When the Dallas Stars returned to home ice tonight, the fans had to have felt better about the direction the team was heading being put back on track. After all, the American Airlines Center has been fairly friendly to the Stars this season.
A matchup against the Winnipeg Jets seemed to be a good measuring stick kind of game to understand if the Stars, who have played vastly better since the first 20 games or so this season, had really improved enough to go toe-to-toe with one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
It seems the Stars still have a ways to go.
The team is riding a bit of a scoring draught these last handful of games – they’ve scored two goals or fewer in the last five games. It’s costing them points in the standings, and, with the trade deadline less than 48 hours away, has fans questioning whether this team has the pieces it needs to make the playoffs in an incredibly hard division.
Would adding a top six forward provide more balance and spark offense as games get tighter down the stretch run? Do they need an upgrade in the bottom six that is a penalty kill specialist to help cut down on power play goals against? Or is the recent stretch not actually reflective of this team, but more a bad stretch – one every team has throughout a season?
After the game, head coach Ken Hitchcock said the Stars are doing everything “too slow” – power play, puck management, everything. He said they need to fix that. The question Stars management will have to determine is what that fix looks like.
After a shot that Jets goaltender Michael Hutchinson easily gloved, Radek Faksa won an offensive zone draw straight to Tyler Pitlick, who snapped home the opening goal. He set a Stars franchise record for fastest goal scored after the opening faceoff in a home game.
Winnipeg and Dallas would spend the rest of the period trading chances, though Dallas seemed to outnumber Winnipeg in terms of dangerous-looking chances. Earlier matches between these two teams saw the Jets just absolutely suffocate the Stars. They would have multiple players converge on the Stars puck carrier and then be there to support a rush into the Stars own zone. For the first 20 minutes, the Stars navigated this much better, and even flipped the script on them a time or two.
The power play continues to struggle along, having gone 1-for-15 before tonight’s game. On their first chance of the game, the Jets were methodical in getting the puck out of the zone and keeping the Stars from really getting a cycle going at all. After Ben Chiarot stuffed Kari Lehtonen into his own net, and argued his penalty on the way to the box, the Stars got a chance late in the period – and spent the first half of the power play as the play clock wound down trying not to let the Jets score shorthanded.
Sadly, the Stars ended their second power play just nine seconds into the start of the second period when captain Jamie Benn took a hooking penalty. Nikolaj Ehlers would bang one right over Lehtonen’s glove hand as both teams played four-on-four to tie the game up. That goal was yet another allowed by the Stars in the first minute of a period, something I think the Stars might lead the league in.
The discombobulated start to the period got even more pronounced when Greg Pateryn would get called for a slashing penalty on Patrik Laine on a scoring chance which resulted in a penalty shot. Lehtonen channeled the Force and Laine’s shot went wide, keeping the game even.
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t remain the case. Toby Enstrom would tuck a goal under Lehtonen via a wide open fivehole to give the Jets their first lead of the game. Another hooking penalty later (this time by Tyler Seguin) and a penalty kill that wasn’t exactly confidence-inducing gave the Jets a two-goal lead less than halfway through the second period.
Just like that, the complexion of the game was completely changed.
Eventually, after the Stars found themselves down three goals, Lehtonen had his night ended and was replaced with Ben Bishop. Bishop allowed a fifth goal in the period, and the Stars were destined to take a loss on home ice tonight. A late period goal by Seguin seemed to briefly fan the flame of a comeback, but the Stars have been very bad at manufacturing offense for multi-goal comebacks this season.
The Jets obviously changed their game plan after the first period, and the Stars did not know how to respond. It didn’t help that they hung Lehtonen out to dry a few times and he couldn’t bail them out often enough to keep the period from turning into a disaster. Every time you think that the team has played its worst 20 minutes, something like this comes along and makes you re-think that.
The Jets were happy to sit back and take their lead across the finish line, and Dallas could not get any kind of offense going to speak of. The hole had been dug, and the Stars left their shovels at home.