NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 16: Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils scores over the shoulder of Richard Bachman #31 of the Dallas Stars at 12:12 of the second period at the Prudential Center on December 16, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Dallas Stars and the Pacific Division have been on a roller coaster all season long. After jumping out to a monstrous 11-3-0 start to the season, the Stars are 7-9-1 since and have had to deal with all sorts of injuries -- including nearly a month-long absence from MVP Kari Lehtonen.
On top of this, the Stars are still fighting through a slump by their top players. Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson both have three points in the past two games, but it's going to take more than a few points to ensure that the best players on the team are finally pulling out of a slump. The Stars defense has also become erratic, playing nearly perfect hockey against the Islanders and Rangers before completely imploding against New Jersey.
At the same time, the rest of the division has failed to take advantage of an up and down Stars team. After the loss to the Devils, the Stars fell back down to 8th in the division with San Jose taking over the top spot in the Pacific. With the West once again (and for the final time) becoming an insanely tough race for the postseason, the Stars best bet is to take advantage of the inconsistencies of the rest of the Pacific. The Ducks, Kings and Coyotes have all struggled this season -- with San Jose the lone team to actually step up to take on the Stars.
With Dallas welcoming the Ducks to the AAC tonight, the Stars have another chance to not only get two valuable points but to take advantage of an increasingly weak division. So far this season the Stars have failed to do so and how they play from game to game, and against the Pacific, is what is going to matter most.
Going 3-2-0 on a five-game road trip that included both coasts is nothing to be ashamed of. While the meltdown to the Devils is a bit disconcerting, it's the fact that the Stars seem unable to continue to build on momentum that they've generated and play consistent hockey over the course of a week.
There's also the fact that once again the Stars are the only team in the top eight in the West with a negative goal differential. The Stars are struggling to score goals this season and have won just one game all season long when allowing three or more goals. The Stars win close one-goal games while generally being blown out in losses. It's an interesting dynamic to see how the Stars play so well in close games yet allow games to get completely out of hand once three goals have been scored.
The Stars are also just 5-5-0 against the division this season, something that is going to have to drastically change. Because of the division heavy format to the schedule in the latter part of the season, the Stars are going to once again have to fight off the Ducks and Kings and Sharks and Coyotes if they hope to make the postseason. Last year the Stars failed miserably in this regard, losing big games against the division at the worst time of the season.
The Stars have to find a way to play more consistently and to do so without being forced to play in tight games in order to win. The fact that this team plays so well in one-goal games is extraordinary, but only seven of the team's 18 wins this season have come by more than a goal. Compare that to the fact that just three of the team's 12 losses have been by one goal.
Perhaps this is who the Stars are right now, a team that must keep the games close in order to have a chance. Knowing how to win in tight games is exceptionally important in the postseason but the trick for this team is actually get to the postseason in the first place.
The good news is that unlike in previous years, the Stars have been able to get most of their wins outside of the shootout. The three-point games that killed the Stars in recent seasons have not been there this year, but the Stars need to find a way to take the next step -- playing consistent against the division and against the conference, and doing so week to week.
Winning three games by a goal each and then getting blown out in two straight games is far from a recipe for season-long success. The Stars are fighting against low payroll, injuries and a brand new coach and so far have exceeded all expectations in the process. What we're looking for is a tough task indeed, but one that is needed in order for this team to finally get to the postseason after three miserable, long years.