With three games remaining in the regular season the Stars backs are against the wall. The final five games of the schedule looked daunting from the moment the schedule was released. With two of those five in the books the Stars are still searching for their first points, and clinging to the hopes that they can turn things around quickly to make the playoffs. A lot has been made about how difficult the current stretch of games is for the Stars, but "difficult" is a relative term.
The Stars are playing good teams, but at this point of the season they've seen each of them several times. The results on the surface haven't been pretty. Against the Predators, Canucks, and Blues the Stars are 4-7 with 25 goals for and 35 goals against in 11 games with several blowouts at the hands (fins?) of the Sharks. It's possible to play well and lose though so we need to look at the process that pushed them to those results. Have the Stars really been that far below the level of the Blues, Predators, and Sharks in the season series', or have they had some bad luck?
After the jump we'll get acquainted with the massive hurdle the Stars need to figure out how to jump to make the playoffs.
The Stars have played the three remaining opponents eleven times this year. In most of the matchups the Stars have been outchanced. They've played well against the Predators, but both the Sharks and Blues have really taken it to the Stars. The scoring chance totals from all of the meetings between the Stars and the three remaining opponents are below:
The Sharks have outchanced the Stars by 29 in the five meetings. The Blues have outchanced the Stars by 21 in only three meetings. Both teams control possession very well. The Stars have struggled against teams that control possession all season. Fortunately, the Predators aren't one of those teams. They're 2nd to last in the entire NHL in Fenwick Close % (shot differential at even strength including missed shots with the score close).
The Stars (and most of the NHL) have shown more ability to generate potential offense than the Predators. The best goaltending in the world will still, on average, allow 3-4 goals if they see 30-40 shots. They have to come out against Nashville with "shock and awe" and pelt Pekka Rinne with shots. As tough as the matchups against St. Louis and San Jose will be the Stars simply must take care of Nashville if they hope to make the playoffs.
The overall numbers against "possession" teams aren't particularly encouraging. 66% of the remaining schedule is against possession teams, and the Stars are going to have to find a way to get some points out of the Sharks and/or Blues. The Stars don't fare well against teams that don't let them have the puck. Against teams with a better Fenwick Close % than they currently have (49.68%) the Stars are 14-21-2. They've been outscored by those teams 84-118 in 36 games. That goal differential is daunting. -34 is a pretty dominating figure over 37 games.
If you're on the ledge looking down at the great abyss with your life flashing before your eyes I wouldn't blame you at this point, but I do bring hope. That goal differential is all encompassing. It includes special teams goals. Even strength play is where you're going to learn the most about a team. In these 37 games against teams that have better possession skills than the Stars they have been outscored by one solitary goal at even strength, 74-75.
In those 37 games the Stars Fenwick Close% is about 48% which isn't much of a drop off from their season average of 49%. They've gotten good goaltending to the tune of a .922 save percentage at even strength (18 goalies in the league have a .922 save percentage at even strength in 40+ games), and they're shooting 8%. Against the three teams remaining on the schedule the Stars haven't really been pinned in their own end much either:
OZS%: Offensive Zone Start%; OZF%: Offensive Zone Finish%
I quickly summed up the offensive zone starts and finishes for all Stars skaters in the 11 meetings. It won't give a perfect representation of the faceoff picture since there will be duplicate faceoffs, but it will be close enough to drive the point home. Oddly enough the team driving the Stars into their own zone the most has been the Predators out of the three teams, and even then they've only generated 2% more time in the Stars zone. The point is that at even strength the Stars aren't getting pushed around by the good teams in the league. They're getting killed on special teams.
Some pretty quick math tells us that in those 37 games against the top teams in the league the Stars are being outscored 10-43 in all non-5v5 situations (PP, PK, 4v4). The Stars powerplay has been nowhere to be found all season. Not only is the Stars powerplay the worst in the league, but only Washington and Colorado have spent less time with the extra man this season. The special teams problems are compounded when you realize that only five teams have been shorthanded more than the Stars this season. The penalty killing is borderline top ten in the league, they're just overworked.
The Stars have currently been on the penalty kill for 79 minutes more than they've been on the powerplay. That's the equivalent of playing 1.3 games (four periods) shorthanded. Against the three remaining teams the Stars have been outchanced 22-36 on special teams. The blueprint for making the playoffs is pretty simple. For three games the Stars have to find some way to be more disciplined. They've played with fire all season by putting the penalty killing units on the ice as much as they have.
The powerplay is an entirely different animal, and the cellar dweller success rate is a reflection of the Stars lack of offensive punch. They don't have the overwhelming force available that teams like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago have available. I talked about what the powerplay was doing in late January so I won't go back into it too much. Since I wrote that the Stars haven't gotten Jamie Benn much more time on the powerplay. They still aren't generating many shots on the powerplay.
When I wrote that the Stars were 144th out of 150 team seasons in shot generation on the powerplay over the past five years. It isn't much different now. They need to get the puck to the net in the event that they actually get on the powerplay over the final three games. Get Benn more time. Get Reilly Smith on the ice on the powerplay (he was signed for a reason...right?). The Stars have to pull out all the stops to get the powerplay flowing because what they're doing isn't working.
Two teams in the past three years have made the playoffs while having a -70 minute special teams differential: the 2010 Canadiens and 2012 Senators. The Stars can add their names to that group if they play well over the final week of the season. They're good enough to match these top teams at even strength closely enough that Kari Lehtonen can make up the difference. They have to do something to help the special teams over the final week or there is virtually no chance they will be playing next week.