What is perhaps most amazing about hockey and what makes us love this sport so much is how important nearly every single decision and outcome on the ice may be. While, for some, it seems like the game is mostly players passing the puck around and fighting for the puck along the boards, in reality it is those battles that truly define the game.
The ability of a team to excel at the small stuff; to win those battles, to cleanly complete their passes, to cash in on the rare prime scoring chance they receive -- that is what separates the top teams in the NHL from those at the bottom.
Against the St. Louis Blues on Monday night, the Stars were unable to win those small battles -- something that's happened at times this season, and something that is almost excusable considering the unfortunate travel situation the team was forced to go through before the game. Yet in an 82 game season, learning how to consistently be the team that excels at those details is what will ultimately mean making the postseason and going home early. It doesn't matter how talented your team might be, if the details are slipping by you're just not going to win. Ask the Washington Capitals about that one.
"It's small details, it's little things that make a big difference in the game," said Eric Nystrom, when asked specifically about the problems of the penalty kill. "It's an inch. You put your stick in one lane and it should be in the other, and that's where they get the puck moving from side to side. It's little things like that. Sometimes you are rock solid and kill 25 in a row, and then sometimes you feel like you can't stop it from going into the net. That's why it's a long season. But that's why we got to have a little more desperation."
The Stars certainly didn't have that desperation on Monday night and while they weren't grossly outplayed by the Blues -- in fact, I'd contend the game was closer than some are giving the Stars credit for -- the Stars weren't able to compete in the trenches well enough and unfortunately didn't receive the goaltending they needed to keep their heads above water.
With the Stars looking ahead to the likely return of Kari Lehtonen on Thursday night, there's a increasing feeling that it can't come soon enough...
It's tough to fault Richard Bachman for what's happened the past few games. After just one full season in the AHL, he was suddenly thrust into the temporary starter's job when Andrew Raycroft fell to pieces. Showing some freshness in net and catching the NHL a bit by storm, the team then put all of their weight onto his shoulders to the tune of eight straight starts over the course of two weeks. That's a tough burden for any NHL goaltender and for Bachman, perhaps Monday night was just the breaking point.
There's a thought he's been a bit overexposed at this point and perhaps overused, but the Stars uncertainty regarding Raycroft has meant that starting Bachman was almost a necessity. Even if the Stars are planning on keeping Bachman up as the full time backup once Lehtonen returns, there's still the thought that the Stars should have started Raycroft anyways on Monday.
Whatever the coaching decisions behind the scenes may be, there's no denying that Monday's loss to the Blues is one that Bachman will be taking a good portion of the blame for. This was a game when the Stars, shorthanded on defense and dealing with an idiotic travel schedule, needed their goaltender to be the best player on the ice. Fair or not, there are times when a team needs the goalie to make those big saves to make up for mistakes on the ice. Against the Blues, not only were those saves not made, but Bachman allowed a few goals that an NHL goaltender just should not allow.
"There's no question a couple of those goals he wishes he had back," said Glen Gulutzan. "Some nights when your goalie maybe isn't as good you've got to get it from somewhere else and we didn't get it from those other areas."
It's a symbiotic relationship between the team and the goaltender, when there are nights when the guys in front have to make up for an off night by the netminder. Unfortunately, this was one of those nights when everyone was off and it showed, especially with the penalty kill once again allowing two goals in a game.
Bachman is a steady goaltender with great mechanics and positioning, when he's fresh and on top of his game. After a roaring start to his NHL career, perhaps getting some time sitting on the bench will do him well -- especially if Lehtonen is the one back in net.
Since becoming the full time starter for this team last season, Lehtonen for the most part has been that goaltender with the ability to make up for the shortcomings of the team in front of him. He makes those big saves, making them look easy, that keeps the team in the game and makes up for the mistakes that are made in front of him. More importantly, Lehtonen rarely allows those demoralizing soft goals that have plagued the Stars at times over the past month -- something this team has trouble dealing with emotionally at times.
This wasn't just about the goaltending, however, and as mentioned at the top the Stars struggled at times with the details of the game. There's a trend now this season, that when this team is struggling they fail to move well without the puck -- not skating as hard on the backcheck or failing to put themselves in the right position when in the offensive zone. It's the simple but important things and it's the difference between a loss like the one to the Flyers, and the win against Nashville on Friday night.
"I think we got outbattled a little bit tonight. They seemed to have an extra step all night," said Alex Goligoski. "That's pretty much it. They came pretty hard and were able to establish their game better than we were ours."
The Stars will try to right the ship, once more, and gain the consistency they need to make a push for the postseason starting on Thursday. If Lehtonen does in fact return, then the Stars will be regaining most of their team healthy just in time for the New Year. The short term prognosis of Sheldon Souray and Stephane Robidas is unknown, but it appears that the Stars have fought through injury trouble early in the season and still remain in position to make a run for the playoffs.
Even with a healthy team and Lehtonen back, the Stars will need to find a way to correct their special teams issues. This has been the problem all season long and while the Stars had apparently fixed the penalty kill, that is suddenly a problem as well. The Stars aren't scoring on the power play and the penalty kill is struggling; certainly not the recipe for success for an undermanned team against an ultra-competitive Western Conference.
"Coming on the road against a good defensive club we needed to put more pucks on the net. Our specialty teams need to be better," said Gulutzan. "Our power play needs to be better. Their PK generated more shots than our power play and they scored two power play goals. It's hard to win on the road, especially against this type of club, if your specialty teams aren't good. "