With 79 games in the books in the 2011-2012 season the Dallas Stars, incredibly, sit right where they were last year with three games remaining: 9th place - On the proverbial outside looking in. For now.
Two facts are worth noting here on this precipice of a Monday morning. One is that they still control their own destiny and that this ride has been a fun one that most didn't expect any of us to be witnessing
The other, unfortunately, is that they've dropped six of their last nine now. They've lost none of those in overtime/shootout situations, and when you look at the fact that Los Angeles and Phoenix are now on the brink of accomplishing the Stars' goal with fewer wins and a boatload of "loser points" in the bank, you have to wonder if that's the difference: Losing "the right way". Keeping games close.
It's painfully illustrative of the tightness and ultra-competitive nature of the Western Conference.
Yet having lost six of nine by an average goal differential of -2.33, the Stars will focus on what these last three can be moving forward.
"We are where we are and, like I said, we still control our own destiny," said Glen Gulutzan late Saturday night. "We don't need someone to beat somebody else. We just need to win our last three games."
That's a tall order. 2-0-1 might be good enough. 2-1-0 might even be good enough under the right circumstances, and we'll talk about that here shortly. Either way, a reversal of a pretty ugly trend is what's necessary to get the job done in these last six days.
The Sharks, in their dominance Saturday, offer a lesson to be learned - Or an example to follow.
San Jose had just come off of two performances that they felt simply weren't good enough against competition (Anaheim and Phoenix) they feel shouldn't be holding to them to a single goal in six periods of play. They responded authoritatively against Dallas with two goals in a 17 minute span, and in doing so, appeared to have saved their season.
The Stars have no other choice now but to believe that they can do the same.
"You look at how much their attitude changed in one game," said Steve Ott of San Jose's desperate situation coming into that last game. "We can do the same thing, but we have to go out and do it on the ice."
"What exactly is the path to the playoffs at this point?" you might be wondering at this point. Let's discuss after the jump....
Option 1 is simple: Win out.
Win out and you earn 95 points. Earn 95 points, the same number as last year, and you very likely get in. Don't even worry about what other teams do with this number. You will have cost San Jose two points along the way, or perhaps just one, but either way they best they can do at that point is tie you at 95. The best thing the Stars have going for them is the ROW tiebreaker right now.
A more favorable scenario, perhaps, is that the Stars beat the Sharks in regulation, win one of either @Nashville or vs. St. Louis, and finish with 93 points. If San Jose drops one to Los Angeles then you're tied at 93 points, and again, the Stars win the tie breaker.
Either way, it really all boils down to winning Tuesday night's game first. Looking past that is, perhaps, a fruitless exercise at this point. One game at a time. If other recent tilts against Calgary and Vancouver were "the biggest games of the year", then there does not exist sufficient terminology in the English language to describe this next one.
(Those of you wanting to interject a third scenario, believing the Coyotes will drop two of three against the Blue Jackets, Wild and Blues, can form a line to the side and then just stand there for a while... We're moving on).
We could break down these next three games endlessly at this point.
We could point out that the Stars are 1-4-0 against San Jose this year. We could talk about how the Sharks have out-scored them 20-8. We could say something about the fact that the Stars have been out-shot 193-129 in the season series (wow...), or about how all the 50/50 pucks were won by San Jose players Saturday night. We could even have a lengthy discussion about how the Sharks are 23% on the power play this season against Dallas, and how they've had 22 power play opportunities to Dallas' 12 in head-to-head match-ups.
We could break it down like that for each of these three remaining games to try and glean a little sliver of what's to come in this most important week of 2012.
But none of it matters tomorrow night.
It's one game. It's 60 minutes. More importantly, it's several hundred individual battles, and that's where the Stars need to be better Tuesday night than they were Saturday. The back to back woes have been well documented, but the issues were really on display in San Jose this weekend. Whether it was let-down from the night before, or the travel, or the weary legs... It doesn't matter. Tuesday night they get the Sharks in their building, and both teams will be rested. This one is pretty much a winner-take-all battle. What happened in those other games matters not.
It's a game seven, essentially.
The tension will be, or at least should be, ratcheted up as high as any game at the American Airlines Center since, perhaps, another game against these Sharks. You might remember that night in May of 2008.
I know you'll be there if you can. You should try to enjoy it, the actual physical, gut wrenching discomfort of it all aside. We should all enjoy it. We say we want playoff hockey... We essentially have it on Tuesday. We've been saying that for weeks but this really is it. It's the end of the line.
The Stars still control their own destiny. We control an opportunity to influence it a little Tuesday night at the AAC, by the way.
Take heart. It ain't over until it's over. This is what it's all been about.