On the Radar: Mid-life Crisis
On Monday the Dallas Stars officially began the second half of their 82-game, regular season schedule. And now, just one game after they teed off on the back nine of the calendar, the Stars find themselves facing something they have not faced all season long – an actual losing streak.
Dallas’ ability to stay away from stacked-up losses was the cornerstone of their success in the first half of the year. No matter what injuries, bad nights, scheduling difficulties, or any other variables were thrown at them, the resilient Stars were always able to avert lengthy stretches without accumulating points. It seemed that any time Dallas was pushed on their heels, they responded with a larger leap forward. That’s how they were able to achieve 47 points and a .573 winning percentage at the midway point. They avoided the dreaded losing streak that can stop you in your tracks.
Over 41 games from October 3 through January 4, the Stars never went three straight games without earning at least one win. Even this club, that has struggled in overtime/shootouts this season, never endured so much as a three-game winless skid. But that all changed with the first three games of 2014. The Stars now enter this week carrying three straight losses for the first time, and more troubling is the manner in which those defeats have materialized.
We are only one week removed from the Stars brilliant close to 2013, but the team’s drastic drop in play makes it feel like a full year since they were firing on all cylinders. The contrast between what the Stars did in late December and what they’ve done in early January is startling. Dallas earned points in seven straight games, going 5-0-2 in the final two weeks of December. Facing some of the toughest competition in the NHL, the Stars took 12 of a possible 14 points, and only allowed 13 combined goals in those seven games. In just three games since, Dallas is 0-3 and has yielded an astonishing 18 goals against. The most curious part for the Stars is that nothing obvious has changed.
The Stars didn’t suffer any catastrophic injury to a major part of their team. They didn’t have to drastically reshape their forward lines or defensive pairs because of illness. They weren’t playing without their number one goaltender or leading scorer. They didn’t have to play three games in four nights in three different road cities. They didn’t have to rely on last second call-ups to fill holes in their roster without any preparation.
Crazily enough, those are all things the Stars had to endure when they were avoiding a losing streak. If anything, on paper the Stars actually had it easier this past week than they did when they were playing their best hockey. They got to stay at home, play Eastern Conference clubs that had been struggling, and even got some previously injured bodies back in the lineup. But, as the old saying goes, the games are not played on paper, and the Stars definitely were not expecting what they got.
There are different theories as to why the Stars have suddenly stalled. Perhaps the flu bug that had ravaged through the locker room was still bad enough to severely hamper the team. Perhaps the extended minutes for certain players who were filling holes created by earlier injuries finally caught up to them. Maybe the Stars underestimated a few teams that many believed they should beat. Maybe after getting themselves up for such a pivotal, seven-game stretch, the Stars were prime for the oft-seen letdown to follow. Or maybe going three months straight without a rotten week is incredibly more difficult than most people realize, and the Stars are simply going through something that sooner or later most teams do.
If that last reason is indeed the one, it certainly wouldn’t be shocking. Take a look around the league and you’ll see that even the best teams go through slumps. Los Angeles just suffered a five-game losing skid. Pittsburgh lost three in a row in regulation earlier this year. San Jose has had two separate winless streaks of five and four games. Anaheim went five straight without a victory. Even the infallible Chicago Blackhawks dropped three straight before the Stars did. Maybe every team eventually has an in-season breaking point, and 42 games just happened to be that one for Dallas this year.
But here’s the catch. All of the aforementioned teams have made up for those stretches with winning streaks. At some point during this season, every single one of those clubs has won at least six games in a row. Meanwhile, the Stars longest winning streak this season is three games. That’s not terrible, and the Stars balanced play through the first half has them very much in the playoff picture. But the point is that you create your own margin of error. You can get away with losing big if you win even bigger. If instead you’re going to chip away, you can’t suffer that big setback and live to tell about it.
So, here we are. Halfway through the year and the Stars find themselves at a mid-season crossroad. If their losing streak is a byproduct of a letdown, they should be out of it by now. If it’s due to underestimating opponents, the message is loud and clear that no one can be overlooked. If it’s the continuation of the flu, hopefully two straight days off for the first time since Christmas helps them kick it. And if it’s simply a matter of timing and coincidence, then the law of averages suggest a turn for the better is in order. Whatever the reason, the Stars know that three losses and 18 goals against isn’t good enough. It’s nowhere near good enough. But this week offers a chance for redemption.
Beginning Thursday the Stars are facing the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Edmonton Oilers. All four of those teams rank in the bottom third of the NHL standings. While last week showed us that no opponent can be underestimated, this is a schedule that Dallas can rebound against. The Stars have not yet had a lengthy winning streak this season. But after their first streak in the loss column, they need to start one. Dallas is coming off their worst week of the season, yet they are just one great week away from atoning for it. Great teams lose. They simply respond with a heavier punch than the one they took. The Stars need be a great team this week, and they need to come out swinging starting Thursday against the Devils.
The Stars are in the Northeast this week, before returning to Dallas this weekend for another home stand. Here are a few things to keep ‘On the Radar’ as you prepare for the four-game stretch:
In mid-December, Rich Peverley was moved to center from the wing, where he had spent most of this season. Peverley has been a versatile weapon for Head Coach Lindy Ruff because of his ability to play in different roles. He began the season on the fourth line, quickly moved up to the top line, and played mostly wing, while still being utilized as one of Dallas’ top face-off man – Peverley leads the Stars with a face-off win percentage of over 60%. Upon his move to center last month, Peverley has produced a steady stream of assists, while helping to elevate the play of his wingers. Peverly has assists in four straight games, with five total during that span. He also has nine assists in his last ten games, dating back to December 17, which was the start of Dallas’ recent seven-game point streak. Whether it has been Ray Whitney, Colton Sceviour, or Erik Cole, wingers have seen a spike in production after being paired with Peverley. Regardless of who is flanking him, if he remains at center, and his line continues to contribute offense, it would be a huge boost to the Stars attack.
Going South vs. The East
The first three games of this week all come against Eastern Conference teams. This season the Western Conference has dominated in head-to-head matchups with the East. Because of that, normally a Western team would welcome three out-of-conference games. However, the Stars have struggled this season against the East. Dallas is just 6-6-1 in games against Eastern Conference opponents, with three of their wins coming past regulation. Their record vs. the East is tied for third-worst among Western Conference teams, ahead of only Nashville and Edmonton. Their current three-game losing skid has all come at the hands of Eastern Conference opponents. Conversely, against what is wide regarded as much tougher opposition, the Stars are 14-9-6 against teams in the West this season.
Ready to Rebound
A huge part of what made Dallas such a strong team in the first half was their resiliency. Whether it was in the form of overcoming the loss of a player, or just a loss in general, the Stars have always risen to the challenge. As noted with their lack of any losing streaks, the Stars have been strong this season in games following a loss. This season Dallas is 13-6-2 in the next game following a defeat. Prior to their recent slump, the Stars had points in 13 of 15 games following a loss, going 11-2-2 in that time. Their ability to rebound from whatever setbacks they’ve endured has been the Stars biggest asset. That will once again be tested this week, and throughout the second half of the season if Dallas is going to make a run at the playoffs.
First to Fall
In two of the three games last week, Dallas opened the scoring, only to see their opponent claw back for a victory. This season the Stars are just 12-6-3 when scoring first. Their winning percentage of .643 when taking a 1-0 lead is the fifth-lowest in the NHL. The four teams behind the Stars in that category are Calgary, NY Islanders, Edmonton and Buffalo – four of the bottom five teams in the league standings. While scoring first doesn’t guarantee a victory, it does provide a large advantage. The Stars are not capturing that advantage as much as other teams, and precious points have slipped away after Dallas gains early control in games. The Stars need to do a better job of going wire-to-wire when they take a 1-0 lead.
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.