On the Radar: The Bumpy Road to the Playoffs
With the exception of the occasional AHL call-up to fill in for an injury, this year’s Dallas Stars team has remained mostly intact since opening night. Yes, they lost a veteran defenseman to injury and then trade, a veteran forward for the season, and swapped back-up goaltenders at the trading deadline. But, by and large, the same Dallas team has taken the ice every night for the last six months. However, if you look at the records and numbers, it sure does look like there have been two different versions of the Stars.
There are the home Stars that fans have seen 37 times at American Airlines Center. That version has gone 20-10-7, is scoring more than three goals per game, and allowing less than two and a half against. They’ve claimed points in almost 75 percent of those games, and have once again made Dallas an intimidating place for opponents to come play. But then there are the road Stars.
Oh, the road Stars.
That team is 14-17-4. They barely have points (let alone wins) in 50 percent of their games. They score under two and half goals per game, and give up about three and a quarter.
The home Stars have points in six straight games, and nine of their last ten. The road Stars, meanwhile, have lost four straight games in regulation, have only one win in their last seven games, and are just 3-9-2 over the last 14 games. Fans who have watched the Stars this year at the AAC are probably wondering how this team currently sits outside of a playoff spot. Fans who have watched the Stars on the road might be wondering how they are even still in the mix.
A look at the numbers tells just how startling the contrast from home to road has been for Dallas. The Stars’ 32 road-points are the lowest in the NHL for any team either currently in a playoff spot, or with a realistic chance to qualify. Their home point-total of 47 points is tied for ninth in the entire NHL. As a reminder the Stars are currently ninth in the Western Conference standings. That’s the kind of swing the Stars have experienced based on where they play.
The Stars have outscored the opposition by 24 goals at home this season. Conversely, they have been outscored by 26 on the road. The 50-goal swing from home differential to road differential is literally the worst in the NHL. Some teams have terrific numbers across the board no matter where they play (see: St. Louis and Boston). Other teams have dreadful numbers no matter where they play (see: Buffalo and Edmonton). But no team has seen the Jekyll & Hyde performance that the Stars have displayed.
When the Stars hit the road last week, Head Coach Lindy Ruff said simply that his team needs to bury their chances and start scoring on the road. Boy, is that the truth. The Stars haven’t had a breakout offensive road game in what seems like forever. The last time Dallas scored more than three goals on the road was before Christmas. That was back on December 23 at Los Angeles. The Stars have played 14 road games since then – also known as more than one-third of their season-long road schedule.
Last week the Stars schedule went according to script. They went 2-2 in four games. Their two wins came at home, where they outscored their opponents a combined 5-2. The two losses were on the road, where they were outscored a combined 8-4. To be fair, the two teams they played at home were significantly easier matchups than the opponents on the road. But after 72 games the sample size extends well beyond last week.
There are ten games left in the Dallas season. But of those ten, six come on the road. The Stars open this week at home against Nashville on Friday. Immediately afterwards, they head to St. Louis, where they begin a season-long, five-game road trip. The final four games of the trip come against teams in the Eastern Conference, where the Stars have struggled even worse. Dallas is winless in their last seven road games versus the East, and just 4-7-1 all season. Their last win in an Eastern Conference building came back on November 7 in an overtime win at Detroit. It is not an exaggeration to say that this upcoming road trip could wind up defining the season.
Despite currently being out of the playoffs, the Stars still control their own destiny. They have a game in hand, and a regular season finale, versus the Phoenix Coyotes. You can argue that they are in great position to break the five-year playoff drought. And they are. But it’s pretty simple. If the Stars can find their game away from Dallas, they will likely buy themselves entrance to the NHL’s second season. If they don’t, then it’s their road resume that will haunt them all summer. They’ve got six games left to make sure it doesn’t.
The Stars play three of their final ten games this week. Here are some things to keep ‘On the Radar’ in the upcoming schedule:
Second Night Struggles
During recent years the second game on consecutive nights has been a big hurdle for the Stars. This year it has remained a tough obstacle for Dallas. On Tuesday the Stars lost in Chicago, bringing their overall record to 3-6-1 this season in the second game of back-to-back contests. That’s a winning percentage of just .350. The Stars have scored an average of 2.6 goals in these games, while allowing 3.1 against. Dallas has three more back-to-back segments this season, including one this coming weekend in a tough building in St. Louis. The back-to-backs make up 60 percent of the Stars remaining schedule this season, and they need to do a better job of securing points in the second game.
Note: This does NOT include the 3-2 overtime win in St. Louis on March 11, which came one day after the Rich Peverley cardiac event. After the rescheduling of that game, the game against the Blues is no longer officially considered a back-to-back. However, if the point of this statistic is to exhibit a team’s ability to overcome mental and physical fatigue and travel, that game deserves to be considered.
Jordie on the Spot
Jamie Benn has stolen the majority of headlines for the Dallas Stars this season. Thirty-goal scoring, Olympic-hero captains tend to do that. However, not to be overlooked is the play of the elder Benn brother. Jordie Benn has quietly been a solid contributor all season long. The second-year NHL defenseman entered training camp as a depth man on the blue line, and was in a fight to maintain his roster spot with several up-and-coming AHL options in the mix. However, Benn – who just three and a half seasons ago was playing in the Central Hockey League – has put together a career campaign and solidified his place on the Stars roster. Benn ranks third in scoring among Dallas defensemen, and he ranks third overall on the team with a +14 rating. Ruff has leaned on Jordie for more, recently. Over the last nine games, the 24-year old has averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game. He also has three assists in his last three games. With so many games in so little time remaining, Ruff’s ability to spread out minutes among his players will be key. Jordie Benn has proven that he can handle more minutes, and be counted on down the stretch.
Kari-ng the Load
When Kari Lehtonen went down with a concussion in early March, the big questions surrounding the Stars were how long their #1 goaltender would be out, and what kind of condition he would be in when he returned. The absence lasted a week and a half. As for the second question, Lehtonen went a long way in answering that last week. Kari was outstanding in all three games in net for Dallas. Playing every minute of the three games in four days, Lehtonen looked like he was at 100 percent health. The Big Finn stopped 96 of 101 shots he faced, and could not be faulted for any of the five goals against him. He went 2-1 with a 1.67 GAA and .950 save percentage for the week. His usage down the stretch will still have to be monitored due to the jam-packed schedule and multiple back-to-back games. However, if last week is any indication, regardless of the schedule, Lehtonen is Ruff’s go-to guy, and he looks prepared to answer the call.
Stakes for the Other Guys
At this time of year, it’s always interesting to see what’s at stake for different teams. Like the Stars, many are trying to battle their way into the playoffs. Others are already in, and playing for seeding. Then there are those mercifully waiting for the end of the season (Hi again Buffalo and Edmonton!). Just because a team is in doesn’t mean they are going to give you a tough game, and just because a team is out doesn’t mean they won’t. But in a close game, what is at stake could or could not give a team that extra push. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the Stars opponents this week have on the line.
Nashville: While still mathematically alive, the Predators do not have a realistic shot at the postseason. They are nine points out of the final Wild Card spot with nine games to play. They would essentially need to run the table, and still have both Phoenix and Dallas play .500 or worse to close the season. Working in their favor is three of their final nine come against the Stars and Coyotes. But mixed in the other six are teams like Anaheim, Chicago, San Jose and Minnesota. The Preds have won just two of their last six games. Their fate is all but sealed. The Stars can take a step towards making it official with a win on Friday.
St. Louis: With the trading deadline acquisition of all-world netminder, Ryan Miller and former Stars alternate captain, Steve Ott, the Blues are considered the odds-on favorite to win their first ever Stanley Cup. They have already clinched a playoff spot, and baring a late collapse, they should be able to hold off Chicago for the Central Division title (six point lead, plus a game in hand). But they still have a lot on the line. Entering this week they are just two points up on San Jose (with two games in hand) for the top spot in the Western Conference. The Anaheim Ducks also remain in the mix, just six points back with a game in hand. Looking across conference lines, the Blues have even games played with the Boston Bruins, and a one point lead for the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best record. When the Stars and Blues meet in the second to last game of the season, things may be different. But right now, St. Louis has a lot to play for this week.
Washington: For all the drama in the Western Conference standings, the East is even more condensed in the middle. As of Wednesday, the Capitals are one of four teams all tied with 80 points. Two of those teams are in the playoffs, and the other two are out. For the moment, the Caps find themselves as one of the odd men out, but a single point could change that. There’s still a chance Washington could catch either the New York Rangers or Philadelphia for a top-three Division spot, but they are dead center in a Wild Card battle for the ages. The bottom line: Tuesday’s game will mean every bit as much to Washington as it will to Dallas.
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.