In the third period of Tuesday night's win over the Vancouver Canucks, the Dallas Stars regressed. Whether it was score effects, whether it was just a matter of naturally letting up off the throttle after going up by five goals or perhaps it was just "one of those nights," the Stars defense capitulated the puck again and again in their own zone -- resulting in the absurdly high shot totals against in the latter half of the game.
Given the defensive issues against Philadelphia, and given that suddenly the Stars aren't moving the puck in transition like we're became used to seeing the second half of the season last year, concern has instantly been raised over the level of play overall by the team and just what we can expect to see moving forward.
Once again, the atmosphere and vibe around the team following the win over Vancouver did not match the result on the scoreboard. The Stars weren't content with that effort, the players know it's not a good recipe for success and Lindy Ruff acknowledged that while some teams may believe relying on your goaltender to make up for absurd shot differentials is enough, the Stars know that's not conducive to winning in the long run.
"I'm concerned, I think our defense needs to play better," said Ruff Tuesday night. "It hasn't played well enough. There's been some games when we've played two periods, one period, thirty minutes...the shot differential tonight leaned heavily in their favor. That's an obvious statement. Last game was the same. Shot differential wasn't the same but the chances were still there and, sooner or later, that catches up to you unless you correct it."
The Stars have survived this odd start to the season thanks to sheer will and talent alone, with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza putting on theatrics each night and leading the team to a 3-1-2 start to the season. Yet if the team continues to play like it did on Tuesday, that house of cards will come crashing down in a hurry as reality quickly catches up.
So the question that has raged this week, and especially after that win over Vancouver, is "what can be done to fix the issue?" It's a good question, and one you ponder as the Stars get ready for what could be a rather brutal back-to-back on the road in New Jersey and Long Island.
Do the Stars need to call up other players? Perhaps the Stars need to make a trade. Perhaps Tyler Myers is the solution. What about Adam Larsson? Why can't the Stars just trade for Shea Weber and fix everything in one fell swoop?!?!
For now, however, the answer is actually quite simple.
Consider this regarding the defensemen the Stars will be icing on Friday night.
If I had the research time I'd go through each team's starting defense across the NHL, and I'd hazard that it would be very tough to find another team with a defense as inexperienced as the one the Stars are currently icing. The Stars have a very green yet promising group of young defensemen who are all at around the same level developmentally, but as we're now seeing -- trying to get all of them NHL experience at once might not be the easiest path to NHL success.
This is also the path that general manager Jim Nill chose -- he made the decision in the offseason to leave the defense alone, knowing he had several defensive prospects on the cusp of the NHL and that they have the potential to form a solid and promising group long term. Nill stated earlier this week that after going down to Cedar Park to watch the Texas Stars play, he'd be confident in any of those defenseman playing in the NHL this season.
What I don't think he anticipated, however, is that injuries would quickly force his hand.
Sergei Gonchar might not have had the best season last year (it was horrible) but he looked good in training camp and the preseason and at the very least would have been a savvy veteran presence on the backend to help the young players along. Whatever troubles he might have had last season don't take away the fact that he's a future Hall of Fame defenseman, he's been in the NHL for almost as long as some of these young players have been alive and his eventual return will actually be welcomed on some level.
What's interesting is that the team is already feeling the loss of Patrick Nemeth, who has just 13 games of NHL experience, but whose physical presence was desperately needed in front of the net on Tuesday. That the Stars are already desperately needing what he would have brought to the team this season is frustrating, but now it's back to the same old "next man up" mantra that is going to be needed on defense this season.
Don't expect Nill to suddenly make a blockbuster move for a defenseman in October. At least not yet.
Because he has patience and trust in his coaches.
It took time, but last season the defense eventually found their groove and it helped carry the Stars into the postseason. Shots against significantly improved, save percentage and goals-against improved dramatically -- and now Ruff is faced with the same issue, but with a lot more urgency to get it fixed.
"I don't want to be waiting half a season, I can tell you that right now," said Ruff, on getting the defense back on track. "It's been different struggles, but we have to play better. We've got work to do. That falls on my shoulders. I've got two days of practice to get us mentally where we need to be."
"That's on me."
Big changes aren't coming, and especially not after just six games into the season. Think back to October of last year and how the Stars looked defensively, and remember how much that changed as the coaches learned the players and put them in the right positions to succeed and got them comfortable in the system. While the top four are essentially the same as last year, the overall dynamic of the team is a bit different and it's not as easy to just slip right back into the groove from four months ago.
Six games, and the Stars are still in great shape in the division and in the conference, but that could quickly change if these issues aren't addressed. Ruff showed the ability to get his team to adjust in a hurry last season, and this upcoming road trip will be the next test of his coaching.
Patience, for now.
Panic comes later.