have gotten off to such quick starts is thanks to Jamie Benn. The Stars captain leads the NHL with seven goals scored in the opening five minutes of games. Overall this season, he has scored the first goal in 10 of the 80 Stars games this season, ranking him third in the NHL behind only Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz (14) and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (12).
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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