There's a good chance that this was perhaps the most painful four day stretch experienced by Dallas Stars fans in quite some time. With the team on an absolute roll through the month of January, the Stars headed to Canada to take on several Western Conference foes as they continued to attempt to build a lead in the Pacific Division. There were some hiccups at times, but overall the Stars had shown the ability to face down adversity and pull out some tough wins. They even had a number of very impressive wins along the way as well.
The great month, up to this past weekend, had not only the fans buzzing but the local and national media as well. The Stars were placed at the top of several power rankings polls, there were a number of national media articles written extolling just how "for real" this Stars team truly was and then we had articles locally saying how fans are ignoring one hell of a good hockey team.
I think that, before this weekend, even the most pessimistic of Stars fans had to admit that the Stars had transcended from a team with good potential to a team that had the ability to make some legitimate noise come playoff time. The goal changed from just making the playoffs, to winning the division and making a run at the top of the conference. After all, if you are halfway there you might as well go for the true finish line, right?
Except that the Stars lost a couple of games this weekend, setting them back a bit in their mission for the best in the West. Except that the Stars not only lost two games, but were absolutely dominated, dissected and destroyed by two Western Conference opponents, including a 7-1 hammering at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks. That perhaps the worst regular season loss since 2002 came in a game when the Stars had a chance to get closer to the Western Conference lead is what is troubling the most, as now we're left wondering if the entire first half of the season was merely a facade.
Fans should not start panicking. There's plenty to be concerned about but more importantly, there were some very, very valuable lessons learned this weekend that will prove useful moving forward....
Lesson #1: The Stars are not quite as deep as once thought
When the Dallas Stars made the trade for Jamie Langenbrunner, suddenly the team had three very capable and dangerous lines they could use to pressure teams in many different ways. This is how teams are successful in the postseason, when the defensive capabilities of the best in the NHL are able to stop your top line but not stop the second and third lines at the same time. Before the trade it was thought that the Stars already had a deep group of forwards, yet with the addition of the veteran right winger they bolstered the group and became perhaps one of the deepest teams in the NHL.
If there is anything this weekend has taught us is that while the Stars certainly are a deep team at forward, there are other teams out there that are much, much deeper and can put pressure on the Stars that sends this team into fits. We also learned that when the Stars lose any of their top players, disaster soon follows as the team struggles to maintain chemistry.
On Friday night the Stars played without Loui Eriksson and Crawford was forced to change up his line combinations on nearly every shift, mixing and matching his forward to keep his top players together while also fighting against matchups with the Flames. What resulted was a mess of a performance, marred by blown assignments and poor defensive coverage from start to finish. The goaltending didn't help but the Stars never were able to really get into sync as the game went from close to quickly out of reach in a matter of minutes in the third period.
On Monday, the Stars lost two key forwards that are used extensively on the penalty kill, and while the game was certainly lost right about the midway point of the game, the special teams went from bad to horrific in a hurry when Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell left.
This was something that was feared, and is always feared with close hockey teams, but now we've seen it actually happen. The Stars have been insanely lucky when it comes to injuries this season and right now it's apparent that any loss of a top nine forward could have a significant impact on the rest of this season. It's now up to Marc Crawford and his staff to prepare better for such an occurrence.
Lesson #2: Details, Details, Details
The Dallas Stars have prided themselves on being a detailed oriented team. They watch an insane amount of film, they're constantly studying opponents together as a team and the coaching staff has proven it can adjust from game to game like no other in the NHL.
Yet this weekend the Stars failed to adjust. The Dallas Stars failed to adhere to the details that has made them so successful this season and which has made them one of the best teams in the NHL in close games. When the game is close and the game is on the line, the Stars are able to focus and hone in on every little thing that is needed to ensure there is a victory at the end of the night. It's been remarkable to see and after two seasons of futility it's been perhaps the most impressive change from last year to now.
What happens when the Stars lose that focus, however, is the stuff that horror movies are made of. For whatever reason, the Stars belly-flopped in two straight games and lost by a combined score of 14 to 5. I don't think, in my 18 years of following Dallas Stars hockey, that two straight losses like that have ever happened. What was most troubling is how for the first time all season long, the Stars were unable to stop the snowball from getting started down that hill; instead, it started rolling and the team lost all control almost immediately and suddenly you have two of the worst losses this franchise has ever faced.
The Dallas Stars are a gritty, talented group but they are far from the most talented in the NHL. The reason they've been so successful this season is due to their hard work and attention to detail from game to game, and this weekend we got to see what happens when that system crumbles. We've seen cracks before this season, but the goaltending by Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft has been able to bandage the bleeding and give the team a chance to win. This weekend, that didn't happen. Which brings me to my next point....
Lesson #3: All Or Nothing In Net
If there was any doubt as to why the Stars are sitting near the top of the Western Conference before these past two games, then the losses to Calgary and Vancouver have all but erased them. While the Stars certainly have made strides as a team, becoming more dangerous offensively and more stout defensively, it's the goaltending that has truly made all the difference in the world for the Stars this season.
How many times have the Stars had a bad game or come out with a lackluster effort, only to be boosted by several big stops at the perfect times by Lehtonen and Raycroft which then gave the Stars time to rebound and eventually win the game? I'd wager that well over half the wins this season have come in this fashion, as the Stars finally began to receive the timely goaltending and big saves that eluded them the past two-plus seasons.
Now, this isn't a bad thing. It's not bad to have your goaltending there to bail out the rest of the team. It's why you go out and try to get the best goaltending you possibly can, to solidify your chances at winning despite some up and down performances in front of the net. The goaltending is just as much a part of the team as the defense and offense is, and this season has shown us how important the goaltending is in order to create a "team" atmosphere in the locker room and beyond. Everyone works together and for the most part it's worked out perfectly for the Stars this season.
But what happens when the goaltending isn't spectacular. What happens when the goaltending is downright bad? Apparently the Stars just collapse and have no way of recovering.
There are going to be times in a season when the goaltender has to win you games, That's why teams are so good, because they can win in so many ways. Teams don't need perfect goaltending each and every night, but having the ability to get it when it's needed is incredibly valuable. At the same time, teams also need to be able to support their goaltenders if the performance in net isn't exactly up to par. The Dallas Stars, as of this moment, does not have this ability as a team.
In fact, the Stars seem to just collapse when the goaltending falters and instead of rallying around a struggling teammate the Stars become more lost as the game progresses. You would hope that when Lehtonen is off the Stars would buckle in and do their best to control the game with puck possesion, physicality or hard work; instead the opposite happens and you're left with a 7.00 GAA in two games. It's all or nothing with this team right now and you have to think that after this weekend, the importance of being able to stay solid in front of your goaltender -- no matter what -- is going to be the most important lesson that can be learned.
Lesson #4: Intangibles are great, execution and skill matter most
All season long this debate has raged. The Stars are winning despite all these statistical numbers telling us just how much they should really be losing. They can't control the puck against tougher opponents, they can't get shots on net in close games and the Stars struggle the most against the Western Conference. The response is that they're still winning, so who cares what the stats say?*
*This isn't directed at one person. We've all been guilty of this at some point this season.
The past two games, everything we were told was wrong about the Stars came to light right in front of our eyes. The physical battles, the special teams, the faceoffs, the shots on goal versus shots allowed, they were all right there during the losses against Calgary and Vancouver.
There's no doubting that the grit and determination of this team has gotten them more wins than anyone could ever really count this season, but the fact remains that without perfect execution in a number of areas the Dallas Stars will struggle to get out of the first round of the playoffs --- if they even make it though a very tough schedule to finish the season. The game against Vancouver has shown that when the execution is gone, no amount of intangibles, grit, spitfire or gristle will be able to pull out a win against the best the West has to offer.
Instead, the Stars must go back to the drawing board and determine just what went wrong during one hellacious weekend. The coaches must focus on the execution of the special teams and in getting the Stars back to what was working so well before; the passing, the special teams, the finishing on scoring chances and the defensive coverage in and around the net. The hard work of the team is what lifts them above others when the execution is there but without the play of the team solidified, nothing else matters.
There's no reason to panic. It's just two games. But how the Dallas Stars respond to this weekend will likely determine the course of the rest of the season. There is still plenty of hockey left and the Stars can not afford to go into a funk based on the drubbing they received on Friday and Monday night. The team must come back to Dallas, focus on what went wrong and come out like their jobs are on the line against Edmonton on Wednesday night.
A big win on home ice will be great, but the true test is when the Stars face the top teams in the NHL once more. Vancouver, Detroit, Philadelphia, Phoenix; the Stars must prove they can compete with these teams at some point this season, and on a consistent basis.
This weekend wasn't a complete disaster, if the Dallas Stars don't let it become one.