CALGARY -- The Dallas Stars spent the majority of this season leading the Pacific Division. If they don't get things figured out in a hurry, they may end up missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That seemed unfathomable after the Stars got off to a 29-13-5 start. They're still 10 games above .500 -- but a combination of injuries, struggles at both ends of the ice and a losing streak on the road that reached six games after Wednesday night's 4-2 loss to the Calgary Flames has dropped them into a pack of teams that sit just a single point ahead of ninth-place Los Angeles in the Western Conference standings.
Life doesn't get any easier with a date against NHL-leading Vancouver on tap for Saturday to complete a three-game road trip through Western Canada that started with a 4-1 loss in Edmonton on Tuesday. Dallas captain Brenden Morrow was succinct in summing up what his team must do to shake out of the doldrums.
"Just stop talking about it, go out and do it," he said. "We're saying all the right things in here. All good teams go through these times. We haven't been able to push through. It's simple. It's hard work. It's paying the price, trusting each other. Nothing new, we've said these things all along."
It was a tale of two games against the Flames, as the Stars were outshot 16-3 in the first period but managed to escape down only 1-0 due to solid play in net by Kari Lehtonen. They came back to take the lead in the second with a pair of goals 3:26 apart and held Calgary to just one shot over the first 14 minutes of the period -- then surrendered the tying power-play goal. The Flames got a couple of goals by their blue line early in the third to take control.
"It's a work in progress," said veteran forward Jamie Langenbrunner, who scored one goal and set up the other -- but also took a slashing penalty that led to the Flames' tying goal. "You've got to keep battling through it, and hopefully we can take the good out of how we played that second period and find a way to play that for 60 minutes."
In a sequence of events that summed up the Stars' recent frustrations rather well, Cory Sarich gave the Flames a 3-2 lead at 2:35 with his third goal of the season. On the ensuing shift, Dallas defenseman Stephane Robidas fired a laser past Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff -- but off the crossbar.
Calgary defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was sent off for tripping, but on the ensuing power play the Stars got caught and gave up a 2-on-1 break. Rene Bourque sent a pass across to Steve Staios, another Flames defenseman more heralded for keeping the puck out of his own net, and he had time to settle it down and rip his second goal of the season between Lehtonen's pads.
"Kari bailed us out," Langenbrunner said. "You can't give up as many opportunities as we did, but thankfully we've got a great goaltender and he gave us an opportunity. Second period, we played the way we need to play. Third, obviously, back to not perfect."
Dallas coach Marc Crawford saw signs of the team the Stars have been through most of this season, but he also saw a group that was overanxious at times and tried to do too much instead of keeping it simple.
"The shorthanded goal -- we can't make that play," Crawford said. "The game is there and the game is in the balance. We've got to just be smart on that. You're trying to tie it with 15 minutes to go, and you don't have to -- you just have to keep doing things right. And we've got to get that through our thick skulls because when we do it, I thought we dominated parts of the game.
"But again, it's a constant reinforcement with our guys to do the right thing continually, continually, and trust in the fact that when you do the right thing it's going to pay off."
Dallas fell to 2-8-1 in its 11 games and has been outscored 31-12 during its current road skid. With leading scorer Brad Richards and second-year forward Jamie Benn out of the lineup with injuries, goals have been hard to come by.
Morrow set up Mike Ribeiro's goal to tie the score but missed on two golden opportunities of his own. On a shorthanded opportunity late in the first, he had a wide-open right side of the net off a cross-ice feed from Ribeiro but couldn't control the pass and had to settle for a bad-angle shot from behind the goal line that Kiprusoff stopped.
"You try not to think about those things," Morrow said. "It's going to be a restless night thinking about that one. I had the time, I didn't have to try and one-time it. I could have stopped it and shot it."
Morrow was also robbed by a sprawling glove save from Kiprusoff with 25 seconds remaining and Lehtonen on the bench for a sixth attacker.
While the Stars hope to have Richards and key defenseman Nicklas Grossman back soon, Benn and gritty forwards like Adam Burish and Krystofer Barch remain on injured reserve. In the interim, Morrow said the players have to continue to support one another in working through this difficult period.
"Believe in each other and work hard. Everyone deserves to be in here," he said. "We've all been in the position where we've come in -- whether an injury or young guy -- and thrown in the lineup, and things are expected of you at times. We need our young guys to step up and play well, and us veterans need to lead the way."