This has been, perhaps, the most trying and demanding month of any time for the Dallas Stars in the last six years.
Back in the fall of 2008, the Dallas Stars were coming off an incredible run to the Western Conference Finals that included some of the most memorable goals and games in franchise history. The Stars were riding a wave of momentum and the hype heading into that season was bigger than at any point since the Stanley Cup years, which were still a very recent memory.
Added to that the Stars had, what had seemed to be, one of the best rosters in the NHL -- Brad Richards, James Neal, Louie Eriksson, Mike Modano, Steve Ott, Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro and even the flashy new forward from Sweden, Fabian Brunnstrom.
And Sean Avery.
The Stars began the season with just two wins in their first six games and instantly the luster had worn off of all the buildup. This was a disjointed team fighting with sudden chemistry issues that was getting badly outplayed against teams they have easily won against.
18 games into that season, on November 20, 2014, the Dallas Stars were 6-9-3 with 15 points and sat second-to-last in the conference.
By February 16, the Stars had crawled back to the fifth position in the conference and were firmly in control of a playoff spot with just over a month remaining the season. Unfortunately, injuries eventually took their toll on that team and they fell short of the playoffs -- leading to big changes at GM and head coach.
Exactly six years later, these new Dallas Stars are following nearly the exact same path. A team fresh off a playoff berth with a talented group of forwards garnering tremendous preseason praise and hype, suddenly cratering as the season begins and finding those expectations now crashing down around them.
Now this new team, one comprised of only one player that was on that roster in 2008, must find a way to push through some truly frustrating hockey and get back to not just winning games, but playing the game the way this team was meant to play it.
While the Stars of six years ago fell short of the postseason, it was proven that even as bad a stretch of hockey as this has been can still be recovered from -- this difference now is the Stars are in a much tougher and much deeper division.
Coming back to Dallas, at the start of a long home stand with the pressures that come with being bad on home ice already -- the Stars did not respond well to the challenge on Tuesday, at all. The Stars allowed the worst road team in the NHL to hang six goals on the board, chase their goalie, all while surrendering another two-goal lead at home before another miserable loss.
Now, Lindy Ruff will attempt to get this ship back on the right path.
The Dallas Stars head coach has come under fire this season, and for some good reasons, as his team has struggled to pull out of this tailspin. While some may feel this is the only signal needed for the Stars to instantly go in another direction behind the bench, the reality is that for now -- this is Lindy Ruff's team and it will be up to him to get the Stars fixed.
On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after that loss to Carolina, Ruff joined the Hardline on 1310 The Ticket, and was rather candid about what's been hurting his team, and what it's going to take to get it fixed. While none of what Ruff had to say was surprising, it was interesting to hear the coach openly acknowledge many of the issues fans have been harping on all year.
The entire interview is definitely worth a listen, but here are some of the more relevant points...
Today we had a very demanding, very tough practice. Going through those areas where we had those breakdowns, working on our puck possession game...the will to get back to your own end, even at times when you don't seem to have anything left.
We were a team that last year blocked shots when no one thought we could block them, we scored goals a lot of times when it didn't look like we were going to get back into games. It's going to start with that little extra effort, just a little more detail by the players. If it was one player you could solve it, but at different times it's different players.
We just went through a tough stretch where Jamie Benn didn't score for 12 games. When your best player doesn't score goals -- as a team...he's right behind the quarterback. It makes it hard on the rest of the team. Those are the guys that carry the team for you. We know that last year he and Tyler did a terrific job on the offensive side in providing the offense, and we know that secondary scoring, on most nights, you can get one -- maybe. The odd time you get two from your secondary. And it has to be there.
The Stars have had some very real fundamental issues this season, but perhaps the biggest standout is just how little "fight" the team has had at times. Last year this was a gritty and in-your-face hockey team that could quickly get up the ice. The defense certainly wasn't perfect and the team was inconsistent at times, but the foundation of the Stars last year was the hard work they put into the game in all areas of the ice.
That's not to say this has been just an "effort" issue all along; instead, Ruff is making it known to his team that in order to fix these systemic issues it's going to have to start first and foremost with hard work, extra effort and an extra gear and some tried and true grit to bear down and push through when adversity starts to mount.
Ruff, when asked if part of the issues have come from the amount of hype the team had coming into the season, stated that was just a part of the equation...and then openly acknowledged what everyone has seen...
...that opponents figured out how to beat the Dallas Stars.
That can be a small factor. I think that we had good success. The success we had was on the heels of how determined we were to get there. I think sometimes when you acquire a couple players, and you think 'we should be better' -- you see a couple of players going into year two, or year three, and you think 'these guys are going to be better.'
At the same time, our team got a lot of recognition for the way it played. There teams that have now come out and said 'we're not going give them these opportunities, we're going to try to frustrate the hell out of them when we get into their building'. I think some teams have done that to us and some of our players haven't been able to fight through that frustration.
And that frustration has shown up on some nights as undisciplined penalties and then a 'why is this happening to us?'...
When we get through this, we're going to be a better team. We went through a pretty demanding, pretty tough stretch last year. I think this one now it tougher than what we went through, but I am sure we're going to get through it.
So now the onus falls not just on Ruff, but on the players to follow through and get this gigantic monkey off their back. Losing at home, not just how often they are but in how they're losing, has become absolutely demoralizing to both the fans and to the players. The loss to the Hurricanes left the players searching for answers once again, and the coach says that to get through that sort of internal adversity it's going to be up to the leaders on the team to show the way forward.
I had a 15-20 meeting with the core of our team today. We've got a great group of young players, we've got young players where some of them, last year, experienced the playoffs for the first time. Now, some of them dealing with some of that adversity you're going to deal with. In front of your home fans, where you want to perform so well, we've disappointed.
That blank look is what I saw when I walked into that room last night after the game. It's a look of disbelief, it's a look of "what they heck is going on.' They're looking for my leadership, they're looking for my support but they're also looking for me to push them. We dealt with that part of it today. They know that I've got to push them to another level...but they know that, at the same time, they're going to get my support.
Everybody ropes. Everybody rides.
It's been the motto for the team every since Lindy Ruff arrived in Dallas, and it's the only way this team is going to pull out of this with any chance or hope for the postseason remain alive. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Trevor Daley, Kari Lehtonen...all players that are incredibly important to this team, but they won't be able to do it alone.
Only as a team will the Stars pull through this. Six years ago, when the issues in the locker room were much, much more significant than anything this current team may be going through -- the Stars nearly fought all the way back.
If this team, this season, has any hopes of doing the same -- it has to start tonight.