Originally, this was planned to be a grand treatise on the state of the Dallas Stars franchise and the fanbase and all of the frustration and anger and exasperation every single person is now feeling in the midst of this disastrous 0-5-2 run this team is now on. A large-scale look at how this whole thing was built and where it might be going, and how it might be fixed and why management made the decisions they made -- but after about 1,000 words or so it seemed to really not be saying anything that hasn't been said already.
It feels as if countless similar articles have been written here over the past six years whenever the Stars get into a slump, just with the details changed -- be patient, work on the little things, simplify the game, funnel the puck to the net, make smarter passes, clear the crease, better goaltending when it matter, yada, yada, yada.
What's exasperating is that the Stars have actually done a rather good job of addressing systemic issues throughout this slump; the coaches have changed the line combinations and defensive pairs, players have been shuffled around within games and in practices. Players-only meetings have been held and the leadership in the locker room has been saying all the right things during this slump.
Yet the Stars continue to lose, and those losses piling up has led to outright panic in the streets.
The problem is that when you really dig into what has gone wrong with the Stars, it's a perfect confluence of events that has led to a situation that has coach Lindy Ruff searching for answers himself. Dallas played a great game through the first 40 minutes on Saturday, and then the meltdown it seemed everyone was waiting for finally occurred.
"We were playing our best hockey," said coach Lindy Ruff after Saturday's game. "I thought we had great opportunities out of every line. The Horcoff line was doing a great job. I thought McKenzie with Spezza and Hemsky were getting Grade-A opportunities. This is painful. I've never gone through anything like this. I could stand here and rant and rave if there was no energy, no pizazz and no emotion. That's a frustrated group in there."
Here's the issue. The coaches have changed strategies -- breakouts have changed, how the Stars have used their transition game has changed, the team has moved defensemen around to try and find better balance. The players have responded with great effort the last three games and it's not as if you can look out on the ice, even during these meltdowns, and think the team doesn't care or isn't trying hard enough or that the coaches aren't willing to change anything.
Yet the Stars continue to lose.
At this point, it's fairly clear this is something that is squarely in the heads of every players out on the ice. It's in the heads of every fan or media member. Heading into the third period on Saturday, how many tweets or comments were there about how "this is the big test, can the Stars finally hold onto a lead?"
Every single person at the AAC was waiting for the meltdown to happen as if it were a predestined event and when you have that belief and expectation burned into you, then the actual reality of the situation tends to follow the path that's already been decided upon. For just around 50 minutes the Stars had played their best overall game during this entire stretch of losses, and then on a dime it all turned sour. A couple of bad turnovers, a fallen defenseman along the boards, a missed interference call and boom -- a 3-1 lead turns into a 5-3 loss in a manner of minutes.
Perhaps what has been most maddening is that during these last three games the Stars have overall been the better team, but failed to cash in on the chances they were generating only to allow the chances against to result in goals. It's the missed open nets, it's the flubbed passes in the slot, is the desperation dive for the puck that is stopped with the toe of the goaltender on the goal line of what would have been the tying goal.
It's seeing Jamie Benn, the most accurate shooter in the NHL, miss a wide open net that would have tied the game in the final minutes. It's a level of exasperation and pressure that is increasingly hard to overcome, even when the team is actually making strides and playing better -- and perhaps that's where the ultimate frustration lies.
"It's frustrating but it just raises the level of our determination and desperation," said Tyler Seguin on Saturday. "It's been a tough stretch at home. We are going on the road now for a bit and we will keep it going, put together some points. It's going to be a big hill ahead but we can't turn our backs on each other. We have to do this all together and get out of this on our own."
If the Stars were getting trucked game after game in this run -- being absolutely dominated while losing games by three or four goals while not coming anywhere close to a competent possession team -- then calling for drastic and sweeping changes would make sense. It hurts even worse to see these mental breakdowns game after game after the Stars had played so well and it's beyond exasperating, but it's also why management still feels that they have to be patient and not make any hasty decisions.
"We went through these problems last year (during a 1-8-1 stretch) and found a way to overcome them and make the playoffs," GM Jim Nill told Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News. "We need to do the same thing this year, and the way you do that is everyone adds just a little bit more."
Even the owner, who has poured so much into this team the past few years, is still willing to allow the process to play itself out.
"I just don't think the record over 14 game is a reflection of the team we have been. I think we're better than that," said owner Tom Gaglardi. "The problem is you have to go out and find a way to do it. Your record is what matters in this league."
Heika puts it best as to why the loss to the Sharks was ultimately so perplexing -- the Stars have been improving the past three games and were getting back to the style of play they were so successful with previously.
Loss to San Jose (5-3): Dallas had a 40-29 edge in shots on goal, a 78-67 advantage in shot attempts and a 43-36 edge in faceoffs.
Loss to Nashville (3-2): Dallas had a 35-33 edge in shots on goal, Nashville had a 76-73 advantage in shot attempts, and Dallas had a 41-26 edge in faceoffs.
Loss to Los Angeles (3-1): Dallas had a 34-30 advantage in shots on goal, a 64-50 advantage in shots attempts, and the Kings won the faceoff battle 37-30.
Those aren't the numbers of a team that is reeling and can't find its game. Those are the numbers of a puck possession team that is pushing hard for its identity.
It's clearly a mental thing at this point, a fait accompli that the Stars will always capitulate when the game is on the line. It's been that way ever since this past April, when the Stars blew a two-goal lead in the final minutes of Game 6 to see their season end in disastrous fashion.
The mental side of sports is the hardest of all to quantify and it's why some "old school" hockey brains rail so hard against using stats alone to judge a team's performance, and this is exactly why. Sure, we can give all sorts of numbers over who is better at possession versus another and who is being misused, but at that the end of the day what this is really coming down to is the Stars have suddenly lost their confidence and belief in themselves when the game is on the line -- and that's not something that Lindy Ruff can just coach into his team.
This is what the Stars have to overcome, and it's the hardest aspect of the game for the coach to control. This is squarely on the players, for the leaders in the locker room to bear down and get the mentality of the Stars squarely on straight -- and the challenge here is that some of those leaders seem the be the most exasperated of the bunch when it comes to failures when the game is on the line.
"There are certainly issues we have to look at, and we've been doing that and will continue to do that," Jim Nill said. "We have to find a way to close out wins when we play well for a good deal of the game. That's something you have to learn to do as a team."