Vladamir Tarasenko scored his 24th goal of the season last night to pull even with Dallas Stars' captain and leading NHL goal scorer Jamie Benn. Meanwhile, Patrick Kane has pushed his league-leading point total to eight, widening the gap between him and second-place Benn (60 vs 52) and Tyler Seguin (60 vs 50).
That's what three games scoreless and a benching for Dallas' dynamic duo will get you. Where once fans wondered how many goals this team might actually score, and marveled at Antti Niemi's big-save bravado, they're now staring down the barrel of three straight losses, and four losses from the last five games. It's a sobering reality check for fans lost in a heady first half-season.
It reminds me of another ascendant Stars team. Once upon a time the Stars parlayed a pair of high-profile acquisitions - Sergei Zubov and Darryl Sydor - into a division title and the franchise's first 100-point season. This superb unit won 48 games, was top ten in both goals for (7th) and against (3rd), and blended young skill (Mike Modano was just 26 years old), and cultured excellence (Guy Carbonneau was not 26 years old).
That team got punched in the mouth by Todd Marchant and bowed out in a Round 1, Game 7 against the Edmonton Oilers.
So they doubled down. In came Ed Belfour and Mike Keane, and things got better. That season's squad retained the division title, and added the President's Trophy. They swapped out top ten finishes for top five finishes (3rd in Goals For / 2nd in Goals Against) and stomped the Sharks (six games) and Oilers (five games) come playoff time. Except for Joe Nieuwendyk, who got torpedoed by the despicable Bryan Marchment.
It still wasn't enough. That promising bunch dropped a six game set against the eventual-champion Detroit Red Wings.
We all know what happened next. Brett Hull joined, angels sang, Edmonton was again handled, and finally, the Stars ascended to the top of the NHL heap. They'd very nearly repeat, but for a stifling Devils team and sad encounter with cold medicine.
The team's recent stumbles have me thinking more and more about that era. It's easy to forget how gradually success came on. Even after the team got "good." Minus Hull, the Modano-Lehtinen-Nieuwendyk-Hatcher-Zubov-Matvichuk-Langenbrunner-Sydor core was locked in as early as 1997. Browsing the roster, even complimentary pieces like Hogue, Carbo, and Keane were around.
This year's version has flaunted its high-end skill in a way that obscured its relatively modest achievements. We've all heard about the Stanley Cup Pedigree brought by Johnny Oduya, Patrick Sharp, and Antti Niemi, but none of those titles came in Big D. Neither did Seguin's, nor did Jamie Benn's Olympic gold medals. John Klingberg has never appeared in the NHL playoffs. Jason Spezza had one magical playoff run in 2006-2007, but has only played in 20 playoff games since.
It's been interesting to hear Razor talk about the team outscoring its problems. In my mind, that's a deliberate word choice. For all of the exquisite things they do well, this is still an in-progress squad. There are lessons to learn, flaws to correct, and maybe even pieces to move. If the cost of learning what those flaws are, determining who to move, or what needs to change is a three game skid in January, I'll take it.
This team was never going to win 59 games (their pace before the slip). So hopefully they stop to learn now.