Lack of Execution, Not Lack of Heart, Has Dallas Stars Facing Uphill Battle

The reaction was nearly uniform and almost instantaneous. In a way, you can't really fault anyone for feeling like they did, but in reality there are times we must all take a step back and focus on the things that actually matter.

After last night's heartbreaker of a loss to the Anaheim Ducks, the Dallas Stars fanbase was angry. Betrayed, in a way, and angry that yet again in this stretch of very important games for the Stars the team allowed a late-game lead get away from them and lost out on some very important points. That it happened to the Ducks, yet again, made it all the more painful.

This anger and frustrated manifested into cries for change, from the coach on down. This isn't a team that can make the playoffs, the collective cry went, and this isn't a team that has the heart to do what it takes. "They don't care," some people said.

It's easy to let our emotions consume us. We're all hardcore Dallas Stars fans and most of us (perhaps all of us) live and die with this team. For those of us that have been with the Stars since the early 1990's, the last few years have been unfamiliar territory for a proud franchise. For the relatively new fans, the frustration of never truly knowing glory mounts. 

The game against the Ducks was perhaps one of the most painful losses I've had to endure in recent memory. Perhaps the Game 7 loss against Vancouver in 2007 would be next on the list. This was a game that was billed as the most important game of the season, a win against the Ducks would give the Stars complete control and give them the upper hand on a playoff spot.

The Stars, however, could not finish it out. They played hard against a very good team and were five seconds away from Stars fans everywhere rejoicing in a great victory. Five seconds, and yet everything is so completely different. I don't understand how such a short span in time can make things so incredibly different, yet in the world of sports that is all that takes. Five seconds -- the difference between staking a claim in a playoff spot and now hoping for some help along the way. Five seconds, and the Stars couldn't hold on.

Despite everything that might changed in just five very short seconds, the Dallas Stars are still the same team they were before Teemu Selanne's goal. That goal doesn't get scored, and we don't question their "heart" or how much they "care" about winning. Taking that stance, with this team and with these players, is selling both the Stars short and selling ourselves as fans short. It's the easiest way out for fans, to claim the players don't care as much we do. So questioning their heart is worthless and won't get us anywhere.

What we can question, however, is nearly everything else.

The Dallas Stars focused after the game on moving past this painful loss and focusing on the next game against Nashville. While most fans perhaps wanted to hear the same heartbreak and anger from the fans that everyone else felt, if we sit back and think about the team's attitude is certainly the best one to have. The fact is, there is still a lot of hockey to play. This game against Anaheim was the biggest of the season, but this is how funny the NHL is nowadays; every game from this point forward is bigger than the last. 

The Stars are lucky that if the Ducks beat Nashville tonight, the game on Saturday suddenly has more riding on it than the game against the Ducks did. We may talk about how "luck" may be against the Stars this season, or how "destiny" doesn't want the Stars to make the playoffs, but the simple fact remains: the Stars put themselves into this position.

In just the last few weeks alone, the Stars have let four very attainable points get away from them -- four points that would have had the Stars in a much better position today. 

The last time the Stars faced the Ducks the Stars allowed a 3-1 lead to slip away, turning into a 4-3 overtime loss. The Stars outplayed the Flyers in nearly every way possible, yet they were unable to overcome a 2-0 deficit and eventually lost in the shootout. A shootout loss to the Calgary Flames was yet another opportunity wasted, as the Stars once again were unable to overcome a first period deficit. 

Combine those three games with the loss tonight, and it's easy to see why the Stars are fighting for the playoffs.

In every game, we can point to three very critical factors for the Stars' failures when it mattered most: poor starts, poor special teams and lack of ability to sustain pressure with a lead.

Each and every one of these issues have been present since game one. The difference between now and the difference between December and January is that for whatever reason, the Stars are unable to overcome their own shortcomings. Some may say that their good fortune is finally catching up to them, but in reality all it boils down to is execution when it matters most.

Blame it on coaching. Blame it on the lack of a cohesive system, or lack of continuity on the lines from one game to the next. Blame it on injuries or fatigue. Blame it simply on the fact that it is very likely that this is exactly what this Dallas Stars team is, a team that is almost there but just isn't quite good enough.

There are certainly changes that need to be made, personnel decisions that will affect the future of this team. We can all agree that while the core of the Stars is a good team, changes must be made for the Stars to truly take that "next step".

This team has some very serious flaws and holes throughout the lineup that must be filled. The issues that have haunted the Stars all season long -- special teams, slow starts, special teams, slow starts -- I doubt are going away anytime soon. The question becomes whether the Stars will find, once again, the ability to overcome their flaws and fight their way into the postseason. 

You have to wonder sometimes about a team that appears to be directionless without a grinding, agitating forward on the ice (although, perhaps that speaks more about Adam Burish as a leader than anything else) and we can question the leadership in the locker room. There are times when it seems the Stars are two completely different teams and there's two personalities fighting for domination over the other. The lack of consistency is troubling and it leads to more questions about coaching and once more to questions about the "system". 

Yet for now, for the rest of this season, this is the team we have. And this is the team that we must continue to root for in the next nine games and -- hopefully -- into the playoffs. When we look back at what occurred in the final minute of the third period, it's impossible to claim that the Stars weren't trying and that they lacked the heart to hold on for the win. The Stars were trying their best to get that win, and if you have any doubts about how much that loss hurt them -- go back and look at the Stars after Selanne's goal.

I guarantee you the team felt the pain from that goal just as much as the fans. 

There is still time for the Stars to buckle down and do what needs to be done. The season is not over, despite what many might have felt in the minutes and hours after that loss. If the Stars continue to come up short, then we'll focus on the changes that must be made. 

I'm reminded of the Philadelphia Flyers from last season, when with just a few games left in the season it appeared they were done -- the season over. The fans were looking ahead to next year and the team was being questioned about it's heart, the decisions that were being and whether they had anything left to even fight for the playoffs. It took the final game of the season (a shootout no less) for the Flyers to make it, and they went on to go all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

It's amazing what can happen once the playoffs start. Sometimes the teams that have to overcome the most end up go farther than anyone could ever imagine. The Dallas Stars have themselves a very tall mountain they must climb to get there...but the journey is far from over.

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