How many teams are celebrating in this photo?
Last season the Dallas Stars were famously eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the season, in the final game of the season after a loss to the Minnesota Wild left them on the outside looking in... With 95 points.
They became just the second team ever to miss the playoffs with such a point total. In the post lockout NHL teams have made it routinely with anywhere between 89 and 93 points. It was a cruel fate.
The good news, you say, is that this years pace in the West isn't nearly 97 points, right?
It wasn't last year either. Not on All-Star weekend.
No, on All-Star weekend 2011 the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche were in a three-way tie for the West's 8th best points percentage at (.560). A pace, which simple math will tell you had the 8 seed on track for 92 points. This year the West's 8th best points percentage is on track for...wait for it...92 points once again at a slightly better .561 (Minnesota Wild).
Glen Gulutzan has said repeatedly that his team needs to be playing their best hockey in February and March. Given what the rest of the West did last year to quicken their pace after the break, 'he ain't lying'. The Predators, Coyotes, Ducks, Hawks, Sharks, Canucks and Kings all upped their points percentage paces after the break last year. The Red Wings were the only team that actually dropped their pace a little and made the playoffs.
The Hawks, Sharks and Kings, all mucking around with the 8th, 9th and 11th best points percentage at the break last year, dramatically increased their play to solidify their spots. The Kings went 19-8-5 after the break last year, the Blackhawks 18-9-5, and the Sharks 23-6-3. That's some good pushing when it counts. Can the Stars push that hard?
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Can the Stars push that hard? Will they need to? History suggests that teams will make these kinds of pushes. 92 points could be enough, one supposes, if they beat the right teams along the way, but can you count on mediocrity to continue when the season turns to it's most intense stretch? Probably not.
Speaking of beating the right teams, the Stars are basically in a five team race for the last playoff spot as things sit right now. San Jose, Vancouver, Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville (look out for Nashville) and Chicago have taken themselves out of this conversation by seriously taking care of business. You might put the Kings up on that level as well.
That leaves the Stars looking up at that 8 spot again, and they know who their enemies are...
|Games Remaining||Points||Points %||Matchups Remaining|
They can't catch Colorado directly. Those match ups are gone, but the rest of them should be like playoff games. They should be like 10 super bowls where the Dallas Stars are concerned. The first match with the Wild got away, but they have three more tries. Calgary swept the Stars last year and all four of those match ups are ahead of them.
Dallas surrendered five points to the Kings last year after the break. Los Angeles finished three points ahead of the Stars. They surrendered four to the Ducks in dramatic (painful) fashion after the break last year. The Ducks finished four points ahead. The Stars beat the Wings and Sharks last year repeatedly, as well as top teams from the East. You could rearrange the Stars wins and losses last year, leaving it at 95 points and get them into the playoffs easily. These head to head match ups with the direct competitors are the ones that they simply must have.
The Kings are, perhaps, the only team you can see falling back into this group as far as teams far and away "ahead" currently. Los Angeles looks like they're starting to figure it out and put it all together, however. The new coaching staff is settling in. They won't go on scoring as little as they did with that much talent forever, and they made a great second half push last year.
The Stars could help their own case there by beating the Kings in their only remaining meeting (at home, February 12th) but the thing that might bring the Kings back down to this level is the fact that they play 20 of their last 32 games on the road away from Staples. They've been pretty good on the road, going 10-5-6... err have they? LA actually has less wins than the Stars do but the thing that puts them up into that top grouping is the fact that they keep games close and when they lose, they do it in OT. Ask the Phoenix Coyotes, that won't get you anywhere in April, but it will get you into the tournament, at least. Dallas could do well to learn from that lesson.
The Ducks are a threat to move up into this group. They're confident, healthy, and if not for some puck luck and Kari Lehtonen the other night they should have entered their break on a ten game point streak of 9-0-1 because they were certainly the better team. Dallas can help bury them by coming out of the break and defeating them at Honda Center next Wednesday.
Players don't have the luxury of saying "let's beat this team instead of that team." They have to dial it in every night. We have that luxury, though, and we know that three wins against the Canucks down the stretch would be far less valuable than three wins against the Flames, or the Wild.
95 points should have been enough last year, but they didn't get them from the right places. Perhaps if they do this season, 92 or 93 points might, might do the trick.