The Dallas Stars aren’t dead yet. Not technically. If you squint hard enough, the standings make it seem like they’re still in the hunt for the NHL post season. A four-point gap isn’t the end of the world, after all. Unless it is.
The fact of the matter is that the NHL’s standings are a convoluted mess. Participation points and a new divisional format make it difficult sometimes to see what’s actually going on.
For the sake of clarity, and to keep the fires of hope burning, let’s take a quick look at the Stars’ possible paths to post-season play, and more specifically, the teams they’ll have to pass to get there.
Note: The information below was valid when I went to bed last night. A few of the teams have changed positions (Calgary, LA, and Vancouver specifically), but the overall picture remains the same.
Via the Wild Card
The traditional avenue into post-season play would be crawling into the Western Conference’s top eight teams. Right now, the Stars sit in 11th, which means they’d have to jump three squads to make the dance: Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Calgary. Thanks to the new “everybody wins a little” NHL, the numbers don’t look terrible, but how close are the Stars, really?
10 – Vancouver
The Canucks are Dallas’ first target. They currently sit 10th in the Western Conference with 50 points from 48 games. That two point gap is a bit deceptive, however, as the Canucks hold a game in hand over the Stars. Essentially, Dallas will need to pick up two wins to pass Vancouver.
Unfortunately for Stars fans, the teams are trending in different directions. Dallas is 3-5-2 in their last 10 games while the Canucks are 5-2-3. The Canucks own a slight advantage in goal differential (-19 to -23), which is typically a fair indicator of quality.
The Canucks also present a perfect example of why Dallas’ bonus hockey ineptitude is so very damaging. They’ve won five games in OT, and four more via the shootout. The extra points they’ve eked out matter. They give Vancouver a point percentage of .521 compared to Dallas’ .490. Dallas will need to improve to make up a gap like that.
Dallas lost the first matchup 4-5 in overtime (because of course they did), but won the second 2-1. They meet one more time on March 16, but by that point the playoff situation could look markedly different.
9 – Los Angeles
If the Stars do manage to push past the Canucks, their next task will be to dethrone their one-time rivals in LA. The Kings, also at 50 points, hold down the 9th spot in the Western Conference. Like the Canucks, LA maintains a game in hand on the Stars. Also like the Canucks, LA is up .521 to .490 in terms of point percentage.
Los Angeles has taken full advantage of the NHL’s overtime format. The Kings have nine extra frame victories this season and a shootout win. Humorously, the Kings’ one overtime loss belongs to… you guessed it… the Dallas Stars. The Stars have two wins on the Kings (one in OT one in regulation).
It helps to have a stifling defense. Only Minnesota (108) and San Jose (112) have surrendered fewer goals than the Kings’ (121). For the sake of comparison, Dallas has conceded 154 times, and is 22 goals worse by differential (-1 vs -23). Only LA’s anemic offense (120 GF) is keeping them out of elite status.
The teams do not play again this season.
8 – Calgary
Should Dallas somehow skip past the Canucks and Kings, they’ll have one final Pacific Division foe to topple: the Calgary Flames. At 24-24-3 (51 points), the Flames occupy the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. There’s a big asterisk here, though. Calgary has played 51 games, two more than the Stars, three more than both the Kings and Canucks.
There is more good news. In addition to the games in hand, Calgary is trending downwards on the ice. They’re 3-6-1 in their last 10, and have lost four in a row. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a young, emerging team that probably wasn’t quite as ready as fans thought (sound familiar?).
One bright spot for the Flames has been the play of journeyman Chad Johnson. The goalie has performed ably (2.50 GAA / .913 SV%) while his higher-profile colleague (Brian Elliott) has struggled since coming over from St. Louis.
So far the two teams have split their season series. Dallas won the first matchup 4-2 but lost the second 2-1. They will meet one more time on March 17th.
Via the Divisional Format
When the NHL realigned prior to the 2013/2014 regular season, they created another viable path to the post-season. The Stars could also climb into the top three in the Central Division and make the dance. While, on the surface, it might seem harder, the Stars would actually need to pass only two squads – St. Louis and Nashville – if they elect to go the divisional route.
7 – St. Louis
The Blues are currently 4th in the Central Division and 7th in the Western Conference. They’ve played one fewer game than Dallas (48), and have amassed 5 more points (53). It helps (and this is certainly a theme) that the Blues have pulled six bonus points from overtime (5 OT Wins and 1 SO Wins).
The Blues are better at even strength (51.72% CF vs. 49.72% CF), on the power play (22.52% vs. 17.16%), and the penalty kill (83.63% vs 74.25%). Ignoring +/- (a nonsense statistic), Vladimir Tarasenko remains one of the NHL’s premiere weapons (20 G, 26 A, 46 Pts), and the Blues boast a deep defensive group. Their only glaring weakness is in net, where Jake Allen has struggled (2.85 GAA, .897 SV%).
If the Stars are going to make up ground, they’ll need help. The Stars will not play the Blues again this season.
6 – Nashville
The Predators represent Dallas’ final divisional obstacle to the playoffs. Though only a point ahead of the Blues (53), the Predators sport an impressive (relative to the rest of this list) +10 goal differential. Despite a long-standing defensive stereotype, the Predators have actually out-scored Dallas this season (134 – 131), and are in the middle of a strong 6-3-1 stretch of play.
Offensively, the Predators are young and dangerous. Their three leading scorers are all under the age of 25 - Ryan Johansen (36 pts, 24 years old), Filip Forsberg (32 pts, 22 years old), Viktor Arvidsson (30 pts, 23 years old) – and former Star James Neal remains a potent goal-scorer with 17 tallies this season. Longtime goaltender Pekka Rinne has reversed a recent trend of poor performance to post a strong season (2.68 GAA, .921 SV%).
Dallas has won two of three meetings so far this season, and has two more games left to play.
Division or not, the bottom line is that the Stars need to pass three teams, and don’t have a great deal of time. More ominously, they’re running low on valuable head-to-head matchups. Pick an element of their game (offense, defense, special teams, goaltending) and you’ve found something they’ll need to improve. It’s possible, but games like Tuesday night aren’t doing the Dallas Stars any favors.