That was a tough one. Last night, I mean. The free-falling, no-longer-in-the-playoffs-being San Jose Sharks staggered in to Dallas to face a Stars team fresh from dismantling the St. Louis Blues. The Kings had won the night before, and Winnipeg was in the process of dropping a 5-1 decision to the Washington Capitals. Points, precious, beautiful points were there for the taking, ground could have been made up. Instead, the Stars dropped a 5-2 heartbreaker. Their second in the past three games.
It’s funny how quickly perception can change. Beat the Sharks, and Stars fans can talk about a tough-luck loss to the Avs, followed by two clutch wins much more indicative of their quality. Instead they lost, and we get to wonder if victory in St. Louis wasn’t more a product of a quick three-goal burst than anything actually sustainable. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m conflicted.
I guess the good news is that, in the three games since Florida, the Stars have proven no more volatile than they were in all of the games leading up to the Panthers debacle. Without Tyler Seguin, Ales Hemsky, and Patrick Eaves, the boys in Victory Green are still capable of beating absolutely any team in the league. The bad news is that they take "any team" quite literally, and all-too-often the team Dallas beats is itself.
The thing is, the Stars are not as bad as you’d expect. In the three games immediately after losing Seguin, the Stars have averaged exactly even in shot differentially (an average of 28.6 per game each way). Shots against is particularly interesting, because 28.6 would represent a top 10 pace were they able to maintain that level throughout the season. There has been some regression from the 31 shots they averaged with Seguin, but not nearly enough to suggest some massive offensive implosion.
Team-wide, the Stars seem to have responded to adversity by upping their overall level of effort. This is particularly evident when we look at special teams. In all three PS games, the Stars have out-chanced their opponent on the power play (10 power plays for, 6 power plays against).
Individually, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza (two of the players most expected to step up) have done so admirably. Benn has six points during the stretch (3 G / 3 A) including his first career hat-trick. Spezza sits just a single point behind with one goal and four assists over the same stretch. That’s impressive production, but unfortunately, support elsewhere in the lineup has been an issue.
Dallas has scored seven goals over the past three games. Only a single one of those seven goals has not involved either Benn or Spezza in some capacity (Eakin’s beauty from the Blues win). If we require both Benn and Spezza to be involved, that number jumps all the way to… two (Erik Cole’s marker from last night). Yes, a bit of a scoring slog was to be expected, but not to such an extreme.
The cluster of players most expected (hoped) to benefit from increased opportunity have thus far struggled. Colton Sceviour continues to see his ice time fluctuate wildly (18 minutes versus Colorado, 10 against St. Louis, 17 against San Jose), and has only managed five shots on goal. Brett Ritchie has not been shy about throwing his weight around (eight hits), but the scoring touch that saw him start so brightly has been absent. Curtis McKenzie, meanwhile, hasn’t put a puck on net all week. All three are pointless, as are Shawn Horcoff, Antoine Roussel, and Vernon Fiddler. It’s clearly a problem the Stars have noticed, otherwise, we likely would not have seen Brendan Ranford join the list of Dallas call-ups this season.
It’s also a problem because Dallas’ goaltending has once again begun to struggle. The win in St. Louis was the only game this week in which a Stars netminder beat .900 SV%. While that might be a touch unfair of an evaluation of Jhonas Enroth’s first start, the fairness balances out when we remember the second goal San Jose scored. On the heels of four standout performances, Kari Lehtonen got himself pulled from a critical home game against a team Dallas is directly chasing in the standings.
With a win last night, Dallas would have closed to within two points of the 8th seed, with two games in hand. They would have, furthermore, closed to within 6 points of Winnipeg, again, with two points in hand. One result would have heaped pressure upon the Wild, Kings, Sharks and Jets, even the Flames and Canucks would likely have felt some kind of heat. The loss scuppers all of that. Last night the Stars did not lose ground, exactly. They’re no more adrift than they were Thursday morning, but at this stage in the season, opportunities to catch up a scarce.
In the wake of the injuries, Lindy Ruff had a great quote: "It can give another guy an opportunity." It’s true, right now, numerous Stars are in the spotlight, but there’s an unspoken second stanza. Getting an opportunity and taking the opportunity are two entirely different things. Zero points and bad goals against aren’t going to get Dallas any closer to the playoff field. Someone needs to step up. I guess the good news is the list of candidates is a long one.