The Stars Offensive Woes: A Deeper Look

With no live Stars hockey, let’s look at some details about how Dallas gets the puck in the net.

The numbers don’t lie. The Dallas Stars are one of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL. At the All-Star break, they have 27 less goals than any other team in the Central Division. Stylistically, Dallas plays a defense-first game, so some of this is a function of the system; a feature, not a bug.

The problem is, constantly playing low-scoring games — where defense and goaltending are at a premium — leaves little margin for error. At some point, however, a team needs to score goals in order to win. The Stars have used a variety of tactics to get the puck in the net, and their opponents have taken steps to thwart the threats.

Breakdown of Stars Goals

GamesRecordGoals5x5 GoalsPower Play GoalsAve. Time to Score
Starting Losing Streak1-7-1171213.5 sec.
Winning Streak14-1-15536116.7 sec.
Montgomery's Last 62-3-110444.2 sec.
Rick Bowness10-6-143231110.9 sec.

Early Season Losing Streak

During the opening nine games, about the only way that the Stars could score was at even-strength, usually through a solo rush by Roope Hintz. There was a single 5-on-5 goal, by Alexander Radulov at the Washington Capitals, where Dallas scored after establishing possession* in the offensive zone.

Paired with an anemic power play that only scored a single goal during that stretch, Dallas lost often, and for good reason.

*For the purposes of this article, “established possession” is defined as 10 or more seconds since the puck crossed the offensive blue line.

Winning Streak

Almost as surprising as the dreadful start was the subsequent 16 game stretch of dominance. Over that stretch, Dallas increased their overall offensive output by 1.5 goals per game. The power play kicked in and so did the Stars’ possession game.

Dallas still scored most of their goals off of the rush, but now that rush had depth. In addition, fully one-third of the Stars’ goals were scored after establishing possession. The power play contributed, but most of the victories came as a result of even-strength play.

There was a commitment to the forecheck, with 12 goals scored after extended zone time, and six goals scored after a dump-in at the blue line. During the streak, the Stars committed to a more aggressive forward attack, and wingers cycled back to support pinches at the point.

Jim Montgomery’s Last Six

Starting with a shutout loss on November 26 to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Stars’ game took a major step backwards. The team scored 10 goals over six games. Many of those were off of the power play, while the even-strength offense struggled to generate chances.

The Stars’ record did not reflect the quality of play. Chicago moved the puck quickly to outflank the forecheck, and other teams followed suit. The power play salvaged a win in the last two games of Montgomery’s tenure, but at that point, the team was in at least a temporary funk.

The Rick Bowness Era

The Stars came out for the first three games under Rick Bowness playing an aggressive, relentless style. Only one of their seven even-strength goals was off the rush, with the remaining six all off extended offensive zone pressure. Dallas only won two of those games, but they were playing the relentless style that they had used with much success during their big winning streak.

Starting in mid-December, Dallas began a stretch where they got down early in multiple games. To their credit, the team proved resilient, and found a way back into quite a few games, usually as a result of a hot power play.

What disappeared was the possession game that the Stars relied on during their successful stretches. At even-strength, the Stars would either turn the puck over at the blue line trying to force a carry or would dump the puck. Without a commitment to the forecheck, however, the team was rarely threatening.

During 2020, in spite of going 5-3-0, the Stars have not scored more than one 5-on-5 goal in any single game.

Where to from here?

Under Bowness, the Stars have continued to pull out wins and put up points. The primary concern is sustainability — a hot power play will not last forever and even-strength scoring is drying up. Dallas has been winning some games, but with only one opponent in 2020 that is currently in a playoff spot, the results are suspect.

What has worked for this team is an aggressive forecheck combined with supported pinches. That means committing a second forward down low and a third forward cycling back to support an attacking defender.

From the defensive zone, it means skating the puck out as a group, creating a layered attack that supports a forward carrying in the puck or a simple dump/retrieve if the opposing defenders hold the blue line.

Interestingly, the Dallas offense has slowed significantly under Bowness. Even if you exclude the first three games of his tenure (where Dallas scored all but one goal off of extended zone time and the cycle), the team is not getting opportunities off of the initial rush. Teams have adjusted to the solo breakouts from Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov, but the Stars are also not getting as many players involved in secondary breakouts.

The Stars were best offensively when they were getting multiple forwards and defenders involved in the secondary break. During the 14-1-1 stretch where Dallas worked their way back into a playoff position, they used group breakouts to drive their offense, and they scored more than three goals a game, much of that driven by even-strength play.

Fractions of seconds make a big difference in this game. Whether it’s joining a rush, dropping low on the forecheck, or pinching at the point, a split-second of doubt can change a good read into a disaster. Bowness hasn’t changed the Stars’ game much, but he has instilled a defense-first mindset that has added a momentary hiccup to players’ reactions. The offensive game shows it, and if something doesn’t change, this team will regress, and in a strong Central Division, could easily find themselves out of the playoffs.