As the Dallas Stars prepare to take on another team ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, a Calgary Flames squad that for most of the season has far surpassed the play of the well-hyped Stars, another crossroads in the season appears.
Winners of their last two games, both of which were against struggling teams in games that were far from perfect, the Stars now try to find a way to build on that momentum and continue to improve at a crucial moment in a season that has gone rather awry.
If the Stars have any hope whatsoever of pulling themselves out of this gigantic hole they have dug for themselves, these are the games they absolutely must win. This is a Flames team that will be playing extremely desperate on home ice tonight, a Flames team that has been rather decent for most of the season, and so far we have yet to see the Stars truly step up and show the level of desperation and fight they must have to win these sorts of games.
Vancouver was just this sort of game, and if it weren't for the heroics of Kari Lehtonen we'd be discussing yet another bad, bad loss in a season full of them. Yet Kari stood tall and gave his team hope, and the team eventually responded in kind, but for a team that had preached so much about using those practice days to come out swinging -- it was a rather alarmingly flat start.
Perhaps what was most concerning was that, once again, we didn't see the sort of physical response from the Stars that teams in their position need. We didn't seen anyone stand up for Erik Cole against Winnipeg, and it wasn't until Curtis McKenzie started letting the fists fly against the Canucks did the Stars actually seem to wake up.
Mike Heika, who is more in tune with this team than anyone, had some choice words after the 2-0 win on Wednesday night.
We have witnessed two very motivated teams in the past 12 days. Winnipeg wanted to make a statement in its game in Dallas, and the Jets clearly showed that hunger on the ice. Vancouver wanted to stop the bleeding and get back to having one of the great unexpected seasons in the West, and the Canucks clearly showed that hunger on the ice.
When are the Stars going to show their hunger?
They have had some nice moments, but they have played their best against tired or beaten teams. They need to get back to establishing a hard, fast game right from the start, and they need to think about that while they're enjoying a two-game winning streak.
The biggest issue this team has right now is fear of mistakes, so getting that energy early requires a little more confidence. But the edge the Stars need might not be risk-related so much as it is simply engaging in the battle. You don't need to be out of position to drive a player through the boards. You don't need to be cheating when you skate in hard on the forecheck. Do something hard, do it quickly, and get off the ice. That's something both the Jets and Canucks did in games where they were being tested.
Lindy Ruff shuffled his lines once more against Vancouver, and will roll into Calgary with what seems like yet another iteration of the forward combos. What's ironic is that this shuffling seems to have finally worked to find a good balance and returned to some line combinations that worked rather well for the Stars in recent weeks.
Benn - Eakin - Seguin
McKenzie - Spezza - Cole
Roussel - Morin - Hemsky
Horcoff - Fiddler - Sceviour
Curtis McKenzie has done everything but score these past few games, while Travis Morin continues to impress in his short time with the Stars this season. Is this a lineup that can show the sort of "fight" and hunger they need? Does it matter what sort of line combinations Lindy Ruff throws out there? No matter what, every player on the ice must find a way to show the same level of hunger and drive that the team so desperately needs -- and has shown at times -- but never shown consistently and in the games they need it.
The constant line shuffling is what it is at this point; even through victories Ruff has shown an inability to stick with a certain combination for longer that four straight periods. There's a good chance these combinations aren't what we see tonight, or if they are -- they get shuffled midway through the game anyway.
The players must prepare for that and individually and as a team must overcome it -- show the speed and tenacity that defined the Stars last season, which has been flashed at times this season, and finally start to build on some wins.
Last season, the Dallas Stars finally found their game in a 7-3 drubbing of the Flames in Calgary. It was the defining win of the early months of the season and propelled the Stars forward; here's another chance to do the same again tonight.
Jordie Benn is ill and will not play tonight. Expected defensive pairings:
Goligoski - Klingberg
Jokipakka - Daley
Oleksiak - Demers
Kari Lehtonen in net.