Last season the Dallas Stars made a big surge in December and January that pushed them to the top of the Western Conference and gave them the upper hand in securing the Pacific division title. Yet the Stars momentum stalled after the All Star break and the team rode a downward spiral into the playoffs. A team that was just a few months prior threatening Detroit for the #1 overall seed was suddenly unable to win two games in a row, a trend that started at the trade deadline.
However, the Stars were able to find a spark that propelled them all the way into the Western Conference Finals. Two huge series wins over division rival Anaheim and San Jose gave the team and the city of Dallas a sense of hope that this team could return the Stanley Cup back to Dallas. Even though they eventually lost to Detroit in conference finals, the fact they fought back from a 0-3 deficit had the team labeled as one rife with veteran leadership, grit, heart and determination; all the traits a true champion embodies within.
Those four vital traits are woefully missing from this year's Dallas Stars.
Several factors have led this team down the path of underachievement and no one thing can be singled out as the reason the Stars are facing the notion of missing the playoffs. While the opportunity is still there and by no means are the Stars out of the race, this team has failed time and again to seize an opportunity when it presents itself and quickly climb the ladder up the Western conference standings. So let's take a look at these issues and some things the Stars desperately need to do better to prove they are capable of pulling ahead in the playoff race.
Brenden Morrow, oh how we miss thee. Brenden Morrow's worth to this team is immeasurable, but his absence was never more noticeable than during last night's woeful power plays by the Stars. Dallas was 1 for 6 on the power play against the Lightning but the one goal came after the Tampa Bay had already scored a short handed goal. The Stars have struggled this season trying to find the right lineup at the point positions and have been unable to fill the void left by Sergei Zubov's injury. Recently the Stars have shown a new found chemistry on the point and starting to work the puck through the zone much cleaner yet things still aren't clicking like most are used to. Yet here is where the Stars are in need of a player like Morrow: right in front of the net. They Stars need a guy who can just park himself in front of the goalie and finish a play, whether it's off a rebound or a quick pass from the corners.
During last night's game the Stars had perhaps a dozen wide open chances from the slot area and none of those times could the player complete the play. Dave Tippett has experimented with different players in that spot all season and none have worked out well. Louis Eriksson is having a great season and is blooming into a legitimate goal scorer but a stalwart in the crease area he is not. At least four times against the Lightning he had prime opportunities with the puck on his stick as was unable to finish; most times it appeared he wasn't ready for the pass or wasn't in the right position for the rebound. The Stars had plenty of chances to put the game well out of reach in the opening period yet failed to cash in.
Steve Ott has been perhaps the most consistent player in front of the goalie yet lacks Morrow's quick hands and tenacity. The Dallas Stars' power play the past few years has been built around Brenden Morrow's abilities. Funnel the puck to the neck from the outside, let the man in front do the rest. With Morrow's absense and Zubov's injury the Stars have been unable to find the answer to how to move on without these two playmakers.
While the power play isn't the only thing going wrong with the Stars it has prevented them from taking the next step as a team. The Dallas Stars' tenacity and forechecking leads to a lot of power plays yet the team is unable to take advantage. These missed opportunities without fail will come back and haunt a team not just in a game but in the playoffs as well.
Killer Instinct. For the past two or three years the Stars have fallen into a very bad habit: they thrive in the underdog role and live off of desperation. Two years ago the Stars had a string of games where they continuously came from behind to pick up the win in the third period. It was their best season ever when it came to winning after trailing in the third. Unfortunately as soon as the Stars would build a lead in the game the air went of them and their energy was sapped. This trend has carried over through last season and is now kicking the Dallas Stars in the teeth. This year the Stars have been down 2-0 early in the first period more times than at any point in the past. The Stars have come out flat but don't pick up the energy until they've been scored on a few times. Unfortunately this year's team lacks the skill and fortitude necessary to gear up a comeback night after night. Lately the Stars have been able to buck the trend and score first, they've also been able to come from behind and steal a game.
The problem is that when the Stars get a lead they are incapable of maintaining it. Last week against the Sabres the Stars were coming off an emotional victory over the Detroit Red Wings and raced out to a 3-0 lead. They played perhaps their best period of the season to start the game, and then went flat from there on out. The Stars eventually lost 5-4 in a shootout. Monday night against Tampa Bay the Stars held a 2-1 lead for most of the game and then allowed the Lightning to score three unanswered goals in the third period to win the game.
This is a trend that has gone on all season. The Stars have allowed too many late period goals that either swung momentum away from Dallas or allowed the other team to tie the game in the last few minutes of regulation. This leads us to the next point:
Winning in regulation: The Stars have earned 21 points this season from games that have gone to overtime. Unfortunately only four of those points have come from wins in the overtime frame itself. The Dallas Stars have become a team of shootout specialists: the Stars have the best record in the NHL in the shootout since it was adopted after the lockout. That's impressive but at times is feels like this team is playing for the shooutout because they know that have a pretty good chance of getting their two points there. So the team let's up a bit, doesn't play as hard and makes mistakes which leads to opponents scoring late to tie the game or even go ahead at the end for the win. These extra points are ones that wouldn't have existed just a few years ago and now the Stars are staking their living on these three point games. In the past few years Dallas has used these extra points for leverage in the conference standings; this year the Stars are trying to play catchup but failing to gain any ground on the teams they have given these extra points away to.
This laissez faire attitude towards a lead and the games themselves has started to haunt the team. Dave Tippett has stressed to his team to treat every game like it was a playoff game yet the team has consistently failed to gain the extra ground in regulation and continues to rely on overtime to get two points. The Stars have been on an upward swing as of late and it has renewed hope in the team and the fans. Unfortunately most of the wins and points have all come in these overtime games and has masked what is really wrong. If the Stars have any, any desire whatsoever of turning things around then they must find a way to get a win within the original 60 minutes of the game.
Lack of leadership. All of the above points can be easily addressed by internal leadership. The problem is the Stars don't seem to have any. With the departures of Mattias Norstrom, Stue Barnes, Phillipe Boucher and Jeff Halpern and the injuries to Sergei Zubov and Brenden Morrow the Stars have been unable to fill the void caused by the lack of veteran leadership in the locker room. Last year in the playoffs all of the hockey world watched as Morrow single-handedly rose up to become a magnificent leader for this team in the absence of Halpern and Zubov. He was a force on the ice and the drive and heart behind the team off of it. Yet the Stars were visible effected by the loss of Barnes to a concussion in the playoffs last year and his decision to retire in the offseason.
As the Stars are assembled currently the team is aimless and without direction. They have struggled to find an identity within themselves after a wave of new faces inundated themselves in the locker room. The Stars have plenty of capable and talented players that have shown the potential to be an extremely dominant group. Other times they stumble and skate without purpose and seem unsure of themselves. This flip in personality is directly linked to a lack in leadership. Brad Richards is the most consistent and talented playmaker on this team yet he has hesitated to take over as the man in charge in Morrow's absence. Mike Ribeiro, Stephane Robidas and Jere Lehtinen are all too quite and unassuming to be the force needed in the locker room.
So the onus falls on Mike Modano, the face of the franchise and one time captain. At times this season he has played like a man ten years younger but has been unable to corral those around him to focus on a singular goal. Yet in the past Modano has not needed to be the lone leader and always had another veteran to fall back on, whether it was Derian Hatcher, Stu Barnes, Guy Carbonneau, or even a young Morrow. This season he alone is the grizzled veteran the others look up to and it seems he is uncomfortable with that task.
Never before has one players' absence been so noticeable than Brenden Morrow's. There's no telling how this season would have played out with him still playing but it wouldn't be debatable if the team had a leader, heart or determination.
This team needs a change. Things are too inconsistent, the effort questionable. Perhaps there are too many young players getting used to increased roles on the team and their just going through growing pains together. Perhaps a move for a skilled defenseman is the simplest way to get things turned around. A firesale is a possibility, but not likely. Whatever happens, the Dallas Stars need to face the reality that talking about things getting better won't make it happen on their own. It's getting down to dire straits and pretty soon this team will be looking at the playoffs from the outside wondering where it all went wrong. Well, we're in the middle of it all going wrong and if the Stars can admit that then the path to correcting it is that much easier.