With the Dallas Stars in the midst of a Western Conference playoff race so ridiculously close it features six teams separated by just three points in the standings with about two weeks remaining, the ability of the club to constructively channel their heightened emotions into positive play on the ice will likely be a deciding factor in their ultimate fate.
In their quest to reach the post-season for the first time since 2008, the Stars have eight games left on the schedule, five of which will come on the road.
Following a d
isappointing 2-1 loss at home to Vancouver Thursday night, the Stars remained at 85 points in the standings, then sat and watched the TV as other teams in the chase behind them gained points and moved ahead of them. A Phoenix victory over Colorado gave them 86 points to leapfrog over Dallas from ninth in the West to the Pacific Division lead and the third seed that accompanies it, but that only lasted about an hour.
That’s because when Los Angeles prevailed in a shootout over top-seeded St. Louis later in the evening, it pushed the Kings to 86 points as well, nudging them into the division lead because they’ve played one fewer game than Phoenix. That in turn pushed the Coyotes back down to seventh and the Stars down to eighth.
And despite their loss, Colorado still has 85 points as well, but the Stars officially hold the eighth and final playoff spot while the Avalanche sit ninth because Dallas has two games in hand. Meanwhile, 10th-place San Jose’s triumph over Boston put them at 84 points and Calgary’s shootout loss to Minnesota still gained them one point, increasing their total to 83.
That’s how close it is - Dallas is one point out of third and just two up on 11th.
So these final eight contests, including the next two crucial matchups against the Flames, allow the Stars to determine their own destiny. Essentially, the playoffs have already begun.
“Maybe it’s a good reality check of how delicate these last eight games are going to be,” Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan said of the Stars falling back into eighth.
“Pretty much every game is like a seventh game, that’s pretty much how we have to look at it,” noted Dallas winger Michael Ryder
, the club’s leading goal scorer with 32 who helped Boston win the Stanley Cup last spring. “And for us moving forward, we have to try and cut down on those little mistakes and make sure we move forward.”
With each of their last two games, a thrilling 4-3 shootout win over Phoenix Tuesday and the loss to the Northwest Division-leading Canucks (pretty much locked into the West’s second seed), the Stars have already faced playoff-like intensity and pressure.
Both games have also featured an uptick in physical play, including more fights and more scrums after whistles with plenty of pushing and shoving than usual. With the stakes getting higher, so are the emotions, and the squad’s ability to successfully manage that spike in adrenaline will play a key role in how they perform under pressure down the stretch.
Against the Canucks, Gulutzan felt like his players did not handle that task as well as he would have liked, despite clearly communicating beforehand to his charges how he’d like them to avoid the post-whistle scrums and that he wanted them to keep the flow of the game pacey against a Vancouver team that played the night before in Chicago.
“I didn’t think we were focused,” Gulutzan said plainly. “It’s funny, our game plan at the start was to keep the pace high, stay whistle to whistle. It was on the board - ‘We want to play whistle to whistle with these guys tonight, they came off an emotional one last night. We want to get things in deep and go after them.’ I thought we did in the first few minutes, (but Canucks goaltender Cory) Schneider withstood the test and made a few good saves and then we lost focus. We wanted to get involved in an extra-curricular game. Some of the exchanges and penalties and the frustration level - just way too high.”
“That’s the kind of stuff we don’t want to get into, we want to play whistle to whistle,” added defenseman Alex Goligoski
. “It kind of ruins the flow of the game, especially against a team coming in on a back-to-back, they’ll want to slow the game down all night, so we don’t want to fall into that. But the games are picking up physicality-wise, that’s the way it goes.”
Unfortunately for Dallas, some of the physical stuff led to undisciplined penalties, with Gulutzan specifically referencing a first period roughing penalty on blueliner Sheldon Souray
, as well as a second period slashing call to Mike Ribeiro
less than a minute after he missed converting a penalty shot.
“We just couldn’t help ourselves. You have to be methodical and focused at this time of year, you can’t be up and down like a yo-yo with your emotions,” Gulutzan said. “We got warned by the ref 30 seconds before Sheldon Souray
took his penalty, so what does that tell you?”
As for Ribeiro, who could have tied the game 1-1 with a penalty shot at 12:55 of the second, but missed, and then wound up in the penalty box 34 seconds later (leading to a 5-on-3 power play for Vancouver’s top-rated power play unit for a full 1:06 following Stephane Robidas
’ hooking call at 14:23), Gulutzan acknowledged the nifty center became frustrated.
“He’s hard on himself and I’ve talked about that with him at length,” said Gulutzan. “If he feels he’s not doing enough, he gets very frustrated and it affects his game. He reeled himself in a little bit in the third there, but at this time of year, we all have to stay focused.”
“It was definitely a physical game, but we were in the penalty box a little bit too much tonight and that takes away from your chance to create offense,” added winger Eric Nystrom
, who assisted on the Stars’ only goal against Vancouver. “We did a good job on the penalty kill, but we got to stay 5-on-5, especially against a team that’s got the number one-ranked PP in the league. It’s good to play physical, but we’d like to stay out of the box a little more.”
With the games’ intensity expected to only increase down the stretch, the Stars feel like the lesson has been learned now and that they need to do a better job harnessing that excitement energy productively. After dropping three of their last four following a stunning 10-0-1 run, they know what style of play makes them successful, it’s just a question of remaining focused and executing.
“It’s tight, we can’t go on any skids this time of year, you got to consistently play the right way,” said Goligoski. “That’s the way we’re approaching it. It’s crunch time, we want to win games, we all know that. I think we’re taking a step, we played a pretty good game tonight.”
Nystrom indicated that the confidence in the dressing room remains high.
“We know we’re a great team in here,” the gritty left winger said. “We just got to move forward and learn from our mistakes and know that we got to shoot the puck a little more and go to the net and get some ugly ones and we’ll be fine.”
“We need to play a team game,” added Gulutzan. “We need to play for each other in that room, that’s what gave us success when we went on our little run, and that’s what’s going to give us success in the playoffs. If we deviate from that, we’re going to be in trouble. It’s too tight this time of year to have agendas of any other nature.”