We are now over a third of the way into the season and we're still trying to figure out just who the 2011-12 Dallas Stars really are. What is this team's potential? Do they have the ability to overcome one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL and compete for a playoff spot in the ultra-talented West?
Through the first 15 games of the season we felt the answer was unabashedly "yes" but as the season has progressed and injuries have revealed just how precarious this team really is, a postseason berth is obviously far from a certainty.
Against San Jose, it was apparent that this was a hockey team fighting for balance and chemistry -- something that Glen Gulutzan was hired to help create. While he's certainly done some great things the Stars continue to struggle in similar ways from game to game and when things break down like they did against San Jose they are unable to overcome them against superior teams.
When the goaltending continues to have a severely negative impact on the game as well, it becomes too much for an under-talented team to work through. The Stars showed a lot of fight against the Sharks before the life was sucked from them once more, and therein lies the new debate among Stars fans.
Like the Islanders game, the Stars found themselves down big and early to the Sharks -- and then steadily worked themselves back into a tie game. The Sharks scored two goals within 15 seconds just 1:22 into the game, with a flurry of an onslaught that caught both the Stars and their netminder completely off guard.
"They poured it to us and put bodies in front. They were going hard to the net," said Brenden Morrow. "When you throw pucks at the net and you've got people banging and crashing, good things happen. We didn't do it enough and they did."
The big news on the night was that after allowing 5 goals on 23 shots in two periods, the Stars turned to Richard Bachman in the third. With the Stars facing a 5-2 deficit there was no risk in seeing what Bachman could do against a team with the ability to put a lot of pucks on net. He responded to the challenge, stopping all ten shots he faced -- some in spectacular fashion.
Let the debate begin.
There is always a question as to just how much one player can have an effect on a team sport. When the game relies on six players working together on the ice to reach a singular goal, why would just one player have an impact on the rest of the team? It's a question that's played out all the time in football, especially when a team's defense plays differently depending on who is their quarterback.
For the Stars, the debate is now about how much Andrew Raycroft is negatively having an effect on the team in front of him. Despite playing spectacularly against Colorado and decent against Ottawa, Raycroft has completely fallen apart in the past two games. Allowing ten goals on his last 49 shots, Raycroft has been inconsistent in nearly every way in net and it's having an incredibly adverse effect on the team in front of him.
The main issue is with Raycroft's rebound control, which has become steadily worse. While the Stars' defensive coverage has certainly been far from perfect, there's an argument that some of the breakdowns have come from the absolutely horrid control that Raycroft has had on some the shots he's faced. When teams are having to deal with rebounds being punched directly back into the crowd or even right back into open and prime scoring chances, it throws off the coverage and can lead to penalties as the team scrambles, as well as goals.
The biggest issue over the past two games is how Raycroft has allowed two demoralizing goals very early in the game and the Stars have been forced to attempt and come back. Against the Sharks, Raycroft allowed another goal from distance against Logan Couture before playing way too aggressive on the next rush, allowing an easy open-net goal when he over-committed on the rebound.
When you see a goaltender over-comitting and consistently finding themselves out of position, it's a certain sign of a lack in confidence. Right now Raycroft is allowing the fundamentals of goaltending to get away from him and it's costing his team early momentum.
Even worse -- and as was the case against San Jose -- Raycroft has seen the team in front of him come back and tie the game, only to allow a devastating goal to give up the lead. Those goals suck the life out of a team after they have worked hard to come back and it happened on Thursday night, as the Stars and Raycroft allowed three goals in a six-minute span in the second period as the Sharks blew the game wide open.
While Raycroft certainly cannot be blamed for the continued offensive struggles of the team's top lines, nor can he be asked to score on the power play or battle for the puck along the boards, there is something to be said to how a team is negatively impacted when they have no solid goaltending behind them.
Raycroft has also had this happen before, allowing seven goals against Calgary on January 21 and never being the same after that.
With Kari Lehtonen in net, the Stars are a much calmer team. In a perfect world you wouldn't need the goaltender to make spectacular saves to win a game but for the Stars -- this team, this roster, this season -- that is precisely where they are. Lehtonen allows the Stars to take chances because they have much more faith in his ability to stop pucks should a mistake be made. There's also something to be said about how a goaltender that can eat and kill the puck, instead of kicking it right back into the crowd, is also directly contributing to the defensive structure that a team creates.
Which is where Richard Bachman comes in.
Bachman has just 29 minutes of NHL ice time, yet he has not allowed a goal. Against the Sharks, Bachman stopped all ten of the shots that he faces and appeared to be calm and confident in net. While playing in the third period of a blowout loss is far different than getting the start on the road in a divisional game, there is something to be said about how a confident goaltender can have a calming effect on the team's struggles in front of him.
You shouldn't have to rely on your goaltender to be spectacular in order to win but you have to have faith that he can be if needed. The Stars, thrown off by the obviously shaky performances by Raycroft, were being forced to overcome not just their own struggles but also overcome a lack of confidence by their own netminder and devastating goals being allowed at the worst time. No matter how good a team might be, bad goals at bad times in the game will suck whatever energy a team has away and take away all the momentum that had been built.
There's a reason why even the best teams in the NHL need solid goaltending. While they may have a great defense, the goaltending contributes directly to that defensive structure and the team has faith in their netminder -- allowing a team to play looser and more freely. That was not happening the past two games with Raycroft.
Now the Stars face a decision on whether to start Bachman in net on Saturday night against Los Angeles. He was certainly going to get a start on the East coast side of the road trip but with the Stars obviously reeling a bit and Raycroft struggling, I don't see how the Stars can afford not to at least see what Bachman can do with a full 60 minutes.
"I thought he was real clean in the third," Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "It's not easy to come into those situations. They had some good chances and he made some saves. We'll have a decision to make tomorrow on who is going to start in LA. We'll take a look at everything and make our decision."
Like I stated above, the Stars were not perfect in this game and it's impossible to lay all the blame right at Raycroft's feet. Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson continue to struggle offensively and are officially in the middle of a terrifying scoreless slump. They are playing well overall but unable to get over their inability to generate goals, which is leading to frustration and a dwindling confidence.
The Stars lack balance offensively and with Benn and Eriksson struggling and the second line still trying to find their way, teams can put much of their focus on the top line and further add to the frustration of the two best players on the team. Despite scoring a nifty power play goal, the Stars are still struggling with the man advantage and that frustration is carrying over to other aspects of the game as well.
The good news is that the Stars looked much better in other areas. Brenden Morrow had perhaps his best game of the season after returning from injury and Philip Larsen and Alex Goligoski -- for the most part -- looked outstanding together.