If "ifs" and "buts"
Were candy and nuts
We'd all have a merry Christmas
-General Zachary "Old Rough and Ready" Taylor, I am guessing
If not for Ondrej Pavelec, the Stars would have been in a three-way tie with LA and Calgary Monday afternoon for the second wild card spot, five points back of Winnipeg.
Or, if not for that silly Brad Richards goal in the other Chicago game, the Stars would be 5-3-1 in January.
Again, if not for an absurdly avoidable Colorado collapse, the Stars would already be back amid the playoff talk everyone handed out to them so willingly after July 1st.
You can keep doing this with, unfortunately, quite a few losses this season. The Stars are back on the right track, it seems, but they're also still a few rungs away from chicken-fighting the other players on the ladder. That's what happens when you can't win in overtime, when you can't get solid goaltending, when you can't suppress shots for more than a couple of games here and there. Put another way, if you don't play well enough to win, you aren't going to win enough to play in April.
But these are happier days, even after the 0-2-2 stretch the Stars fell upon in the winter month of January. Kari Lehtonen sent a message on Sunday which suggested that he might actually still be the Kari we hung out with a bunch last year, and Tyler Seguin laughed when you asked him if he was going to break out of his funk, because Tyler Seguin scores goals like that one guy at work waddles over to the snack table when there is birthday cake. I am saying that it is very easy for him to do.
It's no secret that defense has been an important part of the Stars' resurgence, though. Even Lindy Ruff thinks so, per Josh Cooper:
"Really, we’ve played some great games and maybe our goaltending hasn’t been the best. Then maybe we’ve had some good goaltending and we’ve had defensive breakdowns that have left our goaltender by himself. It really has been a combination of everything," head coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think there are a lot of ways to lose and I think we’ve found every way."
They needed better team defense. Ruff thinks they made that shift.
"I think it all started with defending better, probably a month ago when we left for our trip out West, we started to keep the goals against down," Ruff said. "It started there, though we had a couple of games here where the goals against have gotten up. The ability to score is one of our stronger suits, but one of the things that will allow us back in the hunt and remain consistent is to defend on a consistent basis." [Puck Daddy]
And from CBS Sports:
No one could claim the defense is fixed, at least not completely. But they are better and have been improving as the year goes on.
The Stars were one of the most porous teams at even strength with only three teams in the entire league allowing more even-strength shots on goal the first 24 games of the season. In the past 21 games, the team has made its way back to the middle of the pack when it comes to even-strength shots allowed.
The team's possession metrics have improved as well. Over the first portion of the season, the Stars had a sub-50 percent Corsi for percentage, but it has improved to 52 percent over the past 21 games. That's a pretty solid uptick for a team that still is utilizing some less experienced players on the back end.
Dallas is second in the NHL even-strength goals per 60 minutes over their past 21 games. The goal scoring was never a problem, though. Even as the defense has improved, goal prevention has been an issue and it's keeping the Stars from fully enjoying this much more positive stretch of the season.
Of course we know that goaltending has been a big issue, too, but where defense/shot suppression improves, goaltending is likely to follow. (and there's tons more in both of those pieces, so check them out.)
It's kind of unbelievable that the silliest predictions about this season came true in the first 45 games to the degree that we've seen. Yes, we knew defense would be a bit touch and go, but no one quite expected the Jenga tower to collapse just because someone rang the doorbell. And yes, we expected the team to score, but to be pouring pucks into the net like an irresponsible neighbor serves up Sunny Delight to the local kids? It's so strange to see the extremes manifest themselves so willingly.
I'll tell you what, though: it makes for some pretty entertaining hockey when the Stars can actually push back. And not that I want this ever to happen because it would mean I am sure to die from a heart attack after the second period, but can you imagine if the Stars met Chicago in the first round of the playoffs? That would be some worthwhile television right there.*
*Down side: I'd have to assume that any watching Eastern Conference teams would just turn off the tv after game one and secede from the NHL right then and there, beginning their own tournament for the Stan Lee Cup, a new trophy they can actually win. It would be made of wadded-up Spiderman comics wrapped in Scotch tape and tinfoil and shaped like a child's version of the Lombardi Trophy. And they would be perfectly happy to win it.
* * * * *
If Seguin scores a hat trick tonight, I have full confidence that fans will throw some glazed donuts on the ice in addition to the usual headwear.
If you're one of those insufferable spectators who screams, "SHOOOOOT!" during your team's power play, then guess what? Lindy Ruff agrees with you. [DMN]
The second half just might look different than the first half. Especially if Jason Spezza heats up. Historically, "his career PPG go from 0.97 before the All-Star Game to 1.09 points per game" afterwards. [NHL]
That Horcoff hit on Sharp is something else, says The Hockey News. [THN]
The Stars need to act like they are in charge if they want to make a run, and that means forgetting about the first three minutes in Chicago Sunday. [DMN]
If you're still bemoaning the Stars' backup goalie plan this season, Derek Neumeier--we just call him "Derek" 'round these parts--has a knowledge bomb to detonate: none of the available backups are really doing well this year, with one exception. [The Hockey Writers]
The Blues continued what I believe is their thirty-two game point streak with a 3-1 win over Colorado. [NHL]
Great stuff here: Sam Page digs into Shea Weber's unimpressive possession stats to see if he can find out why such a good defenseman doesn't look like it with regard to shot attempts. [SI]
And in the "Of Course It Went to Overtime" division, Calgary beat Los Angeles. In Overtime. On a reviewed goal. See, it is possible to win games during those five minutes! [NHL]
Terry Frei points at Aaron Ekblad to make the case that young defensemen don't always need a ton of time to develop. Still, it's hard to look at one of the only players ever to earn OHL exceptional player status and say that he's emblematic of a wider trend. [Denver Post]
Daniel Carcillo got six games. "I didn’t think it was very, like, malicious or anything, you know?" Carcillo added. [Chicago Tribune]
Tyler Myers for Ryan O'Reilly? It's not as simple as it sounds, says Bob McKenzie. [TSN]
Yay, a Winter Classic hosted by a team that's already hosted one before. Canadiens are cool, though. Boston...well. Boston. At least Loui gets a neat (hopefully) jersey out of it. By the way, Winnipeg, Minnesota and Colorado will probably all play outdoors next year as well. (Not in the same game, though!) [Puck Daddy]
Hitch is now 5th on the all-time coaching wins list, and he'll likely be 4th before season's end. [Pro Hockey Talk]
Finally, check out this juicy backhand by another OHL exceptional player: one John Tavares, who led the Isles past Philly yesterday afternoon with a 7-4 win. As an aside, I know everyone talks about how the Stars are trying to build something like we've seen in Detroit or Chicago, but it really does feel like New York is having the season Dallas was supposed to have. 22nd in goals against, 2nd in goals per game, and it's working, thanks in no small part to a very good OT/shootout record: