January has not been kind to the Dallas Stars.
Things were looking so positive after a big win over Anaheim on New Year's Day, one of those dominant victories that once again convinced fans (for a brief moment) that perhaps this team was finally on the upswing. Yet as soon as the calendar rolled over to 2010, reality hit the Stars square in the face.
This is the time of year where the games truly start to count. Sure, the points were just as important in October, but January is when teams that are the bubble must start to make their move. It's easy to say that any team is still within striking distance just six points out, but with each passing game that divide looms larger and larger. Either they take the opportunity by the reigns and run with it, or they go stagnant. And sadly, the opportunity was there.
Aside from Vancouver, none of the teams above the Stars have exactly been playing lights out lately. Calgary, Los Angeles and Phoenix have all floundered at times. with none winning more than five of their last ten. It's amazing that the spread between 8th and 12th place in the West is still just six points. Do you realize that if the Stars had been able to just get points in four of their last seven, even if they were shootout losses, that we'd be hesitant to start looking ahead to the trade deadline?
Follow the jump for a closer look at the game, as well as yet another shakeup of the lines.
Unfortunately, the Stars have won just once in their last seven games. They are being outscored 28-13 in that span, with the stars allowing less than that three goals just once. This is something that Stars fans are completely unaccustomed to seeing: a Dallas Stars team that is without defense and goaltending.
And both of those aspects go hand in hand. Many people want to lay blame on Marty Turco; while he's certainly been a liability at times, he is far from the only problem. That is the what is most concerning about the Stars, how you can't pinpoint just one area of concern and try and fix that. The goal scoring is an issue, the defense is atrocious and the goaltending is unreliable. When a team is struggling in all three aspects, a 1-6-0 stretch of games in completely expected.
Which brings us to today's game against the Detroit Red Wings. The defending Western Conference champions have had to deal with a number of injuries this season and are inexplicably still sitting out of a playoff spot in mid-January. Yet the Red Wings are headed in the opposite direction as the Stars. They are in the midst of a road-heavy month, yet are having success and are steadily moving up the standings. 4-2-0 this month, the Red Wings can leap into a playoff spot with a win tonight and a little help.
Thus, the Stars face two challenges today. The first being the dreaded "day game", where the NHL tries to appeal to the early crowd. I know that nearly all sports are played at day and at night, but hockey just doesn't feel the same if it's played when it's still light outside. The game itself is most likely sloppy, it takes the players a while to get into the game and everything just feels off. Hockey is nothing if not a sport of rituals, and playing at 1:00 in the afternoon goes against nearly all of them.
The other is taking on not only a hot Red Wings team, but one the Stars have always had trouble with. Surprisingly, Dallas has actually had success against Detroit the past two seasons; they are 2-1-0 this season after winning three of four last year. Yet these two teams are headed in opposite directions at the most important time of the year, and it's scary to think what a confident Wings team can do to the floundering Dallas Stars.
After Thursday's uneven game against Montreal, where there were certainly a number of good and bad things to chew on, Marc Crawford is once again switching the lines up. Citing that he now has matchup options due to being the home team, he's placed James Neal back on the top line and slid Brenden Morrow down to left wing next to Jamie Benn. Hence, lines should look as so:
Neal - Richards - Eriksson
Morrow - Benn - Lehtinen
Ott - Wandell - Brunnstrom
Barch - Modano - Petersen
Personally I thought that the line combinations used in Montreal were fairly effective, especially with how all four lines were able to get pressure on the net. Wandell and Brunnstrom were routinely bounced off the puck, but overall I was pleased with their performance.
I can understand Crawford wanting to put his best line back together for the game against the tough-as-nails Red Wings, but I'm tired of him seemingly not willing to give these players time to build up chemistry. Nothing is working, even the changes; why not allow the players to get used to playing with a certain combination for longer than one or two games? Especially if they worked once...well, sort of.
Seeing Morrow and Lehtinen back on the same line should be interesting, especially considering that Jamie Benn is a completely different threat than Mike Ribeiro. I thought he was just okay in his first game at center, but it should be interesting to see how he fares as the second line guy between two veterans against a very deep team. A tough task to ask any player, much less a 20 year old rookie.
What's sure to frustrate Stars fans a bit more is that the team has assigned Maxime Fortunus and Warren Peters back to the AHL. Nicklas Grossman is still iffy with his knee injury, so we'll get to see even more of Matt Niskanen.
Expect the Stars to face Jimmy Howard in net, who has a 2.21 GAA and an out-of-this-world .926 save percentage. The Islanders proved that he and the Wings are certainly beatable, but he is having one heck of season and will make for a tough test for a Stars team stuggling with offense.
On the flip side, Crawford is once again mum on his starting goaltender. After Turco pretty much rolled over and played possum two straight games, you almost have to feel as if Alex Auld has to get the start for the Stars. He's played good against the Wings once; perhaps he can do it again.
The time for looking ahead to the draft and next season is close, but we're not there yet. The Stars are coming apart at the seams, but one good win - and then another - and suddenly we're right back into tracking how many points out of 8th the Stars sit. Even if most Stars fans are ready to write this season off, there's always hope to be found in progress.