Dallas Stars Need To Mop Up Own Mistakes in Kari Lehtonen's Absence

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Stars have to address holes in their ship usually plugged by Kari Lehtonen, and quickly if they're to stay in playoff contention.

It's hard for Dallas Stars fans to know how to feel after Sunday's 4-3 regulation loss to the Calgary Flames.

It's just one game, and Dallas sits 7th in the West Monday morning, technically. They enjoy increased play at home coming up. Kari Lehtonen's injury is not thought to be serious. Reilly Smith and Cody Eakin are heating up. They don't have to play the Flames again until March 18th.

It's not so bad, right?

Then again, the Stars had been 71-0-8 when leading after two periods dating back to 2009 before yesterday. Then again, the defensive mistakes yesterday weren't a one game problem. It's been a 16 game problem. And they're going to have to win some back-to-backs and games without Kari Lehtonen to make the playoffs.

The reality is that Dallas now sits 11th in the Western Conference in points percentage at .531, just a hair above a Calgary team that took four precious points away in less than a week. Those losses, despite coming in a 5-2-0 stretch, could cost them big time in April and they know it.

"It's very disappointing, very disappointing that we didn't come out with two points here at home," Glen Gulutzan said. "We needed to be stronger in front of our net. You got to be battle ready for 60 minutes. I think we just lost some battles."

"60 minutes" could be a big theme moving forward.

The Stars out-played the Flames in Calgary for the second and third periods, but the first left them too far behind. They escaped with two wins in Edmonton after sub-par first periods, never putting the full 60 together. Then Vancouver took Dallas to task for 40 minutes before the Stars scraped out a dramatic come from behind win Friday night.

Sunday the Stars had a phenomenal second period after an abysmal first that saw them take penalty after penalty, record only four shots on goal, and trail 1-0. Three goals in the middle frame and Dallas looked destined for points, but a flat performance in the third as Gulutzan detailed de-railed what could have been a reassuring home win.

The failure to execute for 60 straight minutes continues to haunt them as they fall to .500 on the rapidly progressing season with eight wins and eight losses.

"It's very frustrating," said Reilly Smith, who scored his second NHL goal Sunday. "With the big win in Vancouver it's kind of not worth it anymore because with those two points that we should have had tonight. We let them go."

The win in Vancouver was certainly worth it, but his point is well taken - Their record in the last two weeks is technically trending upward, but the satisfaction taken after losing two of three to a team they know they can beat is nearly none.

The Stars now carry that bad taste in their mouths into three off-days, and a list of questions emerge:

  • Defensive coverage has been a problem for 16 games now, but it clearly needs to be better in front of Bachman or Nilstorp if they're to record points in Lehtonen's absence. Can the team elevate its defensive game immediately to keep pace with the West while Lehtonen's groin heals?
  • In the absence of that, can Nilstorp or Bachman steal a game or two and keep Dallas in the playoff race?
  • Dallas has enjoyed depth scoring in recent games to keep their goals-per-game at, or north of three since Derek Roy's return. Is this just the beginning for Reilly Smith and Cody Eakin, now separated but both contributing on the score sheet?
  • How long will Trevor Daley be out?
  • Can Jordie Benn help stabilize a defensive core that's forever changing its personnel and pairings? Will Jamie Oleksiak be recalled as well if Daley is to miss significant time?
  • Can an NHL blue line with as many as FOUR first or second year players really compete for a playoff spot if it comes down to it?
  • Will they mix in a back-to-back win, or are there five more scheduled losses essentially on their schedule?

The Stars will get to answer some of these at home in the coming weeks, but now face the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, San Jose Sharks on Saturday, finally, and the Nashville Predators on Monday. That's a salty trio of games against what are traditionally playoff-caliber teams. Can they overcome two losses in a week to the lowly Flames and rise to playoff position as the calendar transitions to March?

That's a lot of questions, and the discourse here and in the media is short on real analysis of late.

Forgive us, but that's just the kind of season they're having. They looked set, with relative health and continuity of line combinations, to put together a decent sample size with a full complement (sans Ray Whitney) of players and the analysis would then begin, but just as things were getting good they again lost two significant cogs in Kari Lehtonen and Trevor Daley, and the re-shuffling begins anew.

Injuries are a part of any season, but particularly this shortened one. The Dallas Stars coaching staff, players and trainers will continue to adopt that "next man up" mentality and prepare guys thusly if they're to overcome this problem (that 29 other teams share.)

They can batten down the hatches defensively, no matter the goaltender, and hope their new found offensive depth continues, or miss the playoffs again. Finding consistency for 60 minutes at a time in the face of ever-changing odds is their job, and it's a tough one. The mistakes against Calgary Sunday cannot be repeated if the playoff drought is to end.

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