We are 46 games into the season, and the Dallas Stars are four points out of the 8th and final playoff spot with two other teams to leapfrog.* Considering the Stars' predisposition to turn every team they face into a higher-scoring version of the 2009 Penguins when it comes to allowing goals, they could probably be in much worse shape. That 8th team happens to be Calgary right now, and we all know they are not going to be in the mix when the music stops in April, right? Of course not, that's crazy talk. Sit down, Winnipeg, it's not your turn to talk yet. Also, ever.
*Leapfrog, incidentally, will be one of the mascot games Victor E. Green and other mascots will be playing during All-Star Weekend in Columbus. It will be an actual circus.
It's never that simple though, as evidenced by the fact that Dallas hasn't really tasted a playoff spot since the season got up and running. Chasing is chasing, and the Stars have forced themselves to do it all year long. It's like playing with five defensemen on your team. You can do it, and you can win while you're doing it, but when you reduce your margin for error, you're just begging for the slightest bit of catastrophe to derail your plans beyond hope of recovery. (See: SHG in Winnipeg game.)
So my question is, what do the Stars really have to do in order to put themselves in that 8th spot come season's end? We know they had their struggles last year, but they overcame a rough start (6 points through the first 8 games), and we still got to see postseason hockey at the AAC. Can't the Stars just hope for the same magic as last year?
I was curious, so I went back and charted the Stars' last seven seasons (08-09 up to the present) to see what sort of a run they have shown themselves capable of rattling off. Also it was an excuse to make myself feel like an Excel power user without having to use any macros or add-ins. These are not great graphs, but they are at least multicolored.
Let's start with an overall picture just to see where this year falls in relation to the other post-2008 years:
See that little yellow dot almost in the center? That's where this season is right now.
I have overlooked the fact that with all the ups and downs, the Stars are now at exactly the same place they were last year: 49 points through 46 games. In fact, it’s kind of creepy to note that six of the last seven seasons have seen the Stars amass between 48 and 50 points through this same time period. The graph below makes you wonder if some invisible force is sucking all variance and potential into some sort of regression portal in an attempt to keep the universe stable. I think numbers are really just witchcraft.
All roads lead to Rome, I guess. That is, if Rome is a statistically probably place to land at that point in the NHL season instead of the center of the known world a couple thousand years ago. This is, if nothing else, probably a good lesson about not freaking out too much if you stumble in a five-game stretch here or there in the first half. I mean, losing is bad, but you get the idea. It’s a long season, and those lines bounce around a lot but rarely deviate all that much from their trajectories. It takes a little while to know what you have, unless your team is Buffalo.
The 2011-12 Stars got off to a rip-roaring start, as you can see. With game-winning goals being potted by folks like Vernon Fiddler, Sheldon Souray, Trevor Daley, Adam Burish and Michael Ryder, the Stars had themselves a wonderful little start that was obviously going to last forever until it didn’t. After topping out at 11-3-0 for 22 points through just 14 games, the Stars found themselves viciously yanked back to the mean. They scored only four goals in their next five games while surrendering 21, losing all five contests and slipping back into the pack. Losing five games in a row was a trick they would demonstrate again, as we'll see.
Say, you’ve probably noticed that green outlier from 2010 to 2011 up there. What, did you forget that the Stars went absolutely banana sandwich that year in the first half?
...the Dallas Stars were in much the same boat [as the Avs the previous year]. They began the season 29-13-5 (63 points in 47 games, a pace for 110 points or so) and were on top of the world. Their PDO at the time was 102.9, tops among all NHL clubs, while their fenwick was 25th at 46.5. They were also fifth in the league standings, and third in the West. [PD]
And we all know what happened: the Stars had built themselves enough of a cushion to withstand some mild regression later on, and they proudly marched into the playoffs alongside all the other four teams from the Pacific Division that year. It was truly a remarkable....a remarkable...aw, nuts.
You'll also notice the flat orange segment at the top right. That was the notorious January from last year during which the Stars went 4-9-2. That somehow did not torpedo their season, as we know now.
Oh, and to put a bow on the 2011-12 season, the Stars did manage to crawl back up to 89 points with 77 games played when they all decided to start putting Tapatio in their Gatorade or something. They dropped another five horse collars in the win column to send the fans to summer break with those same 89 points, allowing the Kings to grab the 8th spot with 95 points. The Kings would win the Stanley Cup that year, but whatever, the Stars totally wouldn't have done the same thing, so there's no reason to feel bad about it.
Anyway, we're talking about this year. Sure, the Stars may be keeping pace with a lot of not-playoff teams and one barely-playoff team from years past, but what do they need to do in the final 36 games to give us another shot at seeing Alex Goligoski destroy Corey Perry? Well, they've sort of started doing it already, insofar as they went 3-2-0 over their last five games to partially recover from the worst 41-game start of any Stars team in this timespan (other than the fire sale squad of the 13-13 lockout-shortened year).
With the loser point in play, teams need to earn a tick under 1.2 points per game over the course of a season if they hope to make the playoffs. So far, the Stars have earned 1.07 points per game, which is basically an 87-point pace. That's not going to get the job done, and it is why they are where they are.
But now let's look at the last 36 games from this same time period. What would a playoff-procuring run look like?
To put it succinctly, it would probably have to be better than any of these. The best stretch of 36 games up there--last year's oft-mentioned resurgence of 19-13-4--would put this year's Stars at the same 91 points that was good for bonus hockey last year. But this year? Well, the Flames are on pace for 92-93 points, although we might expect them to continue fading. The Kings and Avs (ha ha) are ahead of Dallas as well, and it's probably a bit much to ask all three of those teams to fall short of 90 points considering the lead they have on the Stars now.
That said, and in the interest of trying to peddle some hope here, let's say that the Kings don't quite turn it up as much as they need to what with 21 of their 35 remaining games being on the road, and they "only" go 17-14-4, which is an absolutely pessimistic scenario for LA (especially given their top-tier possession stats). That gives them 90 points. Calgary, being Calgary, goes 15-15-5, ending with 89 points.
Colorado is annexed by Wyoming in March during a surprising period of civil unrest in the Rocky Mountain region, and the Avs move back to Quebec for next year.* In that case, all it takes is for the Stars to repeat last year's miracle stretch run without the Wild turning elite behind them all of a sudden, and boom. They're in the playoffs again.
*And even if this doesn't happen, all the underlying statistics suggest that Colorado is going to fade. (Yeah, I know, just like they were last year.)
Is this scenario that puts the Stars into the playoffs likely? It is not likely. Historically, we see that holes dug early are hills to be climbed later, and only once in seven years has the team been able to summit the peaks of their own making, and that was with Kari playing 65 games with very good numbers. No, if we're being candid, it is more likely that things will continue as they have, and that the Stars will not go on an equal run to last season. And even if they do match their post-Olympics tear, it is perfectly possible that 91 points still won't be enough.
If you don't bank on other teams' collapses, then the Stars would need to pull off something amazing like 21-10-5 for 96 points in order to comfortably assure themselves of a playoff game. But hey, the 2010-11 Stars proved that such runs are possible even with inferior teams, and last year's group showed that other teams can and do stumble down the stretch. Likelihood is all well and good until something else happens. No one really knows anything about these last 36 games, even though we think we probably do know some things. We thought we knew about the Seahawks/Packers game last week until the third dimension started melting like a microwaved Barbie doll.
Let's end with this: Last year's group did not have a true second line, a real life John Klingberg, or much of a productive fourth line by any stretch. This year's group has Tyler Seguin on an historic goal-scoring pace and almost the entire team hitting the net with regularity. Even Travis Moen scored as soon as he showed up; goals have been that contagious. Nemeth and Nichushkin are very possibly returning in the next month or two.
There are bright spots in this group that we haven't had around here for some time, so I suppose you could say that if there is a team you would pick to hit the jackpot with a 15% chance for the playoffs, this might be one of the best squads to do it. And even if they don't, we should probably try to enjoy this season anyway. Goodness knows that Dallas Stars games are as watchable as any in the league these days.