In a season defined by change and supposed forward progress, the Dallas Stars are once again sitting in familiar territory heading into the final third of the season as the team attempts to chase down a crowded pack fighting for postseason spots in the West. Following Thursday's 3-2 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils, the Stars sit six points back of a playoff spot and despite the loss actually made up ground on teams ahead of them thanks to a fortunate night on the scoreboard.
The extra point was bittersweet, however, especially after Monday's dominant effort against the Colorado Avalanche that resulted in one of the tougher losses in recent memory. The Stars had an opportunity on this five-game homestand to make a significant statement after one of the worst ten-game stretches in franchise history, and while going 3-1-1 against five above average teams is certainly progress we're left -- once again -- feeling like the team left valuable points on the table.
"It was a bit of a rollercoaster for a homestand. We had some good moments and some tough moments," said Stars center Tyler Seguin. "It's about finding consistency as a group right now. The halfway hump is pretty much over and now it's time for the push. We've got to string some together before Olympic break."
There's no doubt that this is a speedy and talented team, with the overall offensive firepower of the team having certainly improved since just two years ago. The Stars are scoring at a 2.83 goals per game pace this season, a significant improvement over the 2.49 mark the team achieved in 2011-2012; the Stars finished the truncated 2013 season scoring 2.67 per game.
The scoring mark for this season is a bit misleading, however, trumped by several offensive outbursts of more than five goals that have elevated the goals total for the year. There have been stretches where the Stars have struggled to score, contributing to the overall inconsistent nature that plagues all teams seemingly stuck between being a good team and being flat-out bad.
Every team in the NHL is capable of beating any team 5-1 on a given night; the Dallas Stars won't be the only team this season to play a strong game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a big victory at home. The difference between those teams at the top of the standings and those mired in the middle, of course, is consistency; maintaining that high level of play from game to game and week to week is a puzzle half the league is always attempting to solve.
This is why it seems fans have become increasingly frustrated this season, as the Stars have proven several times over the course of the season what they're capable of when playing at their best. The Stars can skate with any team in the league and have been competitive against Colorado, San Jose, Anaheim, Pittsburgh and Boston; showing yourself capable of playing dominant hockey against some of the best the NHL has to offer -- and doing so more than once -- raises the bar on what fans' expectations are for the season.
There have been some incredible highs throughout so far, providing a glimpse of what the Stars could eventually become once that consistency is achieved. Outscoring the first three opponents of the homestand 14-1, and dominating possession throughout, it seemed that the Stars had once again found their legs and perhaps were about to go on a run of games that would negate the disastrous 1-8-1 stretch to start off 2014.
Then, another dud of a game and another post-game where players are searching for answers as to why -- once again -- the Stars fell victim to egregious turnovers and a lack of a consistent push offensively. Once again, we're left attempting to figure out just what sort of team the Stars truly are as our stomachs turn queasy from the constant ups and downs of a true rollercoaster ride of a season.
"It's all a point," said Seguin. "I thought we played our game there at the end of the second and third period - especially at the end, I thought we were fighting a little bit more, competing a little bit more. They're a good team over there; there is not much space out there."
The loss to New Jersey was certainly frustrating, but credit must also go to the Devils -- the stingiest defense in the NHL to this point. What the Devils have managed to accomplish in two games is to severely expose the one-dimensional nature of the Stars offensive attack, something the Stars have struggled to overcome at times this season aside from the leaky defensive coverage.
Once again, consistency becomes the word of the day.
"We have to take the positives out of it," said defenseman Brenden Dillon. "We didn't get the two points that we wanted at the end of the day, but they are a really good defensive team. Their team defense - they take away shooting lanes, they block out guys in front of the net and they have a good goaltender too. You can't make excuses that we lost the game, but to their credit, they played well too."
It's not all bad, however. While it seems that the overall results are much different than the past few seasons, this is certainly a much different team with what seems to be an endless ability to fight and claw back. The season began with little confidence on the ice and the ten-game slump was certainly mired in extreme frustration, but Thursday night was another example of how this current team is able to battle back and show some heart and emotion even on a night when virtually nothing was going their way.
The loss to the Devils, in entertainment value and importance on the season overall, will likely be utterly forgotten in the long run. It was a lackluster game against a boring defensive style that the Stars have been unable to solve this season, and it can all be put in the rear-view mirror with a rebound performance against the Ducks and a strong finish in the final four games before the Olympic break.
Consistency. Win a big game against the Ducks, continue to build momentum after four strong performances at home, and suddenly the team can start to be defined as a possible contender rather than one that struggles to maintain their potential level of play from game to game -- just like the other teams fighting to break out of mediocrity in the NHL.
The Stars rarely get run out of the rink these days, yet the team needs to find a way to break through in those close games -- something they've struggled with this season. With just over one-third of the season remaining, these are problems the Stars need to solve and in a hurry if the dream of making the playoffs is to be realized.
Just a month ago, the Stars couldn't find a way to recover from a loss such as this and it turned into one of the worst slumps in franchise history. Turn it back around on Saturday, finish the next four games strong, and perhaps we can start talking about positive consistency instead of constant frustration.
It was a frustrating performance against the Devils and there have been a few of them, and Dillon's summation of the game itself is also a good summation of the story of the season -- the speed of the team and the potential we've all seen the Stars are capable of, and what happens when they fall short.
"We definitely did not get out to the start we wanted," said Dillon. "We weren't playing fast, we weren't turning pucks up. We didn't get to the level we can play at."