Two weeks is a long time in any sport, and Dallas Stars fans are learning that the hard way at the moment. The team was riding high after their 4-3 shootout win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 9, and for good reason. The Stars had pulled off five wins in a row, were playing some of their best hockey of the year, and had finally put themselves in a position to overtake the St. Louis Blues for third place in the Central Division. Times were good indeed in the land of the Dallas Stars.
Then the loss to the Vancouver Canucks happened on February 11, a 6-0 drubbing of the suddenly hot Dallas Stars. A lot of fans, myself included, chalked this game up to fatigue and playing a strenuous week of incredibly competitive hockey. No problem, right? They came back after a four-day break and beat the St. Louis Blues 2-1 on February 16 and moved into third place in the division. All was back on track for the Stars. A perfect way to set up a three-game swing through the Pacific Division.
The California road trip was nothing short of a disaster for the Stars, as they turned in a terrible effort against San Jose (5-2), were robbed of any points against Anaheim (2-0), and finally salvaged two points against Los Angeles (2-0 in Dallas’ favor). Not the way to further their playoff chances, and in fact, they have made their journey to the big dance that much harder.
The red hot Minnesota Wild overtook the Stars in the standings during the California trip last week. Going into the final 20 games before the playoffs, the teams in the Wild Card race are now threatening to knock the Stars off the first spot in the Wild Card. It was a quite perilous situation for the team when they took on the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. A must-win game, and significant test that could serve as a launching point for the Stars if they won.
The tilt against the Jets started well for the Stars, as Tyler Pitlick ripped a puck home 10 seconds into the game. The goal for Pitlick in the first period was only the second time in the last twelve games that the club have struck in the first frame. The Stars played very well in the first period and carried that lead into intermission. However, it appears that someone forgot to tell the Stars to show up for the second twenty minutes of play.
Five Winnipeg goals later, the night was over and so were the chances the Stars had of overtaking the Wild for third place in the Central. The week was finally over, and the Stars sported a 1-3 record to show for it, and are now dangerously close to falling out of the top eight in the Western Conference.
To speak honestly and bluntly: The Stars have been playing themselves out of a playoff spot in the last two weeks.
This season has 20 games remaining in it, and the Stars now find themselves in a situation where they have to make up points and fast. Not a great situation, considering that the Stars will play 11 of their final 20 games on the road. Yes, the team has given the fans reason to worry. This current homestand is not friendly to the Stars either, with a loss to Winnipeg to open, and games against the Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning still to come. The final grind is here and the Stars schedule is a buzzsaw.
How has all this happened in such a short time?
The issue is not that hard to diagnose. The Stars have collapsed when the puck doesn’t bounce their way as of late. The games against Vancouver, San Jose, and Winnipeg were all lost in the span of one period. Giving up more than two goals in a period has proved a recipe for disaster, and the Stars have been flirting with that number far too often lately. They just cannot seem to stop the goals once the first one has been scored. The goaltenders, aside from the win over the Kings, have been subpar, and Ben Bishop especially, who had a very tough week. The Dallas defense has appeared to abandon at times the system that Ken Hitchcock and Rick Wilson are trying to implement, and the results have been ugly. The checking has been absent, and forcing opponents into mistakes through hard, relentless work, has been lacking as well.
The offense isn't off the hook either for the recent losses.
The strength of the Stars offense has gone silent over the last six games. The Stars have averaged only two goals in three of the four games prior to the 5-3 loss to Winnipeg. That is not going to win very many games in this new high-scoring league, no matter who the opponent is. The offense (outside of Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov) has simply not produced enough to take the pressure off of the Dallas defense. The Stars have not been able to score in most situations in the last six games. For example, Jamie Benn hasn't scored since the Minnesota blow-out (6-1) on February 3, and has only recorded four points since. This trend needs to change soon, but we can’t blame the top line only.
Another example is Jason Spezza. He hasn’t scored a goal since the two he notched in Detroit on January 16, and hasn’t recorded a point since the win against the New York Rangers on February 5. In short, the offense has had no depth scoring of late, and we haven't even gotten to the power play yet. The depth scoring needs to improve quickly if the Stars have any plans of busting out of this slump and trending towards a playoff spot.
The power play has been dreadful in the last three games as well, going 0 for 9 in their last three games. That mark is extremely telling on how much blocked the Stars offense are at the moment. When on the power play, the team hasn’t appeared to exhibit any extended zone pressure, the players are too stationary in their formation, and are actually a -1 in special teams differential, thanks to Ryan Getzlaf’s shorthanded goal in Anaheim. Not good, not good, and definitely not good.
Is the season lost for the Stars? No, not at all.
With 20 games left, the Stars have the room to make a speedy recovery and put the train back on track. There is evidence the Stars are still the team that fans grew accustomed to seeing over the past couple of months, and that terrible first periods are really doing most of the damage. There is reason to hope, but the alarm bells have to be sounding for the Dallas Stars. The team is still within distance of making up ground and finding a way into the third spot in the Central, but for now they need to worry about keeping their place in the Wild Card race. It is going to be a stressful and bumpy ride now for Stars fans, but it was going to be that way regardless of this past week. The Central Division has always been a tight, hard-fought race and this season has proved to be no different. However, the club needs to dig deep and work on their lineup problems before it is too late, and they quite literally play themselves out of the picture.