There was a point last season, when the Dallas Stars were leading the Pacific Division towards the end of January, that the monumental collapse that would follow could have been avoided. The Stars had already fallen apart on a Western Canadian road trip that included to brutal losses to Vancouver wrapped around a win in Edmonton. The sky wasn't falling just yet but you could see signs of the coming doom showing in their game.
That chance was when the Stars traveled to Boston, an admittedly tough task just days after returning from Canada. Instead of buckling down and showing the heart we knew they had, the Stars fell to pieces and allowed four goals in perhaps the worst first period I've ever witnessed from a Dallas Stars team. That game was the catalyst for the epic collapse that would see the Stars fall from the division lead to missing the postseason by just one win.
The good news is that this loss to Florida is not on the same level as the one last season in Boston. While it was humiliating and painful, it's still early in the season and this was just one loss coming off a bad weekend. At least, that is exactly how the game should be treated by fans -- the team, on the other hand, needs to learn from the past three games, and fast.
The important thing is that the Stars are able to learn and grow from this loss, instead of collapsing and falling apart like we witnessed last season. It seems, at least after the game last night, that this team recognizes the importance of rebounding from a game like that while also acknowledging just how bad the loss truly was.
"You get back home from a long trip, you hear all the things about that first one at home, you think you are prepared and then you throw out a stinker like this," said Brenden Morrow. "It's embarrassing."
What was most troubling was how the Stars came out completely flat after two frustrating losses in Detroit and Pittsburgh. In those games the Stars were at least tied, despite being outworked, heading into the third period. Unfortunately, both the Wings and Penguins were able to pull away with big third period performances that belied the effort we had grown used to seeing from this team so far this season.
"You look back, it's been nine periods where we've been outworked," said Morrow. "There have been some periods in those games, five or ten minutes, where we've done some things well, but it's pretty simple - we've just been outworked these last few games."
This was a tough loss and I know there was a bit of panic in the hearts of Stars fans everywhere last night, but it's important to remember that it's only November and there is still plenty of hockey to be played. While you'd have liked for the Stars to come out and really take care of business against Florida after the end to the road trip, what I really want to pay attention to is how the team responds from a loss like this one -- something they failed at last season.
When Marc Crawford was fired, the same term kept coming up again and again while Nieuwendyk was explaining the change: adversity. The Dallas Stars were a team last season that was incapable of overcoming the adversity that every team faces throughout the course of the season. The injuries to certain players, the way the team was obviously unprepared for each game down the stretch and how the Stars failed to even wake up for a win-and-in game against the hapless Minnesota Wild -- all were reasons that led to the firing of Marc Crawford.
For the most part, this is the same team with a different coach. So far we've been impressed with Glen Gulutzan and how he's been able to get some incredible chemistry from a team with seven new players and without a superstar center. This is his big test, however, as he tries to pull this team out of a tailspin and recover from three demoralizing losses in a row.
After the game, Gulutzan made it clear that he's not going to suddenly change his ways, however.
"My thought process isn't to crack the whip tomorrow," Gulutzan said. "If you as a pro player, with lots of character in that room, can't whip yourself a little bit after that performance, then we've got bigger problems, and I don't think we have those. So, let's just get back at it.
"If the trend continues that's a resort, but it's always probably your last resort. You see lots of teams bag skating teams and I haven't seen them snap out of it right away."
The "bag skate" suddenly seems to be a trend in the NHL and Gulutzan makes a good point -- there's no proof that it's effective in any way other than sending a "message" to the media that this coach is pissed and serious about things. With Gulutzan being the type of coach he is, suddenly changing your ways and destroying the team in a practice likely isn't going to send the right message and he's right that there's no guarantee that it will even work, aside from getting the team angry at him.
What needs to happen is for Gulutzan to work with his coaches and his players to figure out what is going wrong. Is it just an issue of effort and being outworked? Is there something else going on systematically that is having a ripple effect on the rest of the team?
Last season, it seemed as if Crawford decided to let the players figure it out on their own. Gulutzan is a much different coach and now he's facing his toughest task yet since coming to the NHL level; he needs to find a way to get this team back to earth and back to playing the sort of hockey they had become known for when the season started.
There is one discouraging aspect of these losses -- the goaltending hasn't been very good. The Stars were likely going to lose these games no matter what but it's demoralizing when the goalies are allowing bad goals at the same time. Just like every loss this season, this can't be put directly on Lehtonen either, as the team in front of him fell apart.
"The first thing after a loss like this you self-evaluate yourself," Gulutzan said. "If I had a rewind I probably would have taken Kari out after the second. We hung him out to dry twice tonight, our players did, and maybe we did leaving him in too long. He's a battler, and he comes in mad at himself after second period, when we hung him out to dry. We let him down completely."
There's a saying in sports that you hear every now and then and I think it really comes into play now: You're never as good as you look in big wins and you're never as horrible as you look in bad losses.
The Stars have won some big games this season, including a 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals that suddenly had everyone talking postseason. The general feeling about this team was one of elation and confidence after that win, something that has likely dissipated since. The Stars -- right now -- aren't as good a team as they appeared in that win against Washington and they still have a lot of room for improvement and growth.
They are also not as bad as they appeared in this humiliating loss to the Florida Panthers. The only thing to do is to learn from it, remember that feeling of embarrassment and use it in the next game. Learn from the mistakes and listen to the coach, who won't abandon his team in their time of need.