Avalanche of February Games Holds Promise for Stars' Playoff Hopes
The Stars have done enough lately to gain ground on the Western Conference's playoff pack. February presents a blend of good teams, bad teams, Western teams, and Eastern teams. It's also a big-time opportunity for the Stars to find some separation. Can they pull themselves out of the pack?
Be honest, you expected more in January. The new year opened after a frantic December rally pushed Dallas to within six points of the final Western Conference playoff spot. That was both great news, and a testament to how far expectations had fallen after a stuttering start to the season. Hope was the major takeaway, they had not collapsed completely.
Then came January, and things went... okay. The Dallas Stars did manage to finish January over .500. Six outright wins balanced against five outright losses, and a pair of overtime one-pointers. Some of the wins were worthy of celebration (Chicago, Winnipeg, and Washington all in regulation). Some of the losses were utterly cringeworthy (Columbus, Colorado, those dang Jets again). The Stars managed to remain utterly consistent in their inconsistency.
So the season is on life support, right?
Wrong. The good news is that teams ahead of the Stars (Los Angeles and Calgary notably) have struggled, and that their six wins featured teams ahead of them in the standings. As play commences on February 1st, the Stars have closed to within four points of both Calgary (currently 8th) and Vancouver (currently 7th) and to within seven of the Jets (currently 6th). The Stars also have a game in hand against the Flames, and two games in hand against the Jets.
I concluded January's preview with the assertion that a winning run could push Dallas into the playoffs, but a losing run could see them undone. A middling month means not much has changed. In February, there will be tough teams, and there will be cellar dwellers. The way the Stars have played, does it really matter? Win more, the gap closes, lose more and suddenly every wannabe roster doctor is mixing up deadline deals.
On the Schedule
Colorado Avalanche (February 3 - Home; February 14 - Away; February 27 - Home)
Three times? A trio of tangles against the Avs should be great news for Stars fans. Patrick Roy's boys are 20th in goals against per game (2.74), 23rd in goals for per game (2.50), and a sport an ugly -10 goal differential. They're also 2-0 against the Stars this season.
It gets trickier. Colorado has actually been better than Dallas lately (5-2-3 vs.5-4-1), and has moved into a tie with the Stars at 53 points, albeit with a game in hand. Think of February as an opportunity to bury one of the Stars' fellow playoff hopefuls, or an opportunity to be buried themselves.
Tampa Bay Lightning (February 5 - Home)
Perhaps towards the opposite end of the quality spectrum, the Lightning should pose a serious challenge for our Stars. The Bolts are currently a top ten team in points percentage (6th at .667), and have scored more goals than anybody else in the league (166). That's a robust 3.32 goals per game against what has been a very generous Dallas defense so far this season.
The good news is that Tampa Bay's defense has not been as excellent. Lest we get excited they're still a top 15 unit (11th - 2.53 goals per game and 13th - 82.3% PK). Playing in the Eastern Conference also means they've racked up their totals against one of the weakest schedules in the league (29th out of 30 teams per Hockey Reference's SOS metric).
Stamkos versus Seguin... yeah, I'd watch that.
Buffalo Sabres (February 7 - Away)
Suddenly I feel bad for burning my "quality spectrum" zinger on the Colorado Avalanche. Lindy Ruff's old team is the worst in the NHL. Pick a metric: 30th in goals for (94), 30th in goals against (179), 30th in points percentage (310). The Sabres remain the NHL's only team with single digit regulation wins (8). For reference, the sad-sack Arizona Coyotes have managed 14.
There's always a chance this manifests as a trap game for the Stars. At this point in the month they'll already have played Colorado and Tampa Bay. The Stars will also have to stick around the greater New York area for a match against the Rangers the very next night. Let's call this one a challenge of effort management.
New York Rangers (February 8 - Away)
A 6-4-0 burst has pushed the New York Rangers back into the Eastern Conference's top eight. They are, for the most part, exactly the team you would expect them to be. The Rangers are 3rd in goals against per game (2.30) and 2nd overall (112). Henrik Lundqvist remains in the top ten for both Save Percentage (9th) and Goals Against (8th).
Offensively, Rick Nash's league-leading 29 goals pace a unit that is just about league average (15th in goals for). The key for the Rangers is team speed. Martin St. Louis (36 points), Derick Brassard (35 points), and Derek Sepan (32 points) are all having solid seasons, with Chris Krieder (25 points in 23 games) and Mats Zuccarello (24 points in 27 games) just a tick behind.
Boston Bruins (February 10 - Away)
These guys, again. Better fortunes lately (8-1-1 in their last 10) have propelled Boston all the way to 6th in the East. They're a top 5 squad in goals against (2.38 per game) which has helped prop up a pop-gun offense (21st - 2.64 goals per game). The no-offense thing makes a ton of sense when you realize the Bruins lack a goal scorer in the NHL's top 30. You know who is in the NHL's top 30 in goal scoring? Tyler Seguin.
Tukka Rask and his .922 save percentage present a significant obstacle for the Dallas Stars. Another problem is that everybody (for now) is healthy. It's not hard to see a game where superb goaltending plus a few from any of Boston's seven double-digit goal scorers frustrates the boys in victory green.
Florida Panthers (February 13 - Home)
As recently as last season, this would have been another laugher. This year, however, Florida has managed to cling to the fringes of the Eastern Conference's playoff race. A big part of the push towards respectability is the acquisition of Roberto Luongon (.920 sv% / 2.41 GAA). Another factor is the stellar play of 18-year old defenseman Aaron Ekblad. The 1st overall pick from last year's draft has seven goals and 21 assists in his first 47 games as an NHL player. He's also logging 22:08 each night. He's being chased by another rookie defender, though. Some kid named John Klingman. I love a good showdown!
All of that said, let's pump the brakes on the Florida bandwagon. Despite their improvements, this is still a bottom-half squad (25th goals for / 13th goals against) that gives up way more goals than it scores (-17 goal differential). All of this against the worst-ranked strength of schedule in the league. About the only thing I can find in their favor is the fact that this is another game on the front of a back-to-back set. After playing the Panthers, our Stars are Colorado bound for meeting number two against the Avs.
St. Louis Blues (February 17 - Away)
The 4th best team in the league in terms of point percentage (.688), the Blues are excellent by traditional metrics as well. They've given up the fifth fewest goals in the league (117) while scoring the fourth most (156). That +39 goal differential is bettered only by the Chicago Blackhawks. Only Nashville (27) can beat St. Louis' 25 regulation wins, and nobody in the league comes close to the Blues' current 9-0-1 streak. It's like they play the Sabres every night.
Vladimir Tarasenko (24 goals), Alex Steen (25 assists) and Kevin Shattenkirk (32 assists) all beat the 40 point plateau,, with Jaden Scwhartz (38) and David Backes (35) inches behind. Goaltender Brian Elliott is second in goals-against (1.99) and fourth in save percentage (.927).
Strangely, those performances haven't mattered a great deal. Dallas has claimed points in both games against St. Louis so far this season: a 4-3 overtime loss in and a 4-3 regulation win during the wild streak that closed out December.
San Jose Sharks (February 19 - Home)
Turmoil by the bay! Not that things have been particularly stable for the Sharks since forever, but this season has been a particularly trying one. Despite Stanley Cup aspirations, the Sharks sit tied with Winnipeg at 60 points, smack dab in the middle of the Western Conference playoff jumble. Should the Stars win their game in hand, that equals five points up on our boys. Doesn't it feel like the margin should be higher?
What's gone wrong is that San Jose has become a very mediocre team. Yes, there are dangerous players. Joe Pavelski (25 goals / 43 points), Logan Couture (18 goals / 34 points), and Joe Thornton (11 goals / 41 points) have enjoyed standout seasons. Once-again-a-defenseman Brent Burns (36 points) has helped offset the loss of Dan Boyle in a big way, but this is the league's 15th-ranked offense (2.74 goals-for-per-game) and 17th-ranked defense (2.62 goals-against-per-game).
Detroit Red Wings (February 21 - Home)
Every single season I, like so many others, decide the Wings are finally too old and due for some decline. Every season, the stupid winged wheel makes me feel dumb. It's almost like they know what they're doing up there. If only we could grab someone with that sort of organizational pedigree... but I digress.
The Wings have ignored every possible hater and currently sit a single point behind Tampa Bay in the East (67 points). They sport a +20 goal differential (tied for 3rd), and are over .500 both home (17-4-6) and away (12-8-3). A big part of that has been the now-injured Jimmy Howard (.920 SV%), but there's a chance he'll be recovered from his current groin complaint by the time the Wings play in Dallas.
If he doesn't play, the Stars will only have to worry about a pair of twenty goal scorers (Gustav Nyquist has 20 and Tomas Tatar has 22), plus the typically-brilliant Henrik Zetterberg (46 points) and Pavel Datsyuk (37 points). The "only" in there was sarcasm, by the way. Detroit is just as tough an out as ever.
Minnesota Wild (February 22 - Away)
The Wild were a much bigger concern earlier in the season, before their goaltending situation devolved to the point where trading for Devan Dubnyk became an excellent idea. The Wild have spun themselves all the way down to 12th in the conference, which sounds bad until you realize 12th is just three points behind the Stars. That Dubnyk trade, by the way, has worked out pretty well. In six games with his new team, the 28-year old netminder sports a 4-1 record with a 1.66 GAA / .931 SV% split.
Offensively, Jason Pominville (38 points), Zach Parise (37 points), and Thomas Vanek (30 points) pace the squad. That's not overly terrifying, to be perfectly honest, but it's offset by a defense that rolls Ryan Suter for nearly half an hour every night (29:29 ATOI). I feel like, by this point, the Wild will either be a surging menace, or have fallen completely off the face of the earth.
Winnipeg Jets (February 24 - Away)
The Stars finish February with another game against the team they'd like most to reel in, the Winnipeg Jets. Though currently mired in a three game skid, the Jets have outpaced every expectation this season, and sit in sixth place with 60 points. Yes, that's a full seven ahead of Dallas, but the Stars have a pair of games in hand. Win both, and suddenly the gap is three. That makes this contest potentially thrilling.
The biggest difference between this year's squad, and previous sad-sack versions is the goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec has had legitimate moments of brilliance this season en route to a .911 SV% / 2.52 GAA performance. Good as that is, it's nothing near what Michael Hutchinson (.927 SV% / 2.15 GAA) has managed as, theoretically, his backup.
Winnipeg took the first two games this season (5-2 and 2-1 victories), but the Stars stopped the run with a 5-2 win to close out January. Those games have been testy, wild affairs, and suggest this unusual matchup might be one of the new Central Division's better new rivalries. I'm sure we'd all love the Stars to celebrate that rivalry by capping a magnificent February with a big win.