Wednesday night's game against the Philadelphia Flyers was very similar to a few games we've seen from the Dallas Stars over the past few years. The Stars during that time have been a wholly inconsistent team, unable to string together five to six truly strong efforts, with a slight stumble here or there in between. That time of consistency is what separates the top teams in the NHL from those that fight for a playoff spot and after the loss to the Flyers, it's apparent that the Stars fall directly into the latter category.
One theme that has held true during that time is that when the Stars get frustrated and the game gets out of hand, the score gets completely out of control. Think of the Boston Bruins game from 2008, the Anaheim Ducks game from 2009, and the Flyers and Bruins games from last season as well. The Stars, especially this season, have shown a propensity for losing big -- they play extraordinarily well in tight games and win most games by one or two goals; when they lose, however, it's usually by multiple goals when everything has fallen apart around them.
Against the Flyers, the Stars fell victim once more to the more in control and talented team. While it's tough to say the Stars were grossly outplayed in the game, it's undeniable that the Stars failed to take advantage of their chances while the Flyers certainly cashed in on theirs. Once again, the penalty kill struggled and with the Flyers breaking the game open with several power play goals, it was unfortunate to see the Stars giving them chance after chance.
As has happened earlier this season, and is something the Stars have actually managed to turn around over the past month, the Stars were on the wrong side of most penalty calls and for the most part felt the decisions made by the officials were not exactly correct.
"You can probably watch the same replays on the Jumbotron, and can answer your own question about how good some of the interference calls were out there," said Steve Ott. "But you can't take anything away from Philadelphia's power play. It was a strong effort and I thought they were pretty solid."
For this game, it's tough to argue with some of the issues the Stars had with a number of the penalty calls against them. This was one of the most atrociously officiated games I've seen in a very long time and the referees allowed this game to get out of control in a hurry; once it did, the officials overreacted with bad calls in a vain attempt at regaining control.
When you have players being penalized for high sticking on an obviously embellished head-snap and then several misconducts handed out for seemingly nothing, it's no wonder that frustrations mounted for the Stars. The problem is that, as we've seen over the past few years with this certain group of players, is that when games like this start to happen they allow the officiating to become the focus of their attention and not taking advantage of the opportunities they have on the ice.
Brenden Morrow certainly didn't hold back after the game, perhaps indicative of the mentality of the Stars last night at American Airlines Center.
"It's just a little embarrassing when all you have to do is throw your head around to get a penalty call," said Morrow. "I think I got two sticks in the face and if you don't fall on the ice or throw your head back to make it look obvious they are not going to see it, they are just going to apologize for it. I let them know it. I've been in the league 12 years now and I know what's worth a 10 because I've had plenty. With the big lights of HBO or Versus tonight, they got a little sensitive."
While for those of watching the game last night it was obvious how bad the officiating was, there's no excuse for the Stars allowing their emotions to once again control them. This is something that coach Glen Gulutzan has been preaching since the penalty issue reached disastrous levels, and something the Stars had actually fixed over the past few games.
Yet against the Flyers, a team they actually played well enough against at even strength, the story of the game came down to the fact that the Stars allowed the Flyers to get the upper hand once special teams became the story of the game.
"I thought they capitalized on their power plays and we didn't capitalize on ours," said Gulutzan. "I thought five-on-five the game was pretty even. It's just specialty teams came into play and they beat us at that game for sure."
What's frustrating the most about this game is the fact that the score isn't exactly indicative of how the game actually went. For the most part, the Stars played very well against one of the better and more talented teams in the NHL, except when it came to special teams. The Stars were unable to take advantage of their opportunities, once again, yet the Flyers used two power play goals in the first and the second period to take control of the game.
With the Stars down 2-1, the home team came out hot in the second period and put eight shots on goal in the first six or so minutes of the period. This included a power play opportunity early in the period that provided a prime chance to even the game at 2-2. Instead, the Stars were unable to cash in on several prime chances and the power play fizzled.
Sheldon Souray was then hit with a questionable slashing call, the Flyers scored on the ensuing power play, and the frustration and physicality immediately escalated for both sides. The Stars would show more fight in the period with several good scoring chances up close, yet failed to take advantage -- all the while being shot in the foot with several bad penalties as the period progressed.
This included misconducts to both Adam Burish and Morrow, taking two of the Stars' best emotional players off the ice for ten minutes each in the most important part of the game.
"They've got a great high scoring team," said Ott. "They are the top scoring team in the league and if you give them chances on the power play, you are going to shoot yourself in the foot."
The Stars would play well enough in the third period, but by this time -- against a team that good -- overcoming a three-goal deficit was just too much. It also felt like the Stars had let their emotions get a hold of them once more and after that frustrating second period, just didn't have the fortitude to really mount a counter attack.
"Jagr has made a career of it and playing with a skilled guy like Giroux, they are going to make you pay," said Morrow. "We got on the wrong end of it a couple times and skilled guys like that are going to find a way."
Perhaps the best example of how the night went happened after the first period, as the Stars were leaving the ice and heading to their locker room. Steve Ott, as he always does, stepped aside to talk to his team as they passed by. Peter Laviolette decided he wanted to get through the tunnel at the same time, and Ott was having none of it. The two got into a bit of a shoving match, with Laviolette eventually just pushing Ott out of the way.
"It's disrespect of our building. Just let our team off. It's not that big of a deal," Ott said. "He obviously thought he has a higher power than everybody else and a little bit more arrogance than most coaches in the NHL. That's probably the first time I've seen that. I would never do that against Philadelphia if I was in their building. Just show a little respect, that's all."
For the Dallas Stars to truly take the "next step" and seriously contend for a playoff spot like they desperately need to, they can't allow themselves to lose control in games like this one. Too many times over the past few years we've seen games just like this one and, what's scarier, is that we've seen losses like this devolve into demoralizing losing streaks as they struggle to rebound from the frustrations of such a game.
This season the Stars are showing more consistency than in the past but it's still not enough. Too many losses are blowouts, too many wins are come-from-behind, third period victories. We tout this team's heart and fortitude in the wins but then that all disappears in losses like this one, or the one against the Devils, or the Red Wings, or the Panthers.
The Stars don't have the talent to overcome games like this one on a regular basis and must, absolutely must, find a way to not allow their emotions to get the better of them. With Morrow and Ott on the bench, that's a tall task, but we've seen that this team can be better than that. What we need to see is that they can overcome these issues on a more consistent basis and not allow every loss to be of epic proportions.
While this game wasn't just about the emotions or penalties or special teams breakdowns, that became the real story of the game because the Stars allowed it to be. Instead of focusing on more defensive breakdowns or blown opportunities on offense, instead we spent all night talking about officiating and emotion and frustration.
This team needs to be better than that. We know they can be better than that. They must, absolutely must, rise above this problem we've seen for too long now. Until that happens, the postseason will continue to remain a dream.