On Thursday night the Dallas Stars played in what could have been the most frustrating hockey game I've seen in my six years of covering the team. Coming off a good comeback win over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night the Stars welcomed the Big and Bad Winnipeg Jets into town, a chance to notch a victory over a tough Central Division foe that had been steamrolling teams the past week and make a definitive statement heading into the second half of the season.
If I had told you the Stars would have the advantage in shots (47-22), faceoffs (47-21) and overall shot attempts (97-37!!) I'm sure that most fans would assume that there was utter domination on the scoreboard and that a statement victory was indeed enjoyed.
Instead, the Stars didn't score until 1:16 remaining in the game on a Trevor Daley blast from the top of the circle that came just too late to matter -- especially given the incredibly unlucky goal that was given up while on the power play just a few minutes before.
The mechanics of the game and what "went wrong" are interesting to dissect, and chances are likely we won't see a game like that again anytime soon. On the surface it appeared as if Ondrej Pavelec had the game of his life, stopping 45 of 46 shots in a rare win for the veteran netminder this season -- yet the Stars certainly didn't do themselves any favors either with the amount of blocked and missed shots that never even made it on net.
Shot selection is an interesting concept to try and break down, and last night I was able to get a few different views on the game from a number of angles. The Stars put 22 shots on goal in the second period, dominated possession and never gave up much defensively, and yet showed increasing frustration and anger every time a shot didn't hit the twine in the back of the net. This resulted in rushed shots as the game went on, it resulted in trying to "pick the corners" a bit too much when open shots did present themselves and for whatever reason -- the best scoring opportunities always seemed to be just an inch out of reach.
The Jets did a magnificent job of not allowing many second chances on the shots the Stars did get through, and did an even better job of blocking shot lanes and generally disrupting the Stars every time a shot was about to be taken.
There are a few moments that stand out specifically -- Antoine Roussel comes up with the puck in the left circle and has a clear lane to shoot on net, but his shot is sent wide when his stick is lifted from behind. At first it looks like another shot sent wide by 5 feet, yet in reality it was just one in a series of thwarting defensive moves made by the Jets in the game.
Another was on the rush in the second period, when John Klingberg sliced his way through the zone and called for the pass for what should have been a wide-open one-timer. It was a great play by all involved, yet Klingberg's shot was pushed about 5 inches wide of the net. Why? The pass was just a bit off, and the Jets recovered well to cover the shooting lane that developed.
What happened on Thursday night was an aberration. Offense has not been an issue for the Stars this season. Scoring has been spread throughout the lineup through most of the season and the Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky line has finally started to come together. It's hard to make any sort of definitive statements overall on the season because of last night's game, and in fact there were a lot of encouraging signs -- yet this loss stings more given the ramifications. A win would have put Dallas just five points behind Winnipeg in the standings. Instead, the Stars are now nine points back, in a very frustrating four-point swing.
Perhaps most frustrating is the continued ineptitude of the Dallas Stars power play, one that sits in the bottom third of the NHL and one that could have been the difference in the losses over this 1-2-2 slump. On Thursday the Stars went 0-for-7, which seems as if it was just as bad as it has been all season, yet in reality the man-advantage looked better than it has in quite some time.
You could see what the Stars were trying to do -- they know they've held the puck too long, and the passes were quicker, happened faster once received, and the Stars were funneling pucks to the net more than they have in recent games. In fact, the Stars had 30 shot attempts across those seven power plays and 20 scoring chances, including eight shots on net in one single power play.
Compare this to the loss in Colorado (0-for-3 on the power play, 11 scoring chances, 20 shot attempts), where the Stars lost despite having a 47-21 differential in scoring chances and another absurd 84-43 advantage in shot attempts. In fact, aside from the Stars actually scoring early in that game, the outcomes and methods of the loss were eerily similar.
We're going to be breaking down the issues with the power play in more detail next week, but these struggles aren't new. The Stars have not been good on the power play in a long time, and are on pace to have the least amount of shots on goal per power play in the NHL by season's end. So...what to do about it?
The public is crying for the head of Curt Fraser, a sacrificial lamb for the issues with the power play because he is ostensibly in charge of that and nothing else. Fraser is the lone holdover from when Glen Gulutzan was behind the bench and the same issues persist on the power play now as they did then -- not enough movement, not enough shots getting through and not enough scoring.
If this team could just find a way to be in the top half of the NHL on the power play, the results of this season would be much, much different.
Here's the problem, however -- like Mike Valley, the chances of the Stars changing an assistant coach in the middle of the season are somewhere between slim and none. It just doesn't happen in the NHL, and it especially won't happen with Jim Nill as the General Manager. That doesn't mean the assistant coaches won't get a hard and honest evaluation over the summer, but these sorts of changes midseason just don't happen that often.
At some point the players also have to bear some of the blame. These are some of the most skilled players in the NHL, and yet the creativity is sapped whenever that power play begins. Momentum halts and the Stars' half-court game is beyond frustrating to watch sometimes. On Thursday, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn had the best looks of anyone on the power play yet never converted -- is that the lone fault of the coach?
When things aren't going like we want or expect, we ask for immediate change in order to somehow alter the course of how things are flowing. In sports, sometimes the "long game" is needed; you need a coach to work on implementing his system, or a General Manager to have more than 18 months to completely change a defensive corps that in reality -- is actually improving as the season progresses.
There's a good chance that the Stars miss the postseason and assistant coaches are changed. It won't happen during the season, however, no matter how much we think such change will affect what's happening on the ice. Perhaps it would, perhaps it wouldn't.
This season has been one of the most frustrating we've had to go through as fans and you better believe that same frustration is being felt by the players. The locker room after the loss to the Jets was filled with anger and frustration over how things played out, how the Stars dominated and once again couldn't get the important two points they needed.
Yet, as another coach says so often in Dallas, this is a process. Jim Nill came to the Stars with a long-term plan in mind, and he's going to see that play out, and making rash decisions because of building frustration leads to moves that set a franchise back -- instead of moving it forward.