On the Radar: On the Western Front
In case you haven’t noticed, the Western Conference is good. Really good. So good in fact, that prior to the Stars recent 8-2-2 run, Dallas was six points out of a playoff spot. And after that run, they were…wait for it…six points out of a playoff spot. They jumped past a number of teams in points and winning percentage, but still remained looking up at the eight Western Conference playoff spots. A dive inside the numbers is nothing short of ridiculous.
Eight of the top nine teams in the NHL – in both points and winning percentage – are in the West. Six different teams in the West have zero or one regulation losses at home. The San Jose Sharks are 7-1-2 at home, good enough for a .800 winning percentage (Or as it’s also known, the sixth best mark in the conference). In head-to-head games this year, the Western Conference has a 96-40-17 record and a .683 winning percentage vs. the East. If the season ended today and you took the entire Eastern Conference and put it in the West, only one team would make the playoffs. The examples go on and on, but you get the point. The Western Conference is dominant.
And that’s not great news if you live to the left of the Mississippi River. The fact that you can get on a roll like the Stars did, and not make up ground on a playoff spot is as remarkable as it is intimidating. It also magnifies any losing week. So that’s what makes Tuesday night’s 6-3 comeback win over Anaheim so important. The Stars were staring at the possibility of a 0-3 week, and winless weeks appear hard to recover from in the sprint that is the Western Conference standings.
The Stars didn’t play poorly last week. In fact it was quite the contrary. They controlled the game against the New York Rangers, but ran into a brick wall named Henrik Lundqvist. They held one of the top offenses in the league in St. Louis to just 25 shots at home, but made several mistakes that led to too many quality scoring chances against. And they played the Ducks to a relatively even game, before running away with it in the third period.
All in all the Stars probably played better than their 1-2 record for the week suggests. But through two months of this season we’ve learned a harsh reality. There are no style points or consolation prizes in the Western Conference. Regardless of how the result materializes, every loss hurts. More than in seasons past.
The reason this is noteworthy this week is because two of the three upcoming games are against the Chicago Blackhawks. Earlier this month the Hawks came to the AAC in a game that very much resembled the kind of games the Stars lost last week. In the first meeting Dallas outshot Chicago and looked much better than the three-goal loss they suffered. The Hawks are at the top of the standings once again this year, and don’t lose often. While the Stars have shown that they can play with the elite teams in this league, they need to do more than that now. They need to beat them with consistency. Enough of this season is in the books to know that no one in the West will back into the playoffs. It is conceivable that it might take 100-110 points just to make the post-season. So regardless of who’s across the ice, wins and points are essential. Last week was the first time that Dallas lost back-to-back games in regulation since the 1-4 early season skid when Kari Lehtonen was out of the lineup. But they rebounded on Tuesday. They stopped the bleeding at two, and didn’t let the fact that their opponent was the team with the second most points in the NHL keep them from preventing a losing streak.
The writing is on the wall. With the weighted Western Conference schedule, the Stars are going to be matching up with the best teams in the NHL more weeks than they won’t. It will once again be the case this week, with two of three coming against Chicago. The win over the Ducks was the Stars’ second this year over one of the top-eight teams in the West, and first since October 17. Much like they needed to learn how to win on the road, the Stars needed to learn how to beat – and not just skate with – the best in the West. They went a long way with their five-goal third period on Tuesday. Now the attention turns to Chicago as they try to string together big-time wins over big-time opponents.
November was a good month for Dallas. Pending Friday’s result, the Stars have gone 7-3-1. They have a chance to finish strong, and then enter the final month of 2013 by overcoming the latest hurdle on their schedule. They leapt over one on Tuesday. Now it’s time to see if they can add one more top tier opponent to their mantle. Enjoy the close of the month, and remember to soak in the dusters on Friday. It’s ok to admit that you’ll miss them. But if you’re really having a hard time saying goodbye, just remember that if there’s one thing that beats a Movember moustache, it’s a playoff beard and hopefully those will be arriving in five short months.
Aside from the facial hair farewell this week, here are a few more key elements to keep On the Radar:
Tuesday’s third period reinforced just how quickly momentum can swing or snowball in a hockey game. Coaches will commonly tell you that the most important shift in hockey is the one after a goal is scored. Specifically, it’s key not to allow a goal against. If your team just scored, one against strips you of any scoring advantage just gained, as well as any momentum generated. If you just allowed a goal, a second could be the knockout punch in a league where the first team to three wins most nights. In the last two Stars victories at AAC, Dallas has erupted for quick goals in succession. In the process they left Calgary and Anaheim in their wake, and ran away with the hockey games. But Dallas has been on the receiving end of their share as well. This season the Stars have allowed a goal within two minutes of a prior goal 11 times. That works out to about one every other game. All three games last week can be traced to key goals following goals. The Stars allowed back-to-back goals in the third period vs. the Rangers, and the second stood as the game-winner. Despite the lopsided score in St. Louis, Dallas threatened to turn the game with a game-tying goal in the opening period. But nine seconds later the Stars allowed a goal, and never recovered. That goal also stood as the game-winner. Then on Tuesday, Dallas’ three-goal barrage helped convert a deficit into a multi-goal lead, and yup, you guessed it. The final goal of the barrage was the game-winner. Mistakes proved costly the last time the Stars played the Hawks. This week they have to avoid one of the biggest mistakes around and keep Chicago at bay on shifts after goals.
Welcome to Big D
The Stars defense will have their hands full this week. In the last meeting with Chicago, the Stars played a quality hockey game, and still somehow allowed five goals against by the end of the night. Two were in garbage time, and one was an empty netter, but the Hawks once again found their way to five. Dating back to that game, the winner in eight of Chicago’s last nine contests has reached five or more goals. The Hawks are 7-2 in those games. They boast the league’s best scoring resume, averaging over 3.5 goals per night. Last week when Dallas faced a top-three offense, it was St. Louis who torched them for a half-dozen. Once again, perhaps a misleading score line, but the point is that these teams find ways to consistently put up big numbers. Dallas has to keep that number down. It’s not easy against the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and about 14 other players that can bury you with offense. But they have to limit Chicago’s attack. The Hawks only have four regulation losses all season, and in three of them they were held to two goals or less. The Stars have shown that they can have a potent offense through all four lines, but a track meet against Chicago spells doom. The focus on Friday and Tuesday has to be from the blue line in. If they can contain the Hawks offense, they have a much better chance of earning wins.
Rested & Ready
After starting 14 straight games since suffering an early-season injury, netminder Kari Lehtonen finally got a game off on Tuesday. Dan Ellis stepped in and stopped 28 of 31 for his second victory of the year. It was the first time in five weeks that anyone other than the ‘Big Finn’ got the start for Dallas. Lehtonen was superb in the 14 games, going 8-4-2, but seemed a bit off in his two starts last week. After the game in St. Louis, Head Coach Lindy Ruff spoke about physical fatigue and mental fatigue, and acknowledged that he can’t continue to ride Lehtonen to that extent. However, Kari wants to play every night, and doesn’t appear like he’ll ever request a game off. That means it’s up to Ruff and the coaching staff to plot the best way to maximize the value of Lehtonen in net, without pushing to the point that his performance is not up to the lofty standard he’s set. Starting on Friday the Stars play just about every other day until Christmas. With that steady diet of games coming, you can’t help but wonder if opponents will dictate who starts in net as much as schedule. This week a visit by the conference-worst, Edmonton Oilers comes sandwiched between two games with Chicago. Kari blanked the Oilers two weeks ago in Alberta for his only shutout so far this season. Still, with all due respect to Edmonton, if Kari is not going to play all three games, Sunday’s game might be the most likely one he watches. That said there’s a strong chance Lindy rides him through the trio, and the question gets pushed to the three games the following week (which, by the way, also feature a game vs. Chicago). For the last month the starting netminder for the Stars has been a given. Kari will still play the overwhelming majority of games going forward, but going forward each week now warrants watching to see if there might be an occasional change between the pipes.
Boom or Bust
In the last two weeks the Stars have manufactured two different four-plus goal periods. Knowing that they have that club in their bag means they are never out of a game and that they can break out at any time. The problem, however, has been what’s transpired in their surrounding periods. Dating back to the game against the Blackhawks the Stars have played 21 periods of hockey. In 18 of those, Dallas has been limited to one or zero goals (not counting the empty netters in Edmonton). A four or five goal period is a blast for the players and the fans alike. But the Stars would be much better served foregoing the monster period for some more spread out scoring. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with both, but Dallas has to improve on the feast or famine waves of scoring in order to keep piling up victories.
That’s it for this week. Enjoy the games and have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving.
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.