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A Search For Reason Amidst A Demoralizing Slump

[Note: Due to weather and the rolling blackouts now affecting most of the state of Texas, content is likely to be light today on Defending Big D. We apologize for this; know that we will do our best to stay on top of all Stars news throughout the rest of the week -- Icepocaplyse be damned.]

Yesterday was just not a great day to be a Dallas Stars fan. A big, marquee home matchup against the best team in the NHL with the Stars looking for revenge from a devastating loss a week ago, overshadowed by an ice storm and the overwhelming coverage of the upcoming Super Bowl. Then, the fans that did brave the conditions (apparently there was over 12,000 there last night) and show up for the game were treated to as frustrating a loss as we've seen in quite some time.

The Stars actually played fairly well against Vancouver, at least for the first 30 minutes or so of the game. The Stars came out with a purpose and a plan on how to attack the Vancouver defenses, playing a hard forecheck in order to create mistakes and even managed to draw a number of penalties through hard work in the first period. As it's happened a couple of times this season, the Stars blew the chances they had to take an early lead then give up that first goal while on the penalty kill, completely negating any positive momentum that had been built so far in the game.

I'd say that up until that moment that James Neal cross checked Tanner Glass for giving him some deliberate whacks in the crotch, the Stars were the better team on the ice. The Canucks would score on that power play and from that point forward the Stars never recovered.

So what does it all mean? Are the Stars really as overachieving as many have been saying? Are facing a collapse as the Stars head into the toughest part of the schedule this season? 

Part of the argument right now is that the Stars have only beaten one true playoff team over the past month. The Stars have been able to capitalize on the Eastern Conference part of their schedule, building a lead in the Pacific while feasting on the lesser teams of the sister conference. Against the West, the Stars haven't fared as well and in fact have struggled against teams in their own division. 

As of now, the Stars are ranked 18th in the NHL when it comes to their strength of schedule. The rest of the season the Stars are facing the top teams in the West and in March play a division-heavy schedule as we get closer to the post season; despite having the lead in the division for most of the season, there is far from a guarantee the Stars even make the playoffs.

The Stars have now lost three of four games, with all three losses coming by a combined score of 18-3. The two losses against the Vancouver Canucks, the top team in the NHL, has shown us just how much the Dallas Stars still have to go before they can truly be considered a top team in the NHL.

The fact is, the Stars are one of the better teams in the conference but are still are way behind the top teams in the NHL. Improvements have certainly been made and the team is playing much better than in past seasons, but the fact remains that a full rebuild into a championship caliber team does not happen in one season. It certainly doesn't happen with the team playing with a budget well under the cap and unable to acquire key free agent additions.

The Canucks are a championship caliber team. The Red Wings are as well. So are the Flyers and the Bruins. The Dallas Stars, however, are still a ways away from truly taking that "next step". In fact, if we think about it, we should all be a bit surprised that we're even considering this argument at all. After all, the Stars making the playoffs -- even as the 8th seed -- would be looked as nothing short of miraculous after the past few seasons the team has endured.

But does losing to Vancouver in three games so far this season, along with the realization of just how far the Stars still have to go, does that mean that this team is a disaster? Should we all become depressed based on the fact that the Stars are so clearly behind the top teams in the NHL? Of course not. 

While we can be frustrated, angry and upset with how the Stars have played against Vancouver this season, I say we should also step back and realize that the fact alone that we're depressed the Stars can't hang with the best in the West should be considered a victory in and of itself. Who would have thought six months ago that this would be the argument we'd be having midway through the season, on what the Stars should do in order to improve in order to keep up with the top teams in the conference?

Perhaps it's more about the Canucks than anything else. The Stars have fared well against the Detroit Red Wings and other Western teams this season; the Canucks have been where the Stars have struggled the most. 

This weekend, the test continues. If we see the same struggles against Philadelphia and Boston, if the Stars lay two eggs and fail to compete with the top teams in the East -- then we know exactly where we stand. The Stars are still one of the top teams in the NHL and are still a genuine playoff team, and if there's any hope of going beyond the first round then the Stars must learn to compete with the best the NHL has to offer. We know that Vancouver is too much for the team to handle this season, but that doesn't mean that Boston and Philadelphia will be the same. 

All you can ask for is improvement. The Stars played better last night against Vancouver, but it still wasn't enough. Continue to learn from these losses and apply them to the games over the next week. 

The goal has now been made clear. Joe Nieuwendyk is not thinking about rebuilding, he's now focused on how to improve this current team in order to improve enough that the Stars can in fact compete with the best the NHL has to offer. That we are even at that point, right now at this point in this season with these financial restrictions that have been placed on the team -- that is a victory in and of itself. Now it's time to take the next step.