On the Radar: Bubble Boys
The end of the calendar year is approaching, and the NHL is more than a third of the way through the regular season. While four months still remain, teams have now had long enough to reveal who they are. There is plenty of time for opinions to change, but as we sit right now, everyone at least has a comfortable sample size when trying to determine each other’s strength. With that in mind, this week seems like an opportune time to evaluate the competition. And upon doing so, you come to find that this could be the most important week to date for the Dallas Stars.
Bear with me here, because I’m about to get way ahead of myself.
For any team to make it to the playoffs, they have to likely be in the Top 8 of their conference.
(I say likely because with the new realignment there is a possibility that one division could be so lopsided that an automatic berth is given to a club who is outside the Top 8, yet still in the Top 3 of their division. It’s one of the flaws in an otherwise well-done realignment. Other flaws include the playoff possibility of somehow winning a division that you don’t play in. I know… Just go with it… It’s the NHL... Baby steps.)
So let’s assume for the purposes of convenience that the divisions balance out, and let’s look at the numbers involving the Top 8. In a 14-team Western Conference, to be in the Top 8, that means you have to beat out at least six other teams. It doesn’t matter if you win a President’s Trophy, or sneak into the final wild card spot on the last day of the season, the math is the same for all teams. In order to advance to the second season, you have to at least beat six teams. Any six, but at least six.
If you look at the West right now, there are clearly teams that you expect to be there in April. There are others you expect to be non-factors. And then you have the middle ground of teams that likely will contend for the remaining spots. Since the dash for the post-season coincides with the NCAA March Madness tourney, let’s go ahead and call these the “bubble teams.” Once we actually get to March the picture might look a little different, and will probably be a little clearer. But since we’re currently stuck in December, let’s go with what we’ve seen so far.
The top five teams in the Western Conference based on winning percentage are Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose. The two teams at the bottom of the conference who have looked the worst are Calgary and Edmonton. That’s seven teams. Half of the Western Conference. If you assume those top-five teams will advance to the playoffs, and the two basement dwellers will not, you are left with three spots for the remaining seven teams. Those teams are Colorado, Phoenix, Minnesota, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Nashville and Dallas. If you’re the Stars and are realistically looking for the six teams that you have to beat for a playoff spot, the majority of them reside on that list. And starting on Thursday, the Stars play five games in eight days, all against “bubble teams.”
Of course there will be more important weeks ahead for the Stars later this year. However, games this week against Nashville, Winnipeg, and Colorado twice give an opportunity for Dallas to collect points while popping bubbles along the way. If you look at the weeks they’ve played so far, they have never had this many games stacked up against those middle-tier teams. In fact, of their 29 games played this season, only a combined six have come against that grouping. Now, here come five in a row, and four this week.
These are the oft-titled four-point games that matter most. Games where you can both advance yourself and stunt your opponent in the same game. Where the difference between ending in regulation and overtime is heightened. In a flooded Western Conference midsection, the Stars can create a wake this week. But they can also get caught in one. Remember, each one of the Stars opponents over the next five games is looking at Dallas as one of their six.
No one knows exactly what the next 50 games will produce. It’s entirely possible for the bottom to fall out for the Anaheim Ducks – who still have not lost in regulation at home. It’s also fathomable that the Colorado Avalanche continue their much better than expected pace, separate from the pack and vie for a Central Division title. Any number of injuries, hot streaks or cold streaks can turn things around in an instant. But based on what we’ve seen through the first third of the season, this is the best roadmap we have.
So, this week we find out what the Stars can do when matched against their peers. Two games come against teams behind them in the standings. The other two are against an opponent who is ahead of them. But regardless, they all call the same area home. No matter if one thinks it’s the Moops and the other thinks it’s the Moors, they’re all in the same bubble, just trying to outlast the others. It’s time to see who the last man standing this week will be.
Here are some key elements to keep ‘On the Radar’ for this week’s quartet of games:
Nice to Meet You
Coming off their fourth meeting in a month with the Chicago Blackhawks, it’s amazing to think that in such a weighted schedule the Stars still have not played every team in their division. But that’s the case, at least for another day. On Thursday the Stars and the Nashville Predators face-off for the first of five meetings this year. The Predators are one of just two conference opponents that Dallas has not played yet (the Phoenix Coyotes are the other). Thus far the Preds have struggled their way to a .500 record on the season. They lost their star netminder, Pekka Rinne due to injury back in October, and are hoping to get him back sometime around the new year. The Stars and Preds play again late this month, so Dallas may see him again in 2013, but it’s week-to-week. While the absence of Rinne has been glaring, the other end of the ice has been equally problematic for Nashville. The Predators are averaging just 2.29 goals per game this season, the lowest mark among Western Conference teams. They snapped a five-game winless skid on Tuesday with a win at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. After the Stars and Predators play twice in a two week span beginning Thursday, they meet again in January, March, and April. Seeing a division opponent for the first time in mid-December will be strange, but both clubs will have to adapt to the unfamiliarity in stride to get the victory.
Viva la France!
Antoine Roussel is gaining a reputation throughout the NHL as one of the league’s fiercest agitators. Just ask the Blackhawks. However, he’s also carving out a reputation as a legitimate duel threat. Roussel is third in NHL penalty minutes with 86 in 29 games and paces the Stars in that category. But he is also tied for third on Dallas in goals (7), and sixth in points (13). He has as many goals this season as Jamie Benn. So far this year there are 19 players in the NHL with at least 50 PIM. Of those players, Roussel has the second most goals and fourth most points. The second-year forward has turned himself into a legitimate scoring threat lately, and has seven points (5g, 2a) in his last seven games. He has already matched his goal total from last season, and is one point shy from last year’s total, in about one-quarter fewer games.
On Monday and Tuesday the Stars will play their only home-and-home set of the season as they begin in Denver and then return home to take on the Avalanche. Last year the Stars had two home-and-home sets in the lockout-shortened season. They went 1-1 in the home games and 0-2 in the road games. This year the Stars play the same team within a week multiple times, but this is the only time the Stars play the same team in back-to-back games. Colorado, meanwhile, has been here before and had success. Two weeks ago the Avs swept a home-and-home set with Minnesota and this is their second and final home-and-home of the year. Colorado has been a tough nut to crack for Dallas this season, with the Stars going 0-1-1 in two meetings earlier this year. They’ll have two consecutive shots to turn the season series around.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm
Scoring first is always a huge benefit, but there could be more emphasis on getting the first goal this week for Dallas. The three opponents they are playing all have terrific records when they take a 1-0 lead. Colorado is tied for the league lead in victories when scoring first, accomplishing the feat 17 times. They are also the only club with a perfect record when they open the scoring, going 17-0-0 in those games. Nashville has been impressive as well, with a 12-1-2 record when scoring first. They have 12 of their 14 wins in such games. Rounding out the weekly competition, Winnipeg is 9-3-1 when they score first. Dallas checks in behind all of them with a 9-3-2 record when nabbing the first goal. Strangely enough the Stars and their opponents have bucked conventional wisdom over the last two weeks, as the team to score first has won only three of Dallas’ last seven games.
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.