On the Radar: Pacific Heights
Oh, the irony.
For the last 14 years the Dallas Stars were geographically miscast as members of the Pacific Division, and spent countless nights trying to figure out how to best their rivals to the West. When they first shifted from the Central to the Pacific before the 1998-99 season, they instantly became the class of the division. That first year they won the division title by a whopping 24 points, en route to a Presidents' Trophy and Stanley Cup Championship. In fact for the first half of their Pacific Division tenure, the Stars claimed five division titles in seven years. The turn back to the clubhouse, however? Well, that wasn’t as scenic. Dallas never finished atop the division again, and was anchored down by five straight seasons of playoff absence. Going through a rebuilding phase when you have to contend with arguably the toughest division in the National Hockey League isn’t easy. And the Stars learned that the hard way.
So, when the new realignment passed and teams shifted around this summer, you can’t blame Stars fans if – in addition to reducing the number of times they had to stay up until midnight to finish watching a road game – they were pretty excited to limit those meetings against the likes of the Ducks, Sharks, Kings, and Coyotes.
That’s not to say that the Central Division was supposed to be a cakewalk. Not by a longshot. But after a steady diet of West Coast humble pie, the thinking was that a change could do the Stars good.
Fast forward to this season and the Stars cannot get enough of the Pacific Division. Dallas has absolutely dominated the division at a breakneck pace. The Stars enter the final two games before the Olympic Break with a 12-2-2 record against the seven-team division. The Stars have already clinched a winning record this season versus Anaheim, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. They are 1-0-1 against San Jose, and can clinch a winning record with any points on Wednesday night. On Tuesday they beat Phoenix on the road in the first meeting of the year, and they can secure a winning record against them with a win at home on Saturday. Any points against the Coyotes over the weekend would ensure that they finish the season at least .500 against every Pacific Division team.
Over the last five seasons the Stars never had more than 12 wins within the division. They have already hit that number this year with five games remaining against Pacific Division opponents. Dallas was a combined 50-44-20 during the last five seasons, for a winning percentage of .526. This year their winning percentage versus the Pacific Division is .813. For five years the division haunted the Stars. Now, they welcome the sight of the Pacific more than Red from Shawshank Redemption.
And while this sudden success does seem a little tardy, given that for the first time in 15 years the Stars are not members of the division, it has not gone without reward. The Stars still play about one-quarter of their games against the Pacific Division, and points in the conference come at a premium. It also just so happens that the current, key stretch of games heading into the break is coming against teams from the Pacific, and the Stars have capitalized. Dallas blanked Anaheim and skated past Phoenix to take the first two games of the segment. They will officially close down the pre-Olympic portion of the schedule with a trip to San Jose and then a hosting of Phoenix. If they continue to speed their way through the Pacific, they could very well find themselves in a playoff position by the time the NHL goes on sabbatical.
And that brings us to one final, potential twist. The realigned NHL does its best to place emphasis on your own division. However, the two wild card spots are awarded without any consideration, for division and teams are then slotted into a formatted bracket based on standings. If the Stars do claw their way into a wild card spot, there is a 50 percent chance they would get drawn into the Pacific Division bracket. That would mean their opponents all the way until the Conference Finals would be from the Pacific. Can you imagine after five years of unsuccessfully trying to crack the playoffs in the Pacific Division, the Stars could find themselves back in the postseason, in this new format, vying for what is, in effect, a Pacific Division Championship?
I know I am getting way ahead of myself. And the Stars know that there is an enormous amount of work left to do between now and mid-April. There are still 26 games, plus an Olympic Break, trading deadline, and frantic finish to get through. And there are essentially seven teams all chomping away for what appears to be three spots. But the Stars are right there. Prior to Wednesday, they are just two points out of the #2 Wild Card seed with two games in hand. A win on Wednesday night would vault them into that spot. There will be a ton of scoreboard watching down the stretch, but regardless of what anyone else does, the Stars are exactly where they hoped to be. They will control their own destiny coming out of the Winter Games.
Considering their history, wouldn’t it be incredible if that destiny somehow leads the Stars and that .831 winning percentage into a Pacific Division playoff bracket?
Oh, the irony, indeed.
The Stars have two upcoming games before the NHL hits the pause button on the regular season. Here are a few things to keep ‘On the Radar’ as the Stars attempt to crack the Top-8 before the best players in the world head East to Sochi:
Benn There, Done That
Stars captain Jamie Benn has had an excellent scoring touch as of late, and just snapped a run that ranks among the best of his career thus far. Before Tuesday night, Benn had scored in five straight games – the second longest streak he has ever had (In March of 2011, he scored in six straight games, and eight of nine). There was some league-wide talk surrounding bubble players for Olympic rosters and whether there would be any letdown once the rosters were announced. At least in the case of the Stars’ captain, there has been nothing of the sort. Benn scored in six of the nine games leading up to his January 7 selection to Team Canada’s roster. Since he officially became an Olympian, Benn has goals in 7 of 14 games. That’s great news for the Stars, who are a much better team when he is scoring. It’s no coincidence that the Stars went 3-1-1 over Benn’s recent five-game goal scoring streak. This season the Stars are 14-4-2 when Benn scores. If he can continue to find the back of the net, the Stars should continue to stockpile points.
As good as Jamie Benn’s scoring streak has been, there was a bit of a one-dimensional offense for the Stars during recent games. In the four games prior to Tuesday’s win in Phoenix, six of the seven goals scored by Dallas came from either Benn or Tyler Seguin. The other goal was scored by Trevor Daley, meaning that not a single forward besides that pair has scored in that time. At the start of the year, there was a large cry for secondary scoring. Fans may recall that Dallas didn’t get a single goal from their third or fourth line through the opening seven games of the season. However, even though the top line has undoubtedly paced the offense, there has been consistent help for most of the season since then. While this latest stretch wasn’t as extreme as the start of the year, the Stars need some extra contributions in the final two games leading into the Olympic Break. Last week Lindy Ruff switched up the bottom three lines in an attempt to spark the offense. It paid off in Arizona as the Stars got goals from Shawn Horcoff, Antoine Roussel, and Ryan Garbutt. They need that kind of spread out production to continue this week as well.
What a Relief
On Saturday, goaltender Dan Ellis was a surprise starter and finished a perfect 26 for 26 in a 2-0 shutout over the Anaheim Ducks. It was the first ever shutout for Ellis with the Stars, and came on the one-year anniversary of his most recent NHL shutout – February 1, 2013, as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes. It was just the third start for Ellis since December 17, and Kari Lehtonen had played in 20 of the prior 21 games. Ruff said he sensed a bit of fatigue from Lehtonen, and decided to go to Ellis. Multiple times this year we’ve seen Ellis have his number called after Lehtonen had played several weeks straight, and possibly showcased a little fatigue towards the end. After Saturday Ruff said Ellis played well enough to warrant a few more starts going forward, but he went with Lehtonen again on Tuesday, who was solid stopping 27 of 28 in the win. The Stars Head Coach never decides (or at least never reveals) his starter in advance, so Wednesday night’s end of a back-to-back set in San Jose could be either guy. But with many back-to-back scenarios coming after the Olympics, and a fresh Lehtonen vital to any playoff push, how Ruff manages his starting goaltenders will be key.
Out of the Coyotes Den
It took 4 months and 56 games for the Stars and Coyotes to finally face-off this season. It will only take 4 days for them to rematch. After the stars struck first blood in Tuesday night’s showdown in the desert, the clubs return to the AAC for the final game before the Olympic Break on Saturday. Traditionally, one could assume that the venue change would obviously benefit the home team. However, in the all-time series between Dallas and Phoenix, the Stars have actually done better on the road than at home. In head-to-head meetings the Stars are just 20-30-11 in Dallas, and 41-32-8 on the road. That could be offset by the fact that Phoenix has been a much stronger team at home over than last two years than on the road. Dating back to the start of last season, the ‘Yotes are a solid 30-18-5 at Jobing.com Arena, but just 17-20-14 everywhere else. After Saturday the Stars and Coyotes meet just one more time this season, and that comes as the regular season finale in Phoenix on April 13.
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.