It was déjà vu in the worst possible way.
Less than one week after blowing a 2-0 first period lead in a 7-3 loss to the New York Islanders last Monday, the Stars somehow managed to do it all over again on Sunday night.
Goals by Ray Whitney and Sergei Gonchar had the Stars up 2-0 after one. They still led 2-1 after two. But in excruciating fashion, Dallas allowed three goals in the final five minutes of the third period, ending with a 4-2 loss in a game that was very, very winnable.
New York's top line of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Thomas Vanek ran roughshod over the Stars' defenses all night long. They never ceased their pressure, and it came as little surprise when the dam finally broke with Okposo scoring the tying goal at 15:44 and then Tavares with the winner at 18:36. Brock Nelson scored the empty-netter to seal it.
Dan Ellis got the start for Dallas and looked good, stopping 27 of 30 shots, but didn't receive much help in front of him.
The losses continue to mount for the Stars, just when they thought they might have finally stopped the bleeding. The same questions will be asked, but with a playoff spot steadily fading away the urgency to somehow find the answers has now reached a new level of importance.
Things started off well enough for the Stars.
After losing five straight, it was clear from the drop of the puck that Ruff wanted his team to play safe, smart hockey to ensure that the game started off on the right foot. The teams went back and forth up the ice, but were fairly tentative with their chances.
Dan Ellis, looking to rebound after giving up three goals and getting yanked following the first period against Detroit a few games ago, did a good job keeping the pace of the game slow and under his control, covering any loose pucks that came his way.
The Stars got on the board first thanks to a wonderfully executed, seemingly innocuous dump-in from the trio of Vern Fiddler, Alex Chiasson and Ray Whitney. Fiddler chased the puck into the corner and chipped it over to Chiasson behind the net, who then instantly threw it out to Whitney in the slot. Whitney fired it into the top corner behind Isles goalie Kevin Poulin, finishing off the bang-bang play.
Dallas extended their lead to 2-0 in the dying minutes of the frame thanks to a strong individual effort from Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar pinched in on an unsuspecting Brock Nelson by the blueline, picked his pocket, and then slid into the open slot before wiring home a beautiful wrist shot for his first goal as a Dallas Star.
Play opened up a bit in the second period, and like in past games, when that happens it usually doesn't go well for Dallas.
Okposo cut the Stars' lead down to 2-1 following a precision tic-tac-toe series from the Islanders. Taking the puck in their own zone after a missed Dallas chance, the Isles forwards raced up the ice on an odd man rush. The Dallas defenders, coming off of a line change, couldn't get set up and didn't come anywhere close to shutting down the passing lanes between Okposa, Vanek and recent Star-killer Tavares.
New York had a great chance to tie the game not long after thanks to a shorthanded breakaway by the speedy Michael Grabner, but Ellis won the mental waiting contest and forced Grabner to go wide and lose his shooting chance.
With a 2-1 lead and only 20 minutes to go, all the Stars needed to do was hold on.
The Isles, unsurprisingly, came out pressing, and despite some shaky defending, the Stars were still finding ways to do what they needed to do. Pucks were getting cleared, lanes were being shut down, and Ellis was making the saves.
That was until Okposo's second of the night with under five minutes remaining. Okposo skated over the blueline, was given far too much time and space, and released a sharp wrist shot that went past Alex Goligoski's attempted block and up past a screened Ellis.
The goal wasn't only deflating, but it was momentum-shifting. The Isles were energized, the Stars looked disheartened, and the team fell into the same defensive problems that have plagued them recently after looking pretty good for most of the game. Just a few minutes after Okposo's goal the Islanders went into the Dallas zone with ease, and defenceman Calvin de Haan floated a nice pass past a floundering Trevor Daley and a listless Goligoski to, who else, Tavares at the side of the net for an easy tap in.
It was an unfair ending that happened in an all-too-familiar fashion.
Thoughts and observations:
- Where to even begin?
- Confidence is an elusive thing to find, and after five straight losses coming into today's game the Stars certainly looked like they were lacking it. The early two-goal lead provided a nice spark, but when it came time to defend and the Islanders started coming on strong the confidence started to disappear again. When Okposo scored to tie the game the ice clearly started to shift, and Tavares' winner, unfortunately, certainly felt like something that was coming.
- Something something...powerplay struggles...something something. The refs didn't call much tonight, giving the Stars only two powerplays, but still. When you're going up against the 30th-ranked penalty kill in the league and are trying to snap a losing streak, that's something that absolutely must connect.
- Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were fighting the puck all night, turning it over with regularity and failing to generate anything offensively. As a duo it might have been their worst game of the season. Seguin's point drought has now hit five games.
- The pairing of Daley and Goligoski got clowned by the Tavares line all game, especially on the 3rd goal. Daley was on the ice flailing, nothing resembling textbook defending, and Goligoski let the puck get through the crease to Tavares without much resistance.
- To their credit, the veteran Stars played well tonight. Whitney and Gonchar's goals were beauties, while Vern Fiddler got an assist and came through with two huge shot blocks on a 3rd period penalty kill while Dallas still held the lead. All three players have been through major losing streaks before, so that's nothing new to them. That's where the benefits of experience and veteran poise come through.
- This loss might have been the most frustrating one of the current slump, and that's saying something. Losing to the Islanders again, after they took Dallas' lunch money on Monday, as well as missing out on at least one point by giving up the game-winning goal in the dying minutes just like against the Rangers are both gut-punches. Being back on home ice was bad too.
- The next game up is against the Edmonton Oilers, who are last in the West, on Tuesday. It's a game that the Stars have a very good chance to win, but I don't even want to think about what will happen if they don't.