On the Radar: Gentlemen, Restart Your Engines
So, where were we?
Before Jamie Benn became a gold medal-winning, national hero, Kari Lehtonen helped Finland claim a bronze medal, and Val Nichushkin was introduced to the rest of the hockey world, the Dallas Stars were one of the hottest teams in the NHL. The Stars had points in eight of nine and worked their way into the final Wild Card position in the Western Conference. But that run for the Stars feels like it was decade ago, and now comes the time when we learn the answer to the much anticipated question: What will teams and players look like coming off of the long Olympic Break?
Fortunately for the Stars, one big question has already been answered. They were all able to sidestep the landmine that caught guys like John Tavares and Henrik Zetterberg. All three players - and even Head Coach Lindy Ruff - made it back with their health fully intact. In fact, one could argue that no team had a better Olympic experience than the Stars. More than simply staying healthy, for a club that sent just three players and a coach, the impact their personnel had on these games was undeniable. Benn was heralded as perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament (although no Stars fans were surprised by his play). Lehtonen stopped 43 of 46 shots against in two starts, leaving Sochi with a 1.50 GAA and a .935 save percentage to go along with his bronze. Nichushkin scored in his Olympic debut and played in every game for the host nation, despite being the youngest player on Team Russia by almost four years. And as for Ruff? The title of back-to-back Gold Medal-Winning Coach doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
But as the team reunited in Frisco this week, and the Olympians rejoined their teammates who had been practicing since last week, everybody was very quick to look ahead rather than behind. Yes, there was the medal showcase following Wednesday’s practice, and some good-natured ribbing amongst guys from different countries. But you could tell the upcoming 24 games remained squarely in focus for the current occupiers of the West’s final playoff spot.
In his initial assessment Ruff said he was happy with how his team looked coming out of the break. Before the NHL stopped for the Winter Games, Ruff held one-on-one meetings with each player and devised an individual plan for how they could best prepare through the 18-day break. Ruff is a man who has gone through this before. He knows what this return can be like. And that’s probably why he was as hands on as he was. Because many of his players do not know. Nine players on the Stars roster just went through the first Olympic Break of their career. Included in that list are players that will be key to the playoff chase like Tyler Seguin, Cody Eakin, and Brenden Dillon. Jamie Benn was just a rookie the last time there was an Olympic Break, and it’s safe to say he spent this one a bit differently from 2010.
The Stars did everything they could to try to stay prepared for this post-Olympic sprint to the finish. And a sprint it will be. Beginning Thursday, Dallas has 24 games in the next 46 nights to try to snap the five-year playoff drought. That includes the first 17 games in just 31 days. To put that into perspective, remember that the Stars will have gone 18 days without a single game by the time they face the Hurricanes on Thursday. The return to action will be a trial by fire. And with the standings locked as tightly as they are, the margin for error is slim.
Dallas knows the stakes. They prepared for this break all season long, and especially going into it. They formulated a game-plan to attack it. They believe they are ready for the grueling life after the Olympics. Still, the question that has been asked all season long still begs. On Thursday night we begin to find out the answer.
Ready or not, here it comes.
While you rejoice the return of the NHL, here are a few things to keep ‘On the Radar’ as the Starts try to pick up where they left off.
The last time the Stars passed a checkpoint and came back with a loaded schedule against the Eastern Conference, it did not go so well for the club. After a 5-0-2 finish to the 2013, the Stars opened the new year with six straight losses – all against Eastern Conference teams. All told they lost their first seven games of 2014 to teams from the East. Coincidentally, after this recent checkpoint of the Olympics, the Stars are met with four straight games this week against clubs from the East. In all fairness, nothing changed from 2013 to 2014 except the date. The Stars had a one day layoff from their game on December 31 to January 2, which normally wouldn’t serve as any landmark. This time around the 18 day absence without games served as an actual “break” from play. Still, they’ll need to figure out their Eastern opponents, as they cannot afford another interconference stumble. They have points in their last three games against the East (2-0-1), and are 8-10-2 on the season.
Three in Four
This week features a segment that will become somewhat of a staple of March’s calendar. The Stars will play on Saturday, followed by games on Monday and Tuesday. It’s the first of three Saturday, Monday, Tuesday combos they will play this month. They had three prior Sat-Mon-Tue stretches in the pre-Olympic part of the season, spread out in October, December, and January. They went a combined 4-3-2 in the nine games. With over a third of their remaining games coming in that form, how they handle those jammed together games will play a big role in their final record.
If you are a fan of speed and symmetry then boy, is the remaining NHL schedule for you. We’ve already covered the speed part above. But a look at the remaining schedule shows that there is a lot of balance ahead. The Stars have 24 games left. They are split evenly with 12 at home and 12 on the road. There’s also an even divide with half of their games coming versus the Western Conference, and half versus the East. Of the final 24 games they play, they will come against 17 different opponents. The winning percentage of their remaining opponents averages out to .565 per game. The Stars winning percentage coming out of the Olympics is .552.
One of the biggest keys to success for the Stars before the Olympics was their ability to limit their opponents’ shots on goal. In their final 11 games before the break, the Stars never allowed more than 28 shots on goal, and averaged just 23.5 shots allowed per game. By contrast the Stars were allowing 32.4 shots per game in the first 47 games of the season, before that segment began. Not surprisingly the Stars went 6-2-3 in the aforementioned 11 games. Throughout the locker room the Stars believed they were playing their best defensive hockey of the season heading into the break. If they can come out playing similarly, there is good reason to believe that style could lead them back to the postseason.
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.