On the Radar: Fighting the Injury Bug
In sports, injuries are the great equalizer. They can happen to anyone, at any time, in any fashion. Injuries do not discriminate. Whether young or old, superstar or role player, any innocent looking play can become a defining one in your season. Or even your career. There is no surefire way to avoid them. There is no warning that they are approaching. Injuries are literally a painful reminder that as much as you plan, no one knows what the future holds.
Unfortunately, the only thing that you do know about injuries is that they are inevitable. Death, taxes, and the IR. For a team it’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when.” Sure, some years will be worse than others, and certain injuries will create larger holes, for longer periods of time. But no squad has ever gone undefeated against injuries.
For the first couple of months this season the Stars did a good job of shadowboxing it. They got bit early when Kari Lehtonen suffered a five-game absence with a groin injury. It was a stinging, initial blow. The Stars went 1-4 without their star netminder. But then he returned Dallas remained a mostly healthy group. They endured a five-game loss of Ray Whitney, but went 3-2 without the veteran. Then he returned, and once again the Stars were at full strength. Those were the only two casualties on the Stars roster from early-October through late-November. But that’s the thing about injuries. You can box them for a few rounds, but you’re never out of harm’s way. And you never see the haymaker coming.
On Friday night the Stars were bobbing and weaving. They were floating like butterflies and stinging like bees. They had a 1-0 lead against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and were controlling the game just over midway through the second period. They were killing a penalty and saw an opening – a shorthanded, odd-man rush.
They sped up ice looking for an insurance goal when a Cody Eakin shot from the left wing sailed wide of the net. The counter-attack went back towards the Stars zone. Quickly, everyone threw it in reverse to protect the one-goal advantage.
Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas hurried back to close off a passing lane when a Jonathan Toews attempt hit his skate, derailed his balance, and sent the 36-year old careening awkwardly into the end boards.
Anyone watching knew immediately that it was bad. It didn’t matter the number of weeks or months that he’d be out. For a warrior like Robidas to react the way he did, it was obvious this was more than a minor ding. It was an awful sight that still hurts when replayed in the mind of any Stars fan. Robidas was down. And out.
And just like that, a team that had played eight weeks of hockey and lost only a collective 10 man-games to injury had been reshaped for the remainder of the 2013-2014 season. No warning. No mercy. Within a few hours Robidas underwent surgery to repair his right leg. I’m happy that I can report that the surgery was successful, and that he was in great spirits just a day later. Since injuries are an inevitable part of the game, it almost seemed as if the veteran Robidas was again leading by example, the way he did so often on the ice. Only this time the lesson was in to how to deal with a potentially season-ending blow. With upbeat, joking text messages to his teammates and coaches and a strong desire to get back to them as soon as physically possible. We all hope that is on the sooner side of doctors’ estimation than the later.
But the injuries weren’t done. Later in that same game, Stars leading goal scorer Tyler Seguin took a hit that left him with concussion-like symptoms and forced him out of the last two contests. In a few hours the Stars went from healthy to without arguably their most important defenseman and forward. Two nights later in Chicago, the injuries continued to mount as forward Ryan Garbutt blocked a first period shot and did not finish the game against the Blackhawks. As of Wednesday morning Garbutt’s status was hopeful for Thursday night, but still uncertain.
So now there are opportunities for others to step up. And the show must go on. Or any other colorful way that you would like to describe life for the Stars without a couple of key components in their lineup. The hope is that Seguin and Garbutt will be in the lineup on Thursday night in Toronto. If not, they are expecting returns shortly thereafter. But for the first time the 2013-2014 Dallas Stars are attempting to respond to a stiff punch in the mouth from the injury bug.
And so far they’ve answered quite nicely. They earned a point against Chicago with just five defensemen finishing the game. They then dominated Edmonton in a game where they deserved better than the shootout loss they received. Finally they went back to Chicago – without Robidas and Seguin – and managed a 4-3 victory thanks to some timely scoring and a brilliant performance by Lehtonen. All told, points in all three games since Robidas was stretchered off.
The Stars are about one third through their schedule. There’s no telling what additional obstacles they’ll have to endure. But if they can balance their way through this they’ll know they can get through almost anything. They lost an alternate captain, their leading scorer, and hottest player in less than a week, but what they did not lose are any games in regulation. While it may be cliché, it still is accurate. This is a chance for Kevin Connauton, Jamie Oleksiak, Dustin Jeffrey, Travis Morin and others to seize an opportunity. It’s also a chance for the Stars to continue to defy expectations. Before this year very few people gave this team a chance. On Tuesday, minus Robidas and Seguin, who gave them a shot at walking into the United Center and beating the streaking Hawks? It may have not been the prettiest of games, but the Stars found a way to win. And that’s what they have to do now. A roster without #3 will not be the prettiest going forward. And one without #91 looks even worse. But no matter who’s in and who’s out, the schedule is set. The games still have to be played, and the points have to be won. Whoever is dressed in Victory Green must find a way. It’s a lesson teams have to learn time and time again. The Stars turn came last week. Let’s hope they can respond for the rest of this season the way they did in the last three games. As the club prepares for three more games this week, here are a few key elements to keep On the Radar:
Going, Going, Garbutt
Stars forward Ryan Garbutt blocked a shot on Tuesday and did not finish the game in Chicago. The Stars are hoping he doesn’t have to miss any additional time. Garbutt is currently in the midst of the most productive offensive stretch of his NHL career. The third-year man had 5 points (3g, 2a) on the recent three-game home stand, including his first three-point and two-goal games. He is currently tied for fifth on the team in goals with linemate Antoine Roussel. More than just the scoring, his overall increased involvement in the offense is noticeable. In the last six games, Garbutt has registered 26 shots on goal – far and away the most on the team. His production has been the highlight of a terrific line with Garbutt, Roussel, and Vern Fiddler. Together the line scored five of the nine goals on the recent home stand, and has 12 points in their last four games. They have arguably been the best line on the Stars over the past two weeks. It is no coincidence that when Seguin’s injury forced a complete overhaul of the forward lines, that is the only trio that Lindy Ruff kept together. In addition to their scoring surge, the line continues to skate extremely well, draw a lot of penalties, get under the skin of their opponents, and shut down defensively. They don’t always grab the headlines, but all three forwards have been extremely reliable and valuable to the Stars this season – especially as of late.
The Road to Shootout Wins
Last week the Stars lost back-to-back home games via shootout. Their record dropped to 1-3 in home shootouts, while they are 2-0 on the road. Given the endings to both games, the natural reaction is to wonder why the Stars are winning shootouts on the road, but cannot at home. What’s the difference between them and the rest of the NHL? Well, as it turns out, there isn’t one. Surprisingly enough, road teams have won the majority of shootouts this year (34 to 30), and looking at years past it’s a trend that’s been visible for quite some time. Last year home teams had a small advantage (51-46), but the prior two seasons were heavily tilted in favor of road teams. In 2011-2012 home teams were 82-99 in shootouts, and in 2010-2011 home teams were an astonishingly low 58-91. There’s no real explanation for it. The home team gets the option to shoot first or second, and it varies from game to game, so there’s no correlation there. This seems to simply be an odd statistical coincidence. There’s nothing Dallas can do differently in shootouts at the AAC. The entire shootout seems like a coin-flip in terms of result. One could easily argue that the home team doesn’t have any advantage, but it’s impossible to argue that they somehow have a disadvantage. Still, home teams are 49 games under .500 in shootouts dating back to the start of 2010-2011. That doesn’t help the Stars get back the points they lost at the AAC this year, but hopefully it makes you feel better that they’re not the only ones struggling at home. With two home games and just one on the road in the upcoming week, let’s hope if Dallas needs a shootout, it happens on Thursday in Toronto.
Shoot to Kill
One of the big focuses for Dallas this season was improving their shots on goal differential. Last year the Stars allowed 4.7 more shots against than they took per game. That was the fourth lowest ratio in the league. Equally troubling was that in 48 games, the Stars only outshot their opponents 12 times – just 25% of their games. At the beginning of this season it appeared that problem might have carried over. Dallas was outshot in seven of their first eight games, and was averaging 6.5 more shots against than they took. Despite the lopsided number against on Tuesday night, for the most part the Stars have been solid in that category since October 20. The Stars have averaged 2.5 more shots per game than the opposition, and have only been outshot 4 times in the last 18 games. The continued ability to outshoot, and in most cases outchance their opponents has served the Stars well for the last month and a half, and should continue to as long as Dallas can keep the trend going.
Feast of the East
Throughout the season we’ve documented the Western Conference’s sheer domination of the East. Clubs from the West are winning about 70% of the time in head-to-head meetings. The Stars have a winning record this year vs. Eastern Conference opponents, but it’s not as convincing as the majority of their cohorts. Dallas is 5-3 against the East with wins over Washington, Buffalo, Ottawa, Boston, and Detroit. Their losses came to Florida, Montreal and the New York Rangers. Dallas is 1-2 in home game vs. the East, and 4-1 on the road. This week the Stars kick off a three-game week against a pair of Eastern Conference foes, visiting Toronto and hosting Philadelphia. The Stars hope to continue to beat up on their inter-conference rivals, but it won’t be easy. Toronto is one of the few Eastern clubs to have a winning record vs. the West (6-5-1). Philadelphia, meanwhile, is just under .500 at 3-4-1.
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.