I hope you’re happy with yourself
I hope you found somebody else
’Cause I ain’t askin’ you again
I just wanna know where you been
In the NHL, you don’t have to bring it every night. Really, you can’t. Even the best teams are going to have their tough stretches, and even the worst teams are going to get hot and win games they probably shouldn’t. Players have to remember that over the course of the season if they don’t want to get too high or too low. Stability and consistency are important when it comes to playing a steady game and executing things you’ve practiced a thousand times. Routines are your friend.
Those routines tend to separate the good and the bad teams, over time. Teams with consistent goaltending, for instance, will usually collect enough points to scare up a playoff spot. Teams with consistent scoring ability will usually do the same. Teams with both? Well, just ask the President’s Trophy 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning what happens when you can score, possess the puck, and get elite goaltending all at once. They will happily answer you, unless you ask about what happens in the playoffs.
But it’s getting to the playoffs that matters. And what a team does over 82 games is always going to be a lot more telling than whatever happens in a short series against a single opponent. More to the point, what a team does against other playoff teams is perhaps even more telling. If your consistent play is resulting in victories against other consistent teams’ play, then you are in a pretty good place.
So, here’s the damage: in 2019-20 the Dallas Stars are 11-8-2 against playoff teams (which includes 3 overtime wins), and 7-3-1 against non-playoff teams.
At first blush, this makes their decent record a bit less impressive. After all, wouldn’t it be nice if the Stars were doing well against the really good teams, and maybe even underperforming against some bad teams that they just hit at the wrong time?
Well, sure. It’s always nice when you can find reasons to expect better things, but that doesn’t mean the Stars have a deeply flawed formula or anything.
For context, the 2018-19 Stars went 19-20-3 against playoff teams, while they walloped the also-rans to the tune of a 24-12-4 record. In fact, the Stars won at least one game against every single non-playoff opponent they faced in 2018-19. In other words, they did enough, even if they could have done much more. But for a team that struggled to score, that does feel about right, doesn’t it?
It’s funny, though. If you go back to Ken Hitchcock’s season, things were even more lopsided. In 2017-18, the Stars were a woeful 13-22-5 against playoff teams, but a bottom-feeder-beating 29-10-3 against teams that did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not to draw conclusions from one season of data, but one wonders if Hitchcock’s scheme was more suited for taking advantage of mistakes than for running teams out of the building. That would certainly fit with just how brutally boring some of those 2017-18 Stars games were to watch, if you recall. Chip pucks out, get pucks deep, and lean on the top guys to win a matchup or two over the course of the game. It’ll work against teams that can’t play a full 60, but it sure wasn’t that effective against the teams that made the playoffs.
As for 2019-20 though, I think it’s important to note that seven of the Stars’ first nine games (1-7-1 stretch) were against playoff teams. Along with the heavily condensed nature of their October schedule, it’s pretty easy to see, in retrospect, how a couple of slumps could turn into something more over the course of nine or ten games. At least, it’s easy to see that now, after they won 14 of their next 16. Nothing like a massive bit of victory to make the tough times seem less dire.
The other dividing line this year has come in terms of where the victories have taken place. As you might have heard, the Stars have been a great home team, with a stunning 12-4-1 record at American Airlines Center to balance out a very pedestrian 6-7-2 line on the road.
Again, however, the nature of the opponents they’ve faced is a bit more comforting. In fact, 10 of the Stars’ 15 road games have been against playoff teams, as well as 10 of their 17 home games to date. Fully 20 of the Stars’ 32 games this year have been against teams in playoff position, which makes their overall record of 18-11-3 a bit more impressive than it already is. They have had to play good teams at a disproportionate rate, and they’ve held their own despite some major ups and downs.
In terms of their underlying metrics, the Stars are 7th in xGF (expected goals for) and 6th in xGA (you can guess this one, I promise) per Evolving Hockey. They have the best xG plus/minus in the West, and 4th-best in the NHL. Their goaltending is looking very good to great for the second year in a row, and the depth scoring has at least kept them afloat while the top players continue to lag behind their career rates. In other words, the Stars do not look like a mirage so far this year. But then, I guess mirages never do look like mirages. That’s kind of their thing. I’m sure this one isn’t one, though. Unless it is. But, like, it’s probably not! I promise, I think.
The Dallas Stars aren’t the best team in hockey or anything. Clearly this team still needs help on the power play, and clearly they are staring a couple of $10 million contracts in the face that might look pretty bad a fair bit ahead of schedule. Things can turn fast, as we’ve seen a couple times already this year. But even with all the upheaval this week after Jim Montgomery’s dismissal, I think it’s worth pointing out that the Stars have found a way to do a whole lot the things you need to do to have success in the NHL. They’re cleaning up against the bad teams so far, and they’re solidly in the Central Division race despite the worst start to the season you could imagine. They are five points behind the Central-leading Blues with a game in hand, and they still have some softer stretches remaining in their schedule.
Things are weird this week, for Dallas Stars fans. They kind of have been all year, for different reasons. Even all decade, come to that. Consistency is something Stars fans haven’t seen since 2008, but if you were ever going to get a bit optimistic about Dallas’s getting two playoffs berths in consecutive years for the first time since 2008, this year certainly looks like as good a bet as any for them to do it. In fact, I’d say it’s the best one of them all.