When it was announced that Jamie Benn had been lost anywhere between 10 days and three weeks after having an emergency appendectomy, a panic arose among Dallas Stars fans. Already without Mike Ribeiro until after the All-Star break with an injured knee, the Stars were now headed into an incredibly crucial part of the season without their best players on the ice.
The struggles this season by the Dallas Stars have been well documented, a team that shows great poise and hard work yet follows that effort up with a letdown against a lesser opponent. This is a team that has been inconsistent for most of the season and it was hoped that the Stars were heading into a stretch where their best hockey was ahead of them -- exactly the opposite of what happened last season.
From the start of this season we've known that the Dallas Stars would once again be fighting for the playoff chances, something not many national pundits even felt was possible. This is a team that had lost Brad Richards to free agency and didn't have anything near a true replacement at center. While the money allocated to Richards went to helping shore up a depleted roster -- arguably leaving it deeper than before -- there's no doubting that the elite talent on this team drops off after the top three or four players on this roster.
So it was, without Benn and Ribeiro, the Dallas Stars set off on a superbly tough two-game task of taking on the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings. Coach Glen Gulutzan talked about "structure" and "simplification", teaching his team that if they played as a one united group and played aggressive in that system, they'd at least have a chance against two of the best teams in the NHL.
The Dallas Stars did just that, playing a gritty game against both teams and playing each game much closer than anyone could have predicted. The question we're now left with is whether this team can sustain that level of determination and effort against lesser teams and more importantly, will that effort level remain once Benn and Ribeiro return?
The Dallas Stars, despite playing so well against the Blues and Red Wings -- much better than expected -- still earned just one of a possible four points in the two games. The Stars are now 0-2-1 in their past three games and still sit on the outside looking in at the Western Conference playoff picture. The good news is that the Stars still control their own destiny, with games in hand on most teams above them and head-to-head matchups on their way.
While the Stars wait for Benn and Ribeiro to return, two players so obviously vital to this offense, they take on two struggling teams in the Wild and the Lightning. Ideally, these teams would be games the Stars should win against and have -- for the most part -- this season so far.
The key is for the Stars to continue to not only build on the great team efforts of the past few games, where they've outchanced the opposition only to fall victim to a lack of execution, but to use that level of performance in a winning effort against beatable teams. The Stars must find a way to parlay these gritty games, ones they should be commended for, into actual victories if there is to be a chance for the Stars at least have kept their heads above water with their top players out.
What's been most interesting is to see how the Stars have approached the team game -- and been more consistent with that approach -- without Ribeiro and Benn on the ice. The change to the team approach was done by neccesity and has been embraced by each player on the roster, although the loss of the two centers has had a significant impact on the offensive execution by this team in general.
The hope is that the Stars are able to maintain this level of team play and grit, not just through this weekend, but when Benn and Ribeiro return. It's as if, in the past, the players around them were waiting for the playmakers to create chances for them and it led to some poor decisions on offense; with both out, the rest of the roster realizes they must create these chances themselves.
While the execution has been lacking, the simplification of the Stars attack has led to a number of chances around the net -- something the Stars have had trouble with for most of this season. The Stars, especially with Benn and Ribeiro, are capable of scoring some fantastic goals; yet they also get caught trying to make that perfect play too often and it costs them offensive opportunities. The goal here is to combine the two approaches, with the hope that the team approach on offense has just as good an affect on the defense as we've seen so far this week.
The Stars have also received several standout performances this past week or, not just with Jamie Benn on the shelf. These players have stepped their game up and have helped lead the team approach the Stars are embracing.
Trevor Daley, vastly underrated by the Dallas Stars fanbase, has had perhaps his best season yet as a Dallas Star. Yet he's taken his game to a new level this past week, playing exceptional defense while still maintaining his offensively-minded aggression. He hasn't been putting up the big numbers, yet his consistency as a defenseman has also helped to calm down Nicklas Grossman, who was in the midst of the most uneven season of his career.
Mark Fistric, himself having a rollercoaster season, has also stepped up the past few games. While he'll never be much of a puck-mover, being paired with Alex Goligoski has helped Fistric find his way physically and has set the tone for the hard-hitting approach this team is taking now. Fistric has struggled at times this season when taken out of his comfort zone, but with the right partner on defense is capable of being a physical and destructive force in his own zone.
These two defensemen, unheralded at times and underrated by most, have stepped with the Dallas Stars facing extreme adversity. They, along with every other player on the ice, have embraced a team approach that took two very good teams to the edge of defeat, barely missing wins in both games. The Stars need each player to have the same impact, to step up like Daley and Fistric have and be even more instrumental in the team game the Stars are playing.
It's almost worked twice now, but almost is never enough. The Stars must start turning these solid performances into victories or we'll be talking at the end of the season about another team that was easy to root for and worked hard, but just wasn't good enough in the end.