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Burnside: After disappointing stretch, Stars face pivotal times ahead

Following a winless road swing, Dallas will endure a kind of litmus test in the coming week

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

A team flirting with the abyss, or a team still very much in transition? 

Maybe for the Dallas Stars, it's an issue of having a skate on each side of this line as they approach the first quarter of what has been, for the most part, an underwhelming National Hockey League season.

Certainly coming off a miserable 0-2-1 southeast road trip that saw the team outscored 14-5 (15-5 if you count the shootout goal that Florida scored to secure the extra point in Tuesday's 4-3 win), then it's fair to view the coming week as a kind of litmus test for a team that has failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations.

That reality was brought home in no uncertain terms with the team's 6-1 manhandling Thursday night by the Tampa Bay Lightning in netminder Ben Bishop's return to Tampa.

Since winning back-to-back games in Calgary and Vancouver by 2-1 counts almost three weeks ago, the Stars have won just twice in seven outings. They've been outscored 24-8 in the losses (counting the shootout goal). The penalty kill, consistently among the tops in the NHL, has allowed at least a goal in six of eight games. Depth scoring continues to be an issue, as has periodic defensive lapses.

Traditionally, GMs and others in the hockey world look at a team's place in the world at Thanksgiving as a significant barometer of a team's overall worth. Are teams trending up or down at Thanksgiving? Have offseason (or early in-season) changes had the desired effect or are more changes needed?

Approaching the quarter mark of the season, the Stars are a pedestrian 9-9-1, including a woeful 3-7-1 road record, and are currently outside the playoff bubble.

That brings us to the week ahead for the Stars. 

It's a truism that every day you spend outside the playoff bracket is an important day. But in the next week, the Stars will host Edmonton on Saturday afternoon and Montreal Tuesday night before flying for a game Wednesday night in Denver. The week ends with Jere Lehtinen's jersey retirement on Friday night when the Calgary Flames visit.

The Stars have been excellent at home, going 6-2-0 - although it's worth noting their losses have both come against Western Conference teams currently in a playoff spot (Vegas and Winnipeg). 

It's certainly past the point in time when it's simply a matter of saying, well, it's early. It's not early anymore, and for the Stars, it's getting later very quickly.

"Certainly the time, if it's not here yet, it's coming really soon that this team has to turn it around," said veteran netminder Kari Lehtonen, who is 2-0-1 in his last three starts and will get the nod against an equally underperforming Edmonton team Saturday.

Video: Hitchcock wants better puck management

"It's been a frustrating road," Lehtonen added. "We play some good games and then we don't. We come up with things that we need to do better and we work on them and then something else seems to pop the next game. Yeah, it's definitely been frustrating but there's still a huge amount of belief in what we have, that we can turn this thing around in a big way that's why people are not panicking."

And if there is a modicum of optimism, even in light of the team's disappointing turn of late, it's that there seems to be no flagging in commitment.

"Obviously the ass-kicking we took last night isn't one that you just look past," Tyler Seguin offered Friday. "We had a lot of video today and talked about it and the strides we need to make."

If there was any sense that things were going to be easy, they were dispelled by this most recent road trip.

"I think there's a certain sense of feeling humbled, being humbled. That's what that trip was," rSeguin said. 

But there's a fine line between being humbled and being discouraged, and so far, the Stars profess to being on the right side of that line.

"We still have a lot of time to fix that, but we also got to realize, and be honest with each other, that this is the quarter point coming up, Game 20, a lot of things need to change and improved a lot. And some things we've been doing well that we need to keep on doing," said Seguin, who will continue to play apart from longtime linemate Jamie Benn as the team looks for more scoring balance.

"I think the effort's been there consistently, and that's the one thing you might worry about sometimes. But we haven't had to worry about that," Seguin added.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock believes a lot of the errors that have plagued the team are the result of having a lineup without a lot of NHL experience. But he, too, believes the Stars as a group are eager to learn. 

"What's changed now is that when you deal with millennials, there's no point bringing them into a teaching moment unless they're ready to be taught," Hitchcock said. "Today, you have to literally ask that question, 'Are we ready?' because sometimes you can walk into it, and you know they're in no mood to listen. They're in no mood to watch, so you might as well just close the door and go home. 

"Today wasn't one of those days. We had a great meeting today. We had some tough video to watch, but I think the guys took it in the right concept, and that's what you're looking for."

And so a week begins. 

Want to label it as 'pivotal'? Go ahead.

When you're traveling the narrow road between the abyss and getting it right, that doesn't seem like an overstatement.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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