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Dallas Stars Improving But Not Enough; Top Players' Invisibility Sinking Team

Ask yourself who the best players on the ice were last night for the Dallas Stars. The answer is pretty easy, actually. Jamie Benn, Tomas Vincour, Toby Petersen, Tom Wandell. You could also throw in Kari Lehtonen as well, who played a good game and didn't allow a soft goal for the first time in a few games. Alex Goligoski struggled at times with his new team but certainly showed the potential to be a great player for the Stars if given time to acclimate. Stephane Robidas was a fan, especially considering Goligoski had no time to practice with his new team.

"It was pretty good. He's a good player," said Robidas. "He moves the puck really well. For a guy that flew in this morning I think he played really well. He's just going to get better and used to our system and to the players. I think he played really, really well for his first game."

Overall, there were plenty of positives for the Stars last night. They faced the hottest team in the NHL and lost by just a goal. They played hard for most of the game and limited offensive opportunities for the Devils, certainly an improvement over the past few games. There were times when the Stars showcased vast improvement in many areas, especially their work along the boards and aside from one fluke goal the penalty kill looked better than it has in at least a month.

Jamie Benn was an absolute beast on the ice and it was instantly obvious just how much the Stars missed the impact he has on the Stars. Crawford said after the game that Benn was arguably their best player and praised his speed and aggression with the puck. Seeing Benn take the puck to the net on multiple occasions was a sight for sore eyes and you realize just how much the Stars needed an impact player like him back on the ice.

Yet it wasn't enough. The addition of Goligoski wasn't enough. The improved team dynamic wasn't enough to get a win and even if the effort was better all that matters right now is two points. We you sit and talk about how well Benn, Wandell and Vincour played then you know something is wrong, and therein lies the main issue at the heart of this slump.

Two days ago I wrote an article that was quickly buried by the trade of James Neal. Taking a look at the "leaders" of the Stars, I questioned just how the Stars expected to be successful when their top players were failing to perform on a nightly basis. In the middle of a slump like this -- not just a slump but one that is seeing your season collapse -- you look for your best players to step up and make a difference on the ice. Game after game, that isn't happening in Dallas.

Teams deal with injuries all the time. Vancouver is decimated right now. Detroit has dealt with some major injuries. They've kept rolling, as players have stepped up and filled the void left by the hurt player. Despite Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell missing significant time, along with Adam Burish, the Stars still had a wealth of supposed talent. Brad Richards has only been out four games, so it's impossible to say this is all due to his absence either.

Instead, we look at the effort of players like Morrow - the team captain - and Mike Ribeiro. Players that have carried this team in the past and now appear to be wilting under the pressure of doing so again. It's immensely frustrating to watch, as Vincour and Wandell showcase the energy and aggression we expect from the whole team only as Mike Ribeiro idly skates around the ice and commits multiple turnovers with the puck.

There is absolutely zero feel of desperation or extreme determination from players like Eriksson, Morrow and Ribeiro. We see it from Toby Petersen and Tomas Vincour, but not from the guys that are supposed to be the best players on the team. It's impossible for a team to pull out of a nose dive when there isn't a consistent effort from all 20 players out there and the Stars don't have the skill for one or two guys to make the difference all on their own.

Jamie Benn was a man possessed last night, but it wasn't enough. He needed help and received none.

There's a significant difference right now in the effort put forth on this team, between the younger and relatively inexperienced players versus the veterans who are expected to perform on a consistent basis. When you try to figure out why the Stars are losing, despite some "gritty performances" against good teams, look no further than the continued incompetence of the Stars' supposed best players.

Watching Mike Ribeiro showcase absolutely zero interest in anything resembling a backcheck tonight was frustrating. Seeing him refuse to shoot and instead make bad pass after bad pass was infuriating. It's so maddening I still haven't figured out how to put what I feel exactly into words. It's as if he's either completely disinterested in even trying anymore or he just doesn't have the energy to do so after having his minutes increased in Richards' absence.

Either way, the discrepancy in effort from some players on the team to the others is not insignificant and while you love to see Toby Petersen play out of his mind, he doesn't have the skill to truly take over a game. Players like Ribeiro do, which makes his lack of effort even more frustrating to see.

The problem is that the Stars are convinced they're just a lucky bounce here or there away from turning the corner and getting back on track.

"We did so many things we wanted to do," said Stars coach Marc Crawford. "We didn't give them any outnumbered chances. We were good on the forecheck, we created loose pucks, we had goal mouth opportunities with net drive. We just couldn't put the puck in the net."

"If we keep playing with that kind of intensity and that kind of commitment things will change for us."

Crawford spoke about the "intensity" of the team and while I'll certainly admit there was a different level of excitement and effort about the Stars that we haven't seen in a while, I'd hesitate to say this was a great all around effort from the team. I think the impact we witnessed from players like Benn and Wandell are offsetting the true problem this team has right now, and you wonder if the Stars recognize just where the weakpoints on this team truly lie.

Robidas is one of the players that continues the same theme: Keep trying hard, get some bounces and then wait for reinforcements.

"We did a lot of good things, but we came up short. We really didn't get the break that we needed but we are headed in the right direction and that's the positive sign," said Robidas. "We got Jamie Benn back and that made a big difference tonight. We've got other bodies coming back too soon and we've got to just keep plugging away."

"We played well. We did a lot of what we wanted to do tonight, "said Stars forward Jamie Langenbrunner. "We've got to bury opportunities and they got a pretty lucky bounce there."

The Stars talk as if they're just biding time for help to come back, while the slowly sink lower and lower in the Western Conference standings. Sure, it's tough to really tear apart the Stars after a close loss like this one. There was some great things the Stars did and the team played much better overall defensively. The problem isn't exactly in the outcome or how the lost specifically, the problem lies in what is in the periphery of the team and how the top players are consistently letting down their teammates with their lack of production and inconsistent effort.

When we look back and we break down exactly why the Stars fell apart in February, it won't be because of goaltending or defense and it certainly won't be because of injuries. Instead, we'll look back at how when the Stars needed vital points the core group of this team failed to step up and make a difference then the team needed them the most. We'll look at how players like Ribeiro apparently gave up when the season was on the line and we'll question the leadership abilities of the top players on the team.

For now, the common theme on the Stars is to keep chipping away and build upon the improvement we saw last night against the Devils. There was definitely a lot to like about what the Stars did, how the defense played much better and the team's overall effort certainly improved. Yet when the season hangs more in the balance with each subsequent loss, more victories do not count. For the Stars, the lack of total effort from their top players will ultimately be their undoing.

"We did a lot of good things, but we came up short," said Crawford. "We really didn’t get the break that we needed but we are headed in the right direction and that’s the positive sign. We got Jamie Benn back and that made a big difference tonight.

"We’ve got other bodies coming back too soon and we’ve got to just keep plugging away."

Let's just hope the season isn't lost by the time that happens.