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Are Back-to-Back Wins Signs of Turnaround or Merely a Mirage for the Dallas Stars?

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You are expecting the answer to be something complex like, “Well, a bit of both,” right? Well, maybe you are a pretentious dinglehopper.

Ottawa Senators v Dallas Stars
What does manhandling one team tell you about the other’s season?
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

I release you

From the darkness

From the love that

We swore was true

I hope that someday

The sun will shine again

And you’ll release me too

***

How much is a two-game winning spurt worth?

Of course the context matters. Had the Stars beaten Boston and St. Louis to start the season, you would have read of things about how that start vindicated the folks who had them as a Stanley Cup “Contender,” or “Dark Horse,” or “Team That Could Win Because Literally Any Team Could, You Know.”

These last two games are not worth the same about of street cred that those first two were, that’s for sure. I mean, I’m not sure a win against Ottawa is even worth more than a shootout loss to Washington, truth be told. And Philly? Well, that was great and all, but the nuts and bolts of that game were, ah, a bit concerning in terms of puck possession and chances, even if the result jives with the Stars’ stated methodology under Jim Montgomery of keeping teams to the outside and waiting to counterattack in ways that won’t leave them exposed as a team.

It’s funny—if you averaged out the events in the Ottawa and Philadelphia games but got the same results, you might have people feeling more optimistic. Two marginally better-than-they-were victories might have been construed as more of a positive trend than a 2-1 drubbing (if such a thing can exist) on the Senators and a victory over Philly in which the Stars totaled the second-smallest game’s-worth of shots on goal of any team in the league this year. Maybe it’s our tendency to mistrust extremes, or maybe we just all agree on how miserable Ottawa is, or both.

The fact is, the team is still 3-7-1. That’s, uh, not great. If the Stars manage to do something good-but-feasible, such as win six of their next eight, they’d be 9-9-1 through just about a quarter of the season. That would be a very frustrating start in a less streaky context, which I can say definitively based on the fact that the Stars had a very frustrating 9-9-1 start two years ago under Ken Hitchcock. (Go ahead and read the comments on that one if you want to see a lot of comments eerily similar to ones we’re seeing this year.)

The good part of that point in the 2017-18 season is that they never fell to .500 again. The bad news is that they finished just outside the playoffs for one reason or another, or another, or another. Whatever you think the reason is, that’s probably it. You are right, so very right.

So, should we write these last two games off entirely as a fluke and a victory over a AAA squad? Of course not, at least altogether. Just as you wouldn’t be wrong to have weighted the first two losses of the season a bit as one-goal contests that could have gone the Stars’ way (though I’d argue they deserved what they got), you also can take the good from these two games and run with it—to some degree, at least.

The good? John Klingberg got a bit of his mojo back against Ottawa, and for a team whose confidence really seemed to be evaporating last week, you’ll take a Get Healthy Game all day long and twice during brunch. The team can dominate, even if they hit three posts and sort of messed up a 5-on-3, too.

As for the Philly game, the goaltending came through and they got some opportunistic goals despite more or less punting on first down every possession for the final 40 minutes of the game. That should never be (or have been) their main strategy, but it at least can work, which is nice to know in tighter games later on when you’d expect the team to retreat for the last few minutes of a game to hold a lead. Even if your sword could be a lot sharper, a sturdy shield is vital, too.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that the shot-dominance of Ottawa was less a result of an upheaval in approach than it was a consequence of a vastly inferior opponent who also has a dreadful power play. The team was still playing Jim Montgomery hockey last night, and it was working quite well. Had Alex Radulov scored on any of his three (and then some) glorious chances, this game is well out-of-hand long before the third period. The same goes for Jamie Benn, to a slightly lesser extent. As we said a few games ago, the Dallas Stars would not continue to lose every game. It turns out, we were right.

Dallas is a team that plays conservatively, trying to work together as a group to minimize chances against and make the most of breakouts and chances for to generate the highest quality looks they can. It is relentless in its approach, if not in its effect on the other team in terms of shots. Dallas is a team that in practice lets the game come to them, and it’s hard to watch when it goes wrong. That said, you can surely remember how many fans railed against the recklessness of late-stage Lindy Ruff teams, crying out for structure. Well, we got structure. We got a whole lot of it.

Sean Tierney makes awesome stuff

Overall, the Stars feel (to me, in my dumb, subjective hockey bones) like a team that should, with this sort of approach and some positive regression from their shooters, go something like 42-32-8 over the course of a season. Their goaltending will generally be better, but giving the other team more rolls of the dice than you is begging for disaster in small sample sizes, and here they are at 3-7-1, needing 88 points out of their last 71 games—a 101-point pace over the course of the season. That’s just about enough to feel half-decent about their wild card chances. It’s not ideal, to be sure.

The positives from the last two games are there, but I really don’t see a massive winning streak brewing (as though anyone ever does see them coming) based solely on the last two games. The Stars will continue to play the brand of hockey they have played for dozens and dozens of games now, and that means you’d better be prepared for a lot more Game 6 and 7 against St. Louis experiences than Ottawa Shooting Galleries down the road. Both sorts of games are winnable, especially if they can get the power play going, which is a wholly independent function of the team’s approach at evens (or at least, it should be). But players will get hot, the goalies will steal games, and the things they are very good at will continue to be helpful, if not always decisive.

That said, winning streaks don’t happen without some luck even for elite teams. I mean, Tampa is 4-3-1 this season, out of the playoff picture at present. The Stars could easily go 6-3-1 in two sets of ten without an absurd, triple-sevens sort of good fortune.

But if these two wins have convinced me of anything, if’s that the tip of the spear is a lot less sharp than it used to be, for this team. The shooters are largely older and less-shooty than before, and that means that even those few high-grade chances might not go in as often as they need to in order to withstand the low-quality barrage they generally concede.

The first nine games seem to have a lot clearer thread running through them than the last two, and there’s nothing wrong with holding onto some cynicism until the team really starts to prove you wrong. I would be delighted if they did. They might.