On the Radar: A Valid Question
Prior to Tuesday night’s home game against the Minnesota Wild, someone asked me if there were any bright spots to take away from the January swoon the Dallas Stars have suffered. If you have followed at all this month you’ve definitely seen your share of lowlights as the club limped to a 1-8-1 start to the calendar year. So the question was valid. Has there been anything that you could tie a life preserver to, or had it all drowned in a sea of points that got away?
I thought for a second and replied with my answer. There was a bright spot. It was that through all of the bad losses and missed opportunities – and my goodness, has there been an overabundance of both – the Stars were not getting run out of the building every night. In fact, they weren’t getting run out of the building any night. The Stars were in practically every game during the stretch. Even in the few lopsided losses they took, they either outshot their opponent or held a lead at some point during the game.
The first ten games of January weren’t a case of a bad team, playing bad hockey, and suffering bad results. It was instead a talented but struggling team, playing inconsistent hockey, and suffering bad results. So the bright spot was that while anyone could easily point to certain aspects of the Stars game that needed to be better, they never appeared to be completely outmatched. It’s possible that some people came to the conclusion that they were. But that would have been based on the cloudiness of their record and not their actual nightly performance. Their record looked hopeless. Their games, meanwhile, never did. It was a steady balance of stretches that could make you a believer, and others that would make you cringe. Unfortunately though, they always seemed to end with the latter.
In a way that is what has made January even tougher to deal with. Because nobody sheds any tears over a lost cause. When is the last time you’ve seen Houston Astros fans crying over losses in August or September? No, it’s sullied potential that really tugs at your heart strings. The bright spot was the quality that the Stars exhibited for parts of the game, almost nightly during this skid. But then you saw it all go dark in a series of different, dramatic heartbreaks. Again. And Again.
The fact is that the Stars are the same collection of guys that played better than .600 hockey for the first three months of this season. Some might say they overachieved. Sure, you could make that argument. But if so, they didn’t overachieve too greatly. Three months is simply too large of a sample size to be considered a phony. There were some good stretches, and some bad stretches, and a whole lot of room for improvement. But rest assured the first 40 games of this season were not all smoke and mirrors.
For most of January, one could argue that the Stars outplayed their competition as much as the other way around. But the big difference came in finishing of opportunities. It seemed as if the Stars had to scratch and claw, and work tirelessly for every goal they got. And then by misfortune or poor performance (and sometimes both), the opponent would get a gift-wrapped goal and completely swing the game. It could be either a poorly-time pinch, a blocked shot that led to an odd-man rush, somebody inexplicably falling down in their own zone, a lapse in defensive zone coverage. Something. But it kept happening. And quickly turned into a pile of losses and thoughts of what could have been.
Even on Tuesday night, we saw the possible makings for a repeat. The Stars outshot the Wild 11-1 to open the game, before finally getting the game’s first goal. How many times in January have we seen a Stars start like that lead to nothing but a talking point? Only this time, they continued to surge. Dallas scored again to extend the lead. Then after the intermission break, the Stars kept the pedal down, limited any sliver of attack for the Wild, and before you knew it, Minnesota was the frustrated bunch, taking undisciplined penalties, unable to generate offense, and the Stars had the game in their clutches. Playing in their second straight night, Dallas never wavered and ran roughshod over their division foe.
Finally. There it was. The bright spot. Fully manifested, and on display for the world to see on a nationally televised game. It had been there all along. It just never seemed to stick around for a full 60 minutes like it did on Tuesday.
So, now comes a different question. Does Tuesday night – which rivals as one of the more complete efforts all season by Dallas – become the latest bright spot in an otherwise forgettable month? Or is the beginning of something else? Like the long-awaited turnaround. Dallas has three games this week – all against red-hot playoff teams. But somehow, the Stars can actually salvage the first month of this new year, and get right back to where they want to be approaching the Olympic break. It will take a few more complete efforts against some very stiff competition, and it can all get derailed by the deadly mistakes that have struck so many times over recent weeks. But at least the Stars can enter this slate of games knowing that despite January’s terrible record, they were never really THAT far away from sorting it out. Maybe Tuesday’s convincing win did exactly that.
This week Toronto, Pittsburgh, and Colorado invade Dallas as the home stand continues. Here are a few things to keep ‘On the Radar’ as you enjoy the games:
Tyler Seguin enters this week having been held without a goal in ten straight games. That drought is the third longest in his regular season career, just one game behind a couple of 11-game streaks during his rookie season. Seguin’s scoring slide has coincided with the Stars struggles, and he could be key in helping them climb out of it. Seguin leads Dallas with 21 goals this season, and ranks tied for 13th in the NHL, despite the fact that 20% of this season has passed since his last goal. This year when Seguin scores the Stars are 9-4-1. His previous long this season for games without a goal was six, and he broke out of that slump in magnificent fashion. He snapped the skid with his second hat trick of the season on December 7 versus Philadelphia, and went on to score six goals over the next five games coming out of the drought. When Seguin does punch his name back onto the score sheet, don’t be surprised if it comes in bunches. As if there wasn’t enough incentive already there, keep in mind that Thursday’s game comes against the Toronto Maple Leafs – the Brampton, Ontario native’s favorite team growing up.
Struggles in the Second
A lot of the Stars lack of success over this run can be traced back to sub-par play in the second period. In the month of January the Stars have been outscored 14-6 in that stanza. Before Tuesday night’s shutout win, Dallas had allowed at least one goal against in all 10 second periods they had played this month. Also before Tuesday the Stars hadn’t outscored their opponent in the second period since New Year’s Eve – the game before this stretch of losses began. The severe downfall in the middle frame sheds some light on how the Stars scored first in six of the first ten games in 2014, but only had 3 of a possible 20 points to show for it. Lindy Ruff said he’s addressed the issue with his team, and they have to be better in second periods. It’s hard to tell whether the slide in play can be pinned on any physical or mental fatigue, but with eight games over the next two and a half weeks before the Olympic break the Stars need to figure out how to avoid the second period lapses which have become common place of late.
Young Legs Get Heavy, Too
Stars rookie sensation, and Olympian-to-be, Val Nichushkin was a healthy scratch in two of the four games last week. He currently is in the midst of a six-game scoring drought, matching the longest of his rookie season. Nichushkin really struggled to find his place on the Stars roster through the first month and a half of the season as he attempted to adapt to the North American game. This midseason slide, however comes from a different learning curve. The 18-year old Russian is in foreign territory (pun possibly intended), having played 47 games already this season. The youngster has never played this many games at such a high-level, and he still has nearly half a season, plus the Olympics, remaining on his upcoming calendar. Ruff said that he spoke candidly with Nichushkin, who admitted to being fatigued. A letdown after he became by far the youngest member named to the Russian Olympic team is not so out of the blue. Although if he is indeed overworked, one of Ruff’s hardest coaching decisions may come in his future usage of the big winger. The Stars offense is clearly more dangerous with Nichushkin in the lineup. However, if he’s not at 100%, he’s shown that he is not the same player. Both before and after the Olympic break, how often Val plays – and where he does when he’s in – is worth keeping an eye on.
Power Play Puzzler
For as bad as the Stars record has been for most of January, their power play has never been better. Dallas has converted at least one power play goal in a season-long, five straight games. That marks their longest stretch since a seven-game run in December of the 2010-2011 season. The Stars are 6-for-19 over the handful of games, but meanwhile, they have just a 2-2-1 record during the span. Ironically, when the Stars were struggling on the power play, they had a higher winning percentage than now when they are their most efficient. All told, the Stars record when scoring a power play goal this season is better than their record in games where they don’t, but the difference might not be as large as you would think. Dallas is 11-8-3 when they tally at least one power play goal, and they are 11-12-5 when they are held scoreless on the man-advantage. Nonetheless, for an offense that has struggled to generate offense, if the power play can continue its current pace, it would be a welcome addition and the points should follow.
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.