ANAHEIM, CA - JANUARY 10: Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars picks up a hat following the hattrick goal by Saku Koivu #11 of the Anaheim Ducks (not shown) at the Honda Center on January 10, 2012 in Anaheim, California. The Ducks defeated the Stars 5-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
We're now 41 games into the season and the Dallas Stars sit on the precipice of a playoff spot. They've survived a major slump through November and into December and recently enjoyed a bit a good run the past week. However, the Stars are 5-5-0 in their past ten games and currently sit minus-5 in goal differential, a significant sign of a team flirting with mediocrity.
The good news is that the Stars are gearing up for a time in their schedule where they're facing a number of teams fighting for the same spot in the standings, those final 2-3 spots in the Western Conference that will likely have seven or so team competing for them. The Stars, for better or worse, can't seem to be able string a number of wins together and haven't won three games in a row since Richard Bachman blasted onto the scene back in December.
More importantly, the Stars have broken down at times against teams they absolutely must beat. Losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Anaheim Ducks -- teams in the middle of horrendous seasons -- are going to become very painful once the standings tighten up even further once we reach March.
Through the first half of the season, it's easy to see what sort of team these Dallas Stars truly are. This is a team who can ill-afford injuries to certain players and while there is more depth than in the past, the lack of true depth at the center position was more than apparent last night.
"We've got to capitalize on our opportunities," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "We did have some opportunities early and especially in another team's building if you get a chance you've got to make good on it. That's the key. I didn't mind our defensive game and structure, but at the end of the day you've got to get points."
In a way, you could see the outcome of this game coming after the first five minutes.
This is a team that tends to lose in spectacular and frustrating fashion and last night's loss to the Ducks was not the first time this season the Stars have been the better team for most of the game, only to walk away losing by multiple goals. The Stars went down 1-0 early in the game off a brilliant redirect of a shot and responded instantly by putting intense pressure on the Ducks for the remainder of the first period.
The Stars absolutely dominated the Ducks for most of the first half of the game, yet some bad bounces -- the Stars hit three posts early in the game and Jamie Benn missed at least two open-net chances -- ended with the Stars down 2-0 at the end of the second period.
It was an odd game for much of the first two periods and it's tough to find fault with the performance of the team through 40 minutes; down their #2 center and playing with seven defensemen, it was obvious this was a team trying to find balance in any way possible as they mixed and matched lines. Because of missed opportunities, the Stars spent most of the game chasing the Ducks, something this team absolutely cannot afford to do when playing shorthanded.
"Capitalizing on your chances is the key," said Gulutzan. "I think we hit four posts in the first period. Maybe if one of those goes maybe we're not chasing the game."
This seems to be the case with many Stars losses of late, as the team fails to take advantage of early opportunities, while playing well. Then the opposition makes adjustments later in the game and the Stars fail to adequately respond and what was once a close game with the Stars playing well turns into a case of the Stars falling apart later in the game and losing in a massively frustrating fashion.
Think of the recent losses to Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Count this loss to the Ducks among those as well.
"We stuck with the game plan and you saw the result early in the third. They called a timeout and came at us pretty strong and put a lot of pressure on us," said Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas. "There were a few breakdowns and that's what happened. I think we played a pretty good game for the first two periods and early in the third, but after that they just took over."
Robidas hits the nail on the head perfectly for this game, although his sentiments -- along with the coach's and the rest of the team -- seems to be a common thread in most of these losses lately. The Stars "played well" but a few "breakdowns" cost them and then they lost, but they'll be right back at it and aren't worried about their performance because overall, the team played well for most of the game.
Unfortunately, for these Stars and this roster, playing well for "most of the game" usually isn't good enough.
The Stars have played some exceptionally good games lately, with incredible performances against the Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers, as they were able to control the game for most of 60 minutes. Yet the Stars never seem to be able to string along those types of performances in order to really get a good streak of wins going, something that is going to hurt this team significantly when it comes to fighting for a playoff spot.
It's tough to ask a team to play at 110% game after game and every season there will be letdowns. The Bruins, Canucks, Red Wings...these teams all have letdowns over the course of a season. What separates those teams from the Stars, however, is that those letdowns happen much less frequently than we've seen this season with the Stars.
The Stars have had injury troubles this season, like most teams, and it's apparent that there are injuries these Stars cannot afford to suffer. The loss of Ribeiro, for however long it may be, had a massive impact in the offensive balance this roster desperately needs. The Stars tried to hang everything on Jamie Benn last night, who looked anxious and a bit unsure of himself after a few miscues early.
Credit goes to the Stars for fighting back early in the third period, who obviously went into the locker room for the second intermission and told themselves they were the better team and they needed to show it early in the third. Two quick goals, both created by pressing the puck offensively, tied the game and suddenly all the bad breaks of the first 40 minutes were forgotten.
Unfortunately, the Stars failed to continue that level of play and broke down as the game progressed in the third. Offensive miscues led to costly turnovers and the Ducks responded with three heartbreaking goals in the final 10:28 of the game, leading to yet another frustrating loss for a team that is struggling for consistency.
For their part, the Stars acknowledged that while they played well for most of the game, those breakdowns late can never happen -- especially after working to the tie the score as quickly as they did.
"Pretty much the whole game we played the way we wanted to, up until we tied it there and then we turned a few pucks over and we didn't get back quick enough," said defenseman Alex Goligoski. "It was a disappointing way to end the game. We scored enough to get back into the game and we just kind of handed it right back to them. You can get as many scoring chances as you want - if you give them a few in the last 10 minutes there, it's not a good recipe for success."