There really is no such thing as a "four-point" game when you think about it. A team has 82 chances to gain points throughout the season, and they either gain enough points in those games, or they do not. If you earn 100 points by winning every game against the East and losing in overtime to Western teams 36 times, you will make the playoffs. You can end the season looking back on specific losses against teams you were chasing to explain why you failed to make the playoffs, but you can just as easily look at a seemingly less-important game (Buffalo, Philadelphia, New York Islanders) to explain why that divisional game became so important in the first place.
If you skipped the intro paragraph because it sounded too patronizing, here is what I am saying: you are in trouble when it comes to "four-point" games if your failure in "two-point" games is what makes, say, the San Jose match so critical in the first place. Practically speaking, sure: if you can win a game against a fellow wild-card-seeking team, the victory deals a blow to their hopes roughly equivalent to the boost it lends your own. It is a good thing, and given the choice between winning 20 games against the Central and winning 20 games against the East, the Stars should always choose the latter. Guess what? They have done the opposite of beating the Central Division teams this year, and despite the Stars' ability to beat up on Western Canadian teams, they have failed to separate themselves from the lower middle class of the West. With 24 games remaining, that lack of separation means that the Stars are now the forty-sixth person in line for the grand release of the new Beanie Babies, and whoops, the store only received forty units of "Glory" and "Princess." You could have set your alarm earlier, but you were busy with other things, and you kind of just hoped you would wake up early enough, and then you needed to get gas, and there was weird traffic and stuff and, well, here you are. Sure, it's possible that six of the other people further ahead of you in line might just be in that parking lot at 5:35am to buy some decoupage supplies, but the stronger likelihood is that you simply showed up too late. You will be going home and watching those Beanie Baby eBay auctions like every other sucker, bidding up to and beyond what you can really afford for something you could have gotten much more easily but for poor planning and poorer execution.
The Stars could still make the playoffs. They sit at 62 points with 24 games to play, meaning they need to go at least something like 15-6-3. In case you hate math, that means they have to get points in three of every four games the rest of the way. Losing to other teams on the outside looking in (which is what the Sharks essentially are when you consider games played) hurts more, but every loss is going to hurt tremendously from here on out. Each loss in regulation means that the Stars need to get points in seven of their following eight games. A three-game skid, and they're done.
Look at it this way: if the Stars are Super Mario, they only have a few lives they can afford to lose. They're on the last level, and it has a ton of spikes and lava and Lakitu-propelled Spinies all over the place. Each death (isn't that kind of what last night felt like?) gives you less leeway for mistakes down the road, and you are most certainly going to need those lives when you look at the teams left on the schedule. The Stars end the season playing against Anaheim and Nashville, which is the equivalent of those !$#@%^& hammer brothers right before the flagpole in world 8-3 or whatever. Would Super Mario rather have a couple lives left at that point, or would he prefer to toss them away upon his first Goomba encounter? Well, Mr. Brothers, you already spent a life on the world 1-1 Goomba named Buffalo.
Kari needed to be better than Niemi, and he wasn't. Erik Cole needed to take Vlasic's stick, and he didn't. The Stars needed more than two goals last night, and they couldn't get them. Kari has been better lately than he was earlier this year, and Erik Cole has been better than he was last year, but this team has no use for those sorts of relative compliments these days. The Stars have to be better than the other team, and they usually have not been. Talk about timely saves, clutch goals or sturdy defense all you want, but this season has evidenced a pattern of mediocrity far too long for me to hold out much hope that the "real" squad is lurking underneath, ready for a dramatic and improbable (fantastical, really) run that propels them flush-faced into the throes of playoff drama.
The stat I keep frowning at is shot differential. The Stars have the worst record in the league when outshooting their opponents, but this, I think, is something of a mirage. It isn't as though the Stars have been unlucky, either-their shooting percentage is actually one of the best in the league this year. It is, rather, a clear example of score effects. The Stars can open up the game (both ways, unfortunately) like few other teams in the league, and when they fall behind, the other team becomes less interested in taking advantage of that. So you end up with games like last night, where the Stars are taking risk after risk in hopes of generating a scoring opportunity, racking up shots of various quality all the while. San Jose sits back and rarely bothers pressing the other way-after all, why do they need to? They were able to sustain nearly every push the Stars could muster when they sat back as a unit, and when the Stars really only had one scoring line, that's not asking too much of a quality (if dysfunctional) group of players like the Sharks. Thus, you end up with a team that the bare shots tell us pushed harder than San Jose, when in reality the Sharks pushed precisely as hard as they needed to in order to withstand the best the Stars could bring.
Even so, that Benn crossbar, that Cole backhand that fluttered into a Dillon-blinded Niemi, and that Klingberg shot that whistled just wide--these things sustain the illusion that the Stars are a great team getting the shaft, when such chances really just illustrate the Stars' greatest strength: the ability to slide the Power meter farther away from "Lock It Down" and closer to "GO GO GO" than just about any team in the league. When the other team isn't interested in counter-attacking, it makes the Stars look downright dominant, but we know that a truly dominant team wouldn't be trailing as often as the Stars are in the first place.
Getting caught up in "must-win" games is an inherently deceptive experience. If the team wins, it confirms that the team's mettle is a touch higher than that of the other horses in the race, just like you hoped; if they lose, all your fears manifest themselves in angry despair fraught with "Why, why, why?" You want to find the "why" and fix it or at least point fingers at those who should have found and fixed the issue preemptively. You want your wrongs redressed by those most responsible, but I fear that we may have to wait until next year for it to happen. This group is good, and the dominance isn't always an illusion, yes. But their game has not been anywhere close to flawless enough for a division where Nashville and (maybe) Winnipeg decided to join Chicago and St. Louis on the next tier while Devan Dubnyk became Pekka Rinne. The Stars worked out a lot of their issues after November's end, but the time is nearly here when they'll have to accept the ultimate cost of those struggles, fall back, and regroup from the starting line. That time is not here quite yet, though. Technically.