There are many things to be thankful for this month with the Dallas Stars. Thankful a five-game losing streak came in November and not March. Thankful that an incredibly hot start gave this team a cushion to deal with some early-season struggles offensively. Thankful that when the injury bug has hurt this team it's come with plenty of season left with which to get fully healthy again.
During last night's loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, the Stars suffered three more significant injuries as Trevor Daley, Vernon Fiddler and Kari Lehtonen all left the game.
Fiddler is being listed as "day-to-day" right now with a groin injury and coach Glen Gulutzan said that Lehtonen had a "bit of a groin pull and will be further evaluated on Sunday. Daley apparently injured his back, and his status is not known as of this morning.
This means that for at least the game on Monday and perhaps a few games longer, the Stars could be without six significant pieces of a team already struggling to compete with the talent level of the Western Conference.
Obviously the big news is the injury to Lehtonen, who has been the backbone of this team this season and helped propel them to their 13 wins. While it doesn't appear to be an injury that will keep Lehtonen out for long, there's a good chance that backup Andrew Raycroft could be started a number of games over the next week or so.
It was interesting to see the reaction of Stars fans to the injury, with some immediately calling this a lost season with Lehtonen between the pipes. To be fair, it looked to be a much more significant injury at the time and we have since learned that Lehtonen's groin was injured and not his knee and that it doesn't appear to be incredibly serious.
Andrew Raycroft has yet to win a game this season for the Dallas Stars, with Lehtonen being between the pipes for each of the team's 13 wins. Raycroft has been susceptible to long-range shots sneaking through at times and has been far from perfect in net, leading fans to panic a bit with the prospect of him playing long term. Yet Raycroft has played well overall this season, despite the lack of a win, and he stated after the game that he feels comfortable taking over in the short term with Lehtonen out.
"I've been a starter in the league and, to be honest, feel more comfortable with it most of the time," said Raycroft after the game. "You can get into a bit of a rhythm. I don't know how it's going to play out, but it looks like I'll get a couple games in a row. It will be nice to feel a rhythm and just kind of get the pace of play down and get better reads. I am looking forward to that."
There is something to say about the fact that Raycroft will get the chance to find some consistency in his preparation, as so far this season he's only played in the second game of back-to-back scheduling. That's a tough task for any goaltender and while he's been far from perfect, the Stars should have faith in a goaltender who has the ability to at least carry the torch for a week or so.
"'Razor' has been the guy before, and that's why we got him, for him to handle situations where we felt like we need two goalies," said coach Glen Gulutzan. "He's going to be the guy here Monday for sure and if he has to carry the ball for the week then I have no problems with doing that and I don't think he does either."
With the Stars just 2-6-1 in their last nine games, it's understandable that fans are feeling a sense of panic. Just as it looked like the Stars had turned things around from their 5-game skid and were playing very good hockey, three more players go down and the backup goaltender is now going to be relied on to help this team turn things around.
Raycroft has certainly not been perfect yet it seems too much blame has been placed squarely on his shoulders for these losses. It must be noted that the team in front of him has not played well when he's in net and certainly hasn't been able to provide the same level of scoring support that starter Lehtonen enjoys.
In the games in which Raycroft has played, including last night's loss to Pheonix, the Stars are averaging just one goal per game and have been shut out twice. Last night, when Raycroft entered the game, the life left the team in front of him and the Stars showed no fortitude in overcoming the adversity facing them with the injuries suffered in the game.
"We didn't have it tonight and the injuries didn't help," said Raycroft. "You go down a goalie and then down to five D in the first five minutes or whatever it was, it's tough, especially against a team that works hard down low. They kind of took it to us a little bit at times during the night."
Coach Gulutzan was especially tough on his team, making it clear that he was unhappy with his team's compete level after the Stars suffered a letdown early in the game.
"I don't think we responded great. I am not taking anything away from Phoenix. They outplayed us tonight, no question," Gulutzan said. "But I thought there was a little window of opportunity if we had some kind of jump that we could have pushed this game as a good road game, and kept it 1-0 or 0-0 for a while. We didn't get a call early and after that we didn't respond with any life or any enthusiasm. We just let them take the game to us."
The Stars cannot panic and they have to get back to what had them playing so well in the three games following that five-game losing streak. This was a team working hard once more and playing as one cohesive unit on the ice, smothering teams like Los Angeles and Edmonton for long stretches of the game. Even in a loss to Toronto the Stars played exceptionally well, all before falling apart in Phoenix.
The Stars are now going to have to fight through this adversity with a few more young players on the roster, as the Stars are likely to call up at least a forward after this latest round of injuries. To have to do so with your backup goaltender in net just adds to the mountain that must be climbed, but this is a team built to overcome such obstacles.
What we should be most thankful for is that all of this is coming in November and not later in the season. There is still plenty of time to continue to grow as a team under Gulutzan and to get healthy once more -- if the Stars can survive this early-season onslaught, imagine what can happen once the team gets Alex Goligoski and Adam Burish back. The trick, of course, is to just get back to what made this team so good to start the season: hard work.
"We got to do the little things right," said Stephane Robidas. "We can't beat ourselves up. We got to support each other, play hard and play for one another, play as a five-man unit as much as possible."