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2012 NHL Playoff Race: Dallas Stars Fall Out Of Pacific Division Lead

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Let's forget about the Pacific Division for a bit. It's a nice thought, it would be really great to have happen, but for the Dallas Stars their sole focus needs to be on getting to the playoffs. Get to the postseason, even if it's by one point or due to tiebreakers and even if it means taking on the St. Louis Blues in the first round.

Let's lock down a playoff spot and then we can worry about seedings and the division.

The good news, if there really is such a thing, is that after such a disastrous game as last night's in Vancouver the Stars still completely control their playoff destiny. Win these next two games in regulation against the San Jose Sharks and suddenly those final two games take on a completely different meaning. Two wins, in regulation, and the Dallas Stars will lock up a playoff spot.

That's all it's going to take.

What's frustrating is that the Stars are victims of the NHL rules this season, where not knowing how to lose "the right way" has put them in such a precarious position. When the Dallas Stars lose, it's usually in spectacular fashion and most likely by multiple goals -- just look at the goal differential of the teams in the Western Conference. This inability to keep games close could end up dooming the Stars this season, because every other team in the Pacific Division has found out that when you lose -- it's smartest to lose in a safe and easy way.

The Kings, Coyotes and Sharks all have more than 10 overtime or shutout losses this season while the Dallas Stars have just five. The Stars could conceivably lose out on the playoffs while finishing the season with more wins than every other team in the division. Whether that's a sign that the current points system is working is up for debate but the fact remains that teams are being rewarded by playing it safe in close games and ensuring they get at least one of the available points.

There's discussion about how to speed the game back up again, with goal totals being down across the NHL and the game heading back to the level of play that everyone so worked up before the lockout. The new points system was supposed to create more parity and more excitement in playoff races, yet what's happened is that teams are effectively being rewarded for playing games safe, not taking chances and just making sure they at least get to overtime to get that extra point.

The Stars have had all sorts of problems this season and last night's game against Vancouver pretty much highlighted every single one of them. The special teams disparity on this team, the inability by the Stars to generate anything on the power play, is likely going to be what holds them back the most when all is said and done. The Stars have also fallen victim to horrendous defensive breakdowns, especially by the forwards, and last night the Canucks took full advantage of this weakness.

But we also know that the Stars are capable of playing hard-hitting, emotionally-charged hockey where they're able to completely control the flow of a game. It is this intensity that the Stars need to wrangle as they actually started last night's game fairly well and controlled the game, yet as soon as things started to turn bad the Stars lost their focus and it was that intensity that ultimately doomed them.

These next two games against the Sharks are essentially playoff games. That's exactly what they are.

If the Dallas Stars are truly a postseason hockey team then we shall see evidence as such starting tonight in Vancouver. So far, on this road trip, the Stars have fallen in two "must win" games. The losses to Calgary and Vancouver suddenly turns this game against San Jose, on the second night of a back-to-back, into perhaps the biggest game of the season for this team. We've said that before but in this case it's absolutely true; lose tonight and suddenly the Stars find themselves in a dire situation.

We will find out just what this team is made of tonight. I believe in them. I believe that they'll give it everything they have, even if it turns into a loss. Last season the Stars faced a win-and-in situation in Minnesota and played incredibly uninspired hockey. I don't believe, not for one second, that we'll see the same sort of performance tonight.