...and so it has come down to this.
Ten games, 20 days and one heck of a brutal four-game road trip is all that stands in the way of the Dallas Stars in their fight for the team's first postseason appearance in four years. As we enter the final home stretch of the NHL season, the Stars find themselves precariously holding onto their lead in the Pacific Division and even more importantly -- barely holding onto a playoff spot at all.
The Stars find themselves just a point ahead of San Jose and Los Angeles, with the Sharks holding a game in hand on the Stars and both teams finding themselves in a winning streak of their own. The Stars are also just three points ahead of Calgary, who sit in the 11th spot in the West. The only team that is still trying to right the ship is Phoenix, who have won just two of their past nine games and face the Stars in a very crucial matchup on Tuesday at the AAC.
The 10-0-1 run was instrumental in putting the Stars in a position to control their own postseason destiny, yet with two straight losses the Stars suddenly find themselves in a pressure packed situation where each game is more important than the last. The Stars must also find a way to win these games in regulation, since the remaining games on the schedule will all have a direct influence on the Western Conference playoff race. The Stars are getting no help and they'll have to find a way to do it all themselves.
The question, of course, is how the Stars are to hold off an extended slump after losing the past two games by a combined score of 9-3. All the Stars have to do is look back at what was the catalyst for the 11-game points streak and get back to what they did best: the basics.
After the All-Star break, coach Glen Gulutzan changed the approach of his hockey team. There was an adjustment period and the improvement wasn't immediate, but the Stars steadily played better and better hockey before vaulting to the top of the division thanks to an incredible 10-0-1 run. The streak was fueled by the players embracing this new, simplified approach that looked to cut down on unforced mistakes and shored up the defense in front of the goaltenders.
At the same time, Gultuzan worked diligently to not expose his best players defensively and to focus on better employment of his lines in a strategic manner we hadn't seen the first half of the season. The changes paid off in spades as the top line of Loui Eriksson, Micheal Ryder and Mike Ribeiro exploded to become the hottest top line in hockey over the past month -- fueling the surging offense over the first half of the streak.
Unfortunately, signs of the coming struggles were showing. The Stars, in an effort to minimize mistakes at the beginning of games, found their offense drying up in the first 20 minutes -- a drought that has carried over the past four games. After scoring 3 or more goals in their previous nine games, the Stars have just six goals in their past four, and unsurprisingly lost the two games where goaltending failed to carry the team.
For the Stars to right this ship and to make the final ten games of the regular season just a precursor to a postseason berth, the staples that led this team to big wins over Vancouver, San Jose and Calgary must return. The Stars were outworking the opposition with energy and physicality and a suddenly-potent transition game, resulting in a confident hockey team that stifled their opponents as the games wore on.
The past two games the Stars have been beaten by teams that won puck battles, that executed better in crucial moments of the game and more importantly, cashed in on the opportunities they were handed. What was most frustrating about these past two losses is that it's tough to say the Stars were exactly dominated; the losses were due to breakdowns over a short period of time that led to goal outbursts by the Jets and the Blackhawks. The Stars fought as hard as they could outside of those moments, something to hold onto when looking at the standings each night.
Many fans have looked at the past two games and wondered if this will lead to a similar collapse like the Stars suffered through last season after losses to Vancouver and Boston. The Stars are a different team than last season and despite how bad these past two losses looked on paper, the Stars never once gave up or stopped fighting. The fundamentals, however -- the basics that led then to this position in the first place -- abandoned the Stars and it is that basic approach they must get back to in order to have a shot at the postseason.
What's happened is that the intensity and the emotion that has fueled the Stars over the past month has been absent in these two games, something we saw starting against Anaheim and Minnesota. The lack of an ability to win puck battles, to accurately move the puck in transition and maintain possession in the offensive zone have all been issues the past week -- and the Stars paid for it against two good teams. Look no further than the fact the Stars have now gone two straight games without a power play for a sign of just how these losses have gone.
Saying the Stars need to "work harder" is a bit disingenuous, however, and is unfair when attempting to quantify the reasons for these two losses. The intensity the Stars rely upon to fuel their game was sapped by walking into the gauntlet in Winnipeg and then never had a chance to build up when Chicago netted two goals in the first two minutes on Friday night. The Stars still showed "fight" in those losses and not once did it seem the Stars gave up and more importantly, didn't give in to mental breakdowns that have accompanied similar losses in the past.
Heading forward, the solution is simple and clear: get back to the basics. Glen Gultuzan must find a way to get the offense rolling again without overexposing his offensive players (something we'll touch on tomorrow) while shoring up the defense, which has struggled without Sheldon Souray. Gulutzan must remain diligent in his zone start strategy, something he's gotten away from at times over the five games or so. Emotion and energy is important, but basic and fundamental hockey is what got the Stars to this spot over the past month and it's what will get them to the postseason.
The Stars must remain confident and learn from the past two games, something much easier said than actually accomplished. It's tough to accurately judge the Chicago game, as the two early goals derailed any attempt the could have had at rebounding from the Jets loss. The Stars fought hard in both games against large deficits and fell well short but if there's anything to build on is that this team didn't give up, when the Stars might have done so in years past.
It's just been two losses but at this time of year, in the crowded Western Conference playoff race, any prolonged stumble could have a devastating effect. The buffer the Stars had built for themselves has quickly disappeared and it's entirely possible that by the time the Stars take the ice on Tuesday night they find themselves completely out of the playoff picture altogether. For the Stars and their playoff dreams, halting this slide at two games is absolutely crucial -- especially considering the schedule these final 10 games will follow.
Hard work, defensive responsibility and good goaltending. The keys to actually winning seem so simple yet for the Stars are so immensely important. They used these fundamentals to get out of the muck and into this spot in the first place, they can use these fundamentals to recover from this slide and fight for the playoff berth we all desire so much -- no moreso than the players themselves.