At the beginning of the season, any one of us Dallas Stars fans would have been perfectly happy for a brutal battle for the playoffs, with teams from the Western Conference fighting it out where every game leading up to the postseason has more riding on it than the last. Now, I'm willing to bet that the heart-wrenching way these next three weeks could unfold will have fans wishing for nothing more than a nice, smooth ride into late April.
If you decided to spend your Sunday evening watching some hockey and hoping for a favorable outcome for the Dallas Stars, then you went to bed one frustrated fan. What was possibly the worst outcome of the night was realized as not only did the Ducks and Blackhawks both win, the Ducks would hold on to win in overtime in a three-point game that was no doubt the worst possible way for that particular game to end.
When you add the Predators big overtime win against the Sabres into the mix, then you have built one disastrous evening for the playoff chances of the Dallas Stars.
The Stars currently sit in 9th place in the Conference, having been leap-frogged by both Nashville and Anaheim during last night's festivities. What's been impressive is how both Anaheim and Nashville has stepped up their game in recent weeks and have certainly answered the challenge that comes with fighting for a playoff spot. While the Ducks did allow Calgary to stage a big comeback and actually get a point, they held on for a crucial extra point.
There are some, that after last night, wonder whether the Stars will have any luck in their quest for a playoff bid. It seems that every single night the worst possible outcome occurs and the Stars slide back down the standings as nearly every team around them accumulates points in endless three-point affairs. When before the question wasn't whether the Stars would be able to get into the 5th or 6th seed, now we wonder if they'll even have the ability to fight their way in themselves.
The simple truth is that what happened last night does not matter from this moment forward. What happened last night is beyond the control of the Dallas Stars and the same goes for any game that isn't featuring the Stars out on the ice. The stakes have been raised and the pressure is higher than it has ever been.
The harsh reality that is now set in front of the Star is that now all is on the line and we know exactly what the stakes are: win three very important games or the season is over.
Right now the magic number for the Dallas Stars is 20. With just ten games left in the season, that is a very troubling number but we must not forget that not only is the magic number dependent on the games the Stars have to win -- but also who is losing.
Five of the remaining ten games against opponents the Dallas Stars are directly fighting and clawing with to make the playoffs. For all the hand wringing and worry that occured last night when the Stars dropped down to 9th in the West after a seemingly disastrous night, the simple truth of the matter is that the Stars still control their own destiny.
There is one very important thing to remember, however: it's not how many games the Stars win, it's about who the Stars are beating. If the Stars go anything worse than 4-1-0 in those five games that I've highlighted, the chances for making the postseason plummet and the fate of this season leaves the collective hands of the Dallas Stars.
For the short term, the focus should be on the Anaheim Ducks and the Nashville Predators and nowhere else. The Stars will play just two games in a six game span and during that time will likely see every team around them jumping back and forth, up and down the standings and points are gained and lost. For the Stars, all that matters is these two incredibly crucial games and not only winning them -- but winning them in regulation.
The Stars play Anaheim twice over the next ten games so there is some logic to the though that a loss on Wednesday can be negated with a win the next week in Anaheim. The simple truth is that if the Stars can grasp as much power over their own destiny now instead of hoping for a miracle later, then a win against the Ducks this week will prove momentous.
These next two games, heading into a four game march through the Pacific Division, will dictate the course of this season. Win both games against the Ducks and Predators and the chances of sliding into the playoffs increase dramatically. Win both of these games and the stress is lifted a bit, the pressure is relieved and we can breathe a bit easier.
With the Stars unable to score on the power play and the defensive corps battered and broken, the mountain that must be climbed over the next month is higher than ever before. The Stars must find a way to fight with two of the hottest and hardest-working teams in the NHL right now, pulling together enough to overcome adversity one final time and getting back to where anything is possible.
One important factor remains, however.
As much as we want to worry and bemoan the actions of the Ducks and the Predators and if the Stars even have a chance of holding them off, it's crucial to realize this is not a three team race. The Kings, Coyotes, and the Blackhawks have just as much a chance at falling out of the playoff hunt as the Stars and there's a very good chance it will be one of those three teams -- not the Predators or Ducks -- that is on the outside looking in if the Stars do in fact make the playoffs.
This playoff race is akin to a desperate attempt to run from a ferocious grizzly bear. You don't have to be the fastest one in the race....you just can't afford to be the slowest.