On the Radar: Roller Coaster Ride
The Dallas Stars season could double as a ride at Six Flags Over Texas. There have been ups and there have been downs. Some people have screamed with delight as they experience the thrills, while at times others may have felt nauseous going through the motions. Yes, to follow Stars hockey this season has indeed been a roller coaster. Only instead of a two-minute ride, it’s been an 11-week adventure. The peaks and pitfalls have come in a variety of forms, and from night to night you can’t be too sure of what is around the next turn. Some nights the Stars will play great and lose. Other nights they’ll play poorly and win. They’ve beaten the likes of Chicago, Anaheim, and San Jose. And they’ve lost to teams like Florida, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.
They’ve had stretches where they were so healthy that they could not find a way to insert players they were curious to see. And then within a couple weeks, they have been so injury-riddled that they literally were dressing multiple players under emergency circumstances as soon as they were called up from the American Hockey League. They have healthy scratched a top-pair defenseman, but also played one who was not on their top-10 pre-season depth chart. Their captain literally broke records with a six-point night. And then he did not score a goal in the following 11 games. The number one goaltender got hurt just three games into the season. Then returned to start the next 14 games straight. They have experienced remarkable highs (such as the win in Boston) and suffered deflating lows (like Monday’s loss in Colorado). The list of extremes feels endless. And yet, they are only 33 games into the season!
Being a Stars fan this season has been as fun as it has been stressful. You can confidently and accurately believe that your team can beat – and outplay – any team that they face. However, you also know that they can lose to – and be outplayed by – any team as well. Hosting an interactive post-game show, filled with audience phone calls, I’ve been at ground zero for the instant reactions. The differing tone from night to night from our callers is staggering. But it’s also completely understandable. Because the Stars haven’t just been a see-saw, they’ve been a speed-of-light see-saw. The reversal of fortunes from one night to the next has been the most curious abnormality in a season littered with strange occurrences. For all the ebbs and flows that have been present, the one thing the Stars have not seen is a streak…of any kind.
Dallas is two weeks shy of a new year – also known as the unofficial midway point of the season. To date, their longest winning streak is three games and their longest losing streak is two games. Of the other 29 NHL teams, every single one has experienced either a four-game winning streak OR a three-game losing skid. Most have had both, but no one has had neither.
Except the Stars.
When it comes to the roller coaster ride, the Dallas Stars are literally in a class of their own. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To play into late December and never go more than two consecutive games without getting a victory is a difficult task. But it’s not necessarily a good thing either. Because in the well-documented, dominant Western Conference, at one point or another you’ve seen most teams put together a stretch that helps them climb up the standings. Even if the Stars haven’t fallen off pace, they haven’t gained ground either. And being stuck in the middle like that hurts. Maybe not as much as being trapped in a vacant warehouse with Mr. Blonde, but it still hurts.
Through all of the injuries suffered, and all of the improvising Dallas has had to deal with, the fact remains that they have not won back-to-back games since November 14 & 17. Their ability to collect points while dressing a blue line that looks like Cedar Park North is commendable. But in the ‘Everybody Ropes, Everybody Rides’ philosophy that’s been adopted, that literally means EVERYBODY. If you’re in a Stars jersey you’re expected to compete and win. The Stars – whoever they’ve dressed – have done that. They just need to do it more consistently.
Last week was the week it was supposed to happen. Four games against middle-of-the-pack teams was just the scheduling break Dallas needed to go on a winning streak. But it didn’t happen. Nope, instead the balancing act that is the Stars went…you guessed it…an even 2-2.
This week provides another opportunity to stretch together some wins. Although, considering that the opposition is markedly upgraded from last week, it also provides a challenge to continue to avoid a losing streak. Vancouver is 7-0-1 in their last 8 games. San Jose has the fifth most points in the NHL. Los Angeles is 7-1 in their last 8 games, and has given up something like 9 combined goals in their last 53 games (or close to that). That is what’s awaiting the Stars beginning Thursday. History suggests the club will find a way to go 2-1, or 1-2, or 1-1-1. While the Stars always want more, the truth is, in a week like this that wouldn’t be all that bad.
But eventually the road is going to split. The Stars cannot, and will not, continue to avoid streaking. It’s coming, in one direction or another. Something is going to take the Stars up or down in the standings. Everybody loses their balance at some point. You just hope you can fall on the right side of the fence when you do.
Who knows? Maybe this is the week they break out. Of all the weeks, maybe the Stars will lead their injury-shaped lineup up against a trio of red-hot, top-tier opponents, and somehow put together a season-long winning streak. Honestly, the way things have gone this year, would anything really surprise you?
Here are some key elements to keep ‘On the Radar’ in the final three games before an abbreviated Christmas break:
If you were going to name the Stars MVP through the first 33 games, Kari Lehtonen would get strong consideration. The team looked incredibly different after he came back from injury than they did when he was sidelined. When healthy, he’s been a workhorse, starting 25 of 28 games in which he’s dressed. Yet, as of late, backup goaltender Dan Ellis has been solid and could easily be buying himself more time in net. Ellis has only started three times since October 19. But he’s won all three of those starts, while stopping a combined 80 of 86 shots against. Those wins came against Anaheim, Philadelphia, and Colorado – two of which would be playoff teams if the season ended today, and the other would be a ninth seed. Overall at home Ellis is a perfect 4-0 with a 2.39 GAA and a .919 save percentage. Conversely he is 0-3 with a 3.87 GAA and .888 save percentage on the road. Lehtonen, meanwhile, has better numbers on the road than he does at home. There is only one home game this week, and it comes Thursday against Vancouver. In the only prior meeting between the Stars and Canucks, Lehtonen was the story, stopping 42 of 43 in a 2-1 win. However, he hasn’t won at home since October 24. With Ellis coming off a superb performance on Tuesday against Colorado, he could get the start at the AAC. Whether or not he does, expect Ellis to see more action going forward as he looks to increase his current, three-game winning streak.
Making an Impression
Rookie forward Colton Sceviour made quite the impression last week. With the Stars forced into a shorthanded situation after the loss of Vern Fiddler, Sceviour was the latest player assigned to fill a hole. Guys like Lane MacDermid, Dustin Jeffrey, and Travis Morin had all been tasked similarly this year, and Sceviour got his turn on Saturday in Winnipeg. What he did, however, was separate himself from the pack. Sceviour scored his first NHL goal, posted a game-high, five shots on goal, and was effective on the power play unit. On Tuesday he scored again, this time providing the tie-breaking, game-winning goal with 2:52 to play. He had only played in two previous NHL games in his career, both coming in single-game call-ups in the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 seasons. So far in his three games this year, Sceviour has 2 goals and 12 shots. At the time of his call-up, he was the leading goal scorer in the AHL with 18 goals and 30 points in 26 games in Cedar Park, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down at the next level. Fiddler’s injury has taken longer than originally estimated and Sceviour’s emergence has given Lindy Ruff a valuable placeholder in the lineup as long as the Stars are short. If Fiddler can’t come back immediately, Sceviour has that much more time to continue to leave his mark. When Fiddler does return, it’s possible that even with as well as Sceviour has played, he could find himself as the odd man out for the immediate future. However, after seizing the opportunity, he certainly looks to have become a clear-cut frontrunner from the carousel of fill-ins used earlier this season. And whether it’s sooner or later in the year, Sceviour has likely bought himself some added NHL games this season. When he is in the lineup, if he continues to play like last week, he could make it very difficult for Ruff to remove him.
Goals have been hard to come by for the Stars in a number of games this year. This week will prove to be as difficult a week as any to find the back of the net. On Thursday the Stars host the Canucks who have surrendered just ten combined goals during their eight-game point streak. The Stars then close the week with a visit to Los Angeles, where remarkably the Kings have equaled Vancouver and also allowed just ten goals against in their last eight games. Los Angeles leads the league by giving up just 1.89 goals per game this season. Sandwiched in between those two games is a trip to San Jose against the Sharks, who have the seventh-ranked defense in the NHL. All three opponents for Dallas this week rank among the seven stingiest clubs in the league. With scoring certain to be a premium, added focus is on the Stars defense and goaltending, plus the ability to finish their opportunities when they get them.
When the realignment shifted the Stars out of the Pacific Division, the thought of avoiding perennial powerhouses like San Jose and Los Angeles was a welcomed change. Ironically however, the Stars have fared much better against the Pacific Division than their current Central Division opponents. The Stars are just 4-7-3 within their own division, while they are 6-2-1 vs. the Pacific. They have the second best record of any Central Division opponent versus the Pacific (trailing only Chicago, who is 8-0-2). Perhaps it’s nostalgia, but whatever the reason, the Stars have had success against very good opposition in the Pacific Division. With three tough games in store, Dallas is hoping the trend continues into the Christmas break.
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.