While there was a definite sense of gloom and foreboding in the Dallas Stars’ dressing room following their debilitating 5-2 loss to San Jose Tuesday night, the fact is, the club is still alive in the Western Conference playoff race.
True, the defeat to the eighth-place Sharks seriously wounded the Stars’ chances of reaching the post-season for the first time since 2008, but the reality is, if the Stars get some help, they still have an outside shot at it.
With two games remaining in the season, Dallas has 89 points and plays at Nashville Thursday night (7:00 pm start, FSSW), where the fourth-seeded Predators are trying to fend off both Detroit and Chicago to remain in the last slot that carries home-ice advantage in the first round.
The Sharks, who jumped up to 92 points with back-to-back wins over the Stars, face Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles, who own 93 points, in both of their remaining contests.
Dallas does hold the tie-breaker advantage over both the Kings and Sharks, as well as seventh-place Phoenix, should they wind up tied in points with any of them, presenting a couple of scenarios in which the Stars could still make it.
First, they need to win both of their remaining contests, in Nashville Thursday and in the season finale at the American Airlines Center Saturday night (7 pm start, TXA-21). That is the first step.
Then they have to hope that either the Kings win both games, holding San Jose to one or no points in the process, or the Sharks win both in regulation. That would leave whichever team that lost both stuck with no more than 93 points, allowing the Stars to squeeze past them.
Otherwise, the Stars need to have the Coyotes, who also have 93 points, lose both of their games (at St. Louis on Friday, at Minnesota Saturday) to edge them out for the last spot.
So it’s a longshot, but definitely possible.
In fact, it’s very similar to the situation the club faced last year down the stretch. After falling to LA in Game 77 last April 2, the Stars’ situation looked quite dire, trailing Chicago by five points for the final spot. But they proceeded to reel off four straight wins, while the Blackhawks stumbled a bit, going 2-2-1 in their last five, including a loss to Detroit at home on the final day of the season.
That opened the door for the Stars to squeak through if they could win their last contest in Minnesota, but ultimately they fell short in a 5-3 defeat and missed the playoffs for the third straight season.
While that might not be the most inspiring example, it does prove the opportunity could still be there, and if it is, the Stars have to be ready to seize it this time.
“It’s going to be tough, but we just can’t quit,” declared Stars captain Brenden Morrow
, who scored his 11th goal of the season in Tuesday’s loss. “Stranger things have happened. We’re going to need a lot of help, some people doing us some favors, but we’re not going to quit around here, we’re going to get back to work. This one’s going to sting a little bit, we’re going to come back (Wednesday), regroup, try and get a good work day in and try to get prepared for that game in Nashville.”
“We’re against the wall right now,” added defenseman Stephane Robidas
. “There’s nothing we can do about what happened in the past. We can’t change it, it happened. All we got to do is battle, we got to do it for each other. That’s why you play 82 games, we got two games left and we got to make sure we’re ready for those two games and go from there, see what happens.”
The message emanating from the coaching staff is that the squad needs to have a short memory, put the disappointment behind them, and come out hard against the Predators.
“You have to move forward,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said. “Now we need help and you just start preparing, getting ready for Nashville. There’s no other way to look at it. There’s no other way, it’s just business as usual and go win the game.”
In other words, forget about it, calm down over night and be ready to dig in again at practice Wednesday.
“I didn’t say anything to them,” Gulutzan said of his players after Tuesday’s game. “Emotions are high, guys are upset and everybody’s vested. Almost nothing needs to be said, we’ll talk about it (Wednesday) and we’ll move forward.”
Working on the power play
From a tactical standpoint, one area the Stars need to upgrade in the final two games to have a chance is their power play.
After going 0-for-2 Tuesday, including a 57-second 5-on-3 advantage, Dallas is now a dreadful 1-for-21 over their last seven contests, dropping their PP unit’s efficiency rating to 14.0 percent, dead last among the NHL’s 30 teams.
“On the power play, you got to score and that’s what they did, their third goal was on the power play and that can be a big difference in the hockey game,” Robidas said. “We score on the 5-on-3, we got a 5-on-4 after that, maybe we get another one, it’s a different game. But we didn’t. Sometimes you can win games with your power play, but obviously, it didn’t happen tonight.”
“My opinion (is we were probably) looking for that one extra pass for an easy goal instead of just pounding them in there,” said Morrow, who has five power play goals this year after netting nine of his career-high 33 last season with the man-advantage. “Not even pounding them, they don’t have to be hard, just get it in front of the net, scratch and claw and hack away and then things open up from there when there’s chaos at the net. That’s when the plays happen.”
It hasn’t been too difficult to determine why the Stars haven’t been having as much success on the power play lately, considering they have seemed reluctant to shoot, content to pass the puck around the perimeter.
“I think sometimes it looks good when you’re holding the puck and making plays around the outside, but you’re doing the same thing if they iced it three or four times,” Morrow said. “If you’re not getting pucks at the interior around the net, you’re not getting too many opportunities. I don’t know what the specialty team numbers are, but I’m sure (the Sharks) have the advantage. On the 5-on-3, I’m not sure we got a shot on goal there. That’s a pretty tell-tale sign of the way things are going on the power play, and I think they may have had one or two (short-handed shots). That’s a pretty big difference there and it’s been like that all year. “
“We just didn’t execute there,” Gulutzan said. “I think we were too cute, we wanted to bomb away, but we didn’t and looked for the good pass.”
Robidas offered his thoughts on what the Stars need to do to improve the PP for the final two games.
“Sometimes when you start struggling, you complicate things,” Robidas added. “I just think you got to go back to basics and simplify things, shoot more pucks at the net, get some traffic, maybe not make the perfect play. Sometimes all you need to do is get a shot, a rebound, a deflection or whatever. You look at their third goal, it’s a shot towards the net (by Martin Havlat), a deflection (from the slot by Logan Couture) and it goes in. Sometimes when things don’t go your way, you got to stick with the program and just simplify things and I think that’s what we’re not doing.”
They have two games to get it right, while hoping for a favorable outcome in a few other games around the league. Yes, it’s an uphill climb, but otherwise it’s going to be another long, disappointing summer.