They're in it now. Single digit games remain in the regular season, and a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is inevitable. Make no mistake, the Dallas Stars are going to be a formidable post-season foe. They've been at or around the top of the league essentially all season. The trick is to translate that success into post-season play. To decide who the Playoff Stars are going to be.
Seeding is critical, but the final run of games is important for other reasons. The Stars need to establish a clear identity, to get their proverbial house in order. By the time the first round begins, any questions about role must be answered. There are other things, certainly, but here's a watchlist of sorts for the season's home stretch.
The Captain has reached the playoffs twice as a professional hockey player. The first time he scored 26 points as a teenager and pushed the Texas Stars to a near upset of the Hershey Bears. Next, he scored four goals in a six game near-triumph over the Anaheim Ducks. As he goes, so go the Stars.
Thing is, Dallas is in a dogfight at the top of the Western Conference and just lost Tyler Seguin to injury. The Stars need to determine, and quickly, how important seeding is to their fortunes. That answer is going to manifest in how hard they ride Jamie Benn the rest of the way. If Seguin truly is 3-4 weeks away, maybe it's worth burning Benn at both ends, but that's a calculated risk. The Stars will need Beast Mode Benn in April, do they need him in March?
Note I didn't say great goaltending. Vintage Ed Belfour isn't riding into Dallas anytime soon. This team is built around a blood-pressure raising combination of offensive daring-do, quick-when-it's-on defense, and goaltending that needs to make one more save than the other guy. That's not going to change, but lately, the nameplate in the crease has been in flux.
Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi. That's the question. The Stars will always have the option to change their answer once the post-season kicks off, but in the immediate term a decision needs to be made. The final few games of the regular season should be focused on getting the starting goalie into a strong rhythm, and building a level of comfort with the team in front of him.
Minutes for whoever is going to play defense
John Klingberg returned to the lineup Saturday night. Jordie Benn is supposedly close. Jason Demers not so much. Meanwhile, Kris Russell joined the team via trade, Jamie Oleksiak is in the middle of his longest sustained run in the squad this season, Patrik Nemeth has been a mainstay, and Stephen Johns celebrated his first NHL goal by signing a one-way contract extension. That's a lot of names.
Lacking a Duncan Keith-esque minute muncher, the Stars are going to need three full defensive pairs to succeed in the playoffs. What pairs? How many minutes? In what roles? If the Stars don't have those answers already, they need them quick. More than with any other group, the Stars need to offset a lack in high-end skill by way of comfort and cohesion.
Let's assume the Stars are destined to face off against St. Louis, Chicago or Los Angeles in the playoffs. Joel Quennville, Ken Hitchkock, Darryl Sutter; that's an excellent group of coaches. Armed with the last change at least part of the team, they're going to come into a series with a plan to eliminate the Klingberg/Seguin/Benn power trio. Lindy Ruff's best countermeasures are the other players on his roster.
This is why the team brought in Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp. Either (or both) might spend time on Dallas' top line, but they'll also spend time elsewhere. It's time to figure out what elsewhere looks like. We've seen more of Cody Eakin on the first line lately, good or bad it might be time to lock that in. Good or bad, it's also time to pump minutes at Val Nichushkin, Ales Hemsky, and probably, Brett Ritchie. Get that group going and line matching becomes much less acute a problem.
Those four areas are going to be top of mind for the next two weeks. The adjustments we see will go a long way in determining how far into April (or beyond) the Stars play hockey this season.