The Dallas Stars are facing a brutal ten-game home stretch on their path to the postseason and while they still hold control their destiny, another loss in a crucial game could change that fact very quickly. With the playoff race becoming more crowded with each passing day in the NHL, the Stars cannot afford to hope that after two bad losses the team will suddenly get back to what was working so well in the previous eleven games.
It's unfortunate that going 10-0-1 in March doesn't do more for a team's standing in the playoff race but with the Stars, the points streak at least thrust them into the driver's seat. With the Stars appearing to slow down a bit before the two losses, it's possible that a shakeup of sorts is needed in order to shock this team back into playing the type of hockey they excelled at during that run. Fundemental defensive hockey, great goaltending and opportunistic offense.
Unfortunately, it's the offense that has dried up a bit -- even before the losses to Winnipeg and Chicago. In the past four games the Stars have scored just six goals, and have scored in the first period just once in the past nine games. The Stars, after enjoying an offensive outburst the past three weeks, have cooled off. The top line in particular, which had been doing so well, has suddenly gone dry the past five games.
First, let's look at the issues with the idea of shaking up the top two lines once more. What we're essentially saying is that the Stars should go back to the line combinations that the team started the season with:
Morrow - Ribeiro - Ryder
Ott - Benn - Eriksson
The problem, as we all know by now, is that the top line struggled mightily on defense while producing little offensively. The Stars quickly shook that up by putting Ryder with Benn and Eriksson -- then putting the Ribeiro-Ryder-Eriksson line together when injury necessitated the moves, which eventually resulted in 43 points for the trip over a 30-day span.
What we also know is that the combination of the new top line also coincided with the zone start strategy shift by coach Glen Gulutzan, which put the top line in a better situation to succeed and didn't place as much defensive responsibility on players whose offense is by far their best asset. The subsequent returns of Jamie Benn and then Brenden Morrow from injury have messed up that formula a bit and it's for that exact reason that changing the lines back actually makes sense.
Unfortunately, the Stars have struggled on offense the past four games while attempting to work Morrow back onto the roster. Mike Ribeiro has just two points in his past five games and Michael Ryder hasn't scored a goal since the Anaheim game a week ago. While the prior strategy with the top line was working, the Stars have struggled to integrate the same strategy with the new combinations and in effect have severely limited the effectiveness of the best player on the team.
Right now, with the top line getting 60% offensive zone starts Gulutzan has had to counter by essentially using Jamie Benn and Steve Ott as a checking line. The second line is seeing anywhere from 40-45% offensive zone starts in most games, which was working fine with Benn and Ott paired with Tomas Vincour or Adam Burish.
With Morrow on that second line with Jamie Benn, however, the Stars are seeing some major offensive issues. Morrow has never been the best defensive forward and this season he's struggled more as he fights through injury. His value still sits in the offensive zone, something we've seen with his goal-scoring since his return four games ago. It makes no sense, however, to be forcing Morrow into a situation where he's just not comfortable -- the same situation he was in on the top line at the beginning of the season.
The Stars, if they revert back to the zone start strategy that was working so well, have a player that could be exceptionally effective in that same role on the second line. Loui Eriksson, the best puck possession forward the Stars have outside of Jamie Benn, is just as good at Benn at pushing the offense up the ice from the defensive zone and creating chances -- for himself and his teammates.
This is why Benn and Eriksson worked so well together to start the season as their game compliments each other's perfectly. Right now, Benn is being forced to not only become a checking line center but is also being relied upon to create the offense for the other forwards on his line. For a player that is the best pure goal-scorer this team has seen since Mike Modano, it's taken away his strength and forced him to play a style that is obviously not taking advantage of his best abilities.
Placing Morrow on the line with Ribeiro and Ryder could potentially create another defensive nightmare, but not if Gulutzan once again makes an effort to get that top line 60-65% offensive zone starts and keeps their focus on creating offense. Ribeiro and Ryder are at their best when putting sustained offensive pressure on the opposition and Morrow should fit into that scheme perfectly.
This would also lead to the Stars reuniting their two best players and in the process, hopefully freeing up Benn to do what he does best -- score big goals and create more offense. Benn is at his very best when he's not being relied upon to create all of the offense for his line, or at the very least doesn't have all of the extra responsibilities of a checking line center while still being a beast on offense. As good as Steve Ott and Brenden Morrow are, they just aren't the sort of forwards that compliment Benn so well in that role.
With Eriksson, Benn would be a bit more free on offense and wouldn't have to do it all himself. Eriksson is just as good as Benn in some ways at creating his own offense and is just as good in transition in moving the puck out of the defensive zone. The change in zone starts shouldn't hamper Eriksson if he's playing with Benn and in effect gives the Stars two top lines that are dangerous offensively -- something they've been working for all season long.
There are many other issues the Stars are having to deal with right now, not just the offensive production of the top lines. If the Stars can once again get the defense and transition game in order, then the rest of the problems with goal scoring will likely come around as well. Word out of Frisco is that the Stars will be moving forward with the same lines as the past four games and a shakeup isn't planned -- at least not yet.
If you were paying attention, Eriksson finished the Chicago game on the same line as Benn and Ott. It's going to be interesting to see how quick Gulutzan will be to make that change again if the Stars come out flat offensively against Phoenix, and especially if they lose such an important game tomorrow night.
Gulutzan has shown us this season he isn't afraid to change things up in order to get the most out of his team and if a third straight loss looks to be on it's way, we shouldn't be surprised if the two best players on the Stars find themselves playing together with the game and the season on the line.