Now that the All-Star Break is in the rear-view mirror, and the NHL is ready to hit the play button after a week-long pause, teams are primed to make their late-season run towards the playoffs. With two and a half months still to go, most teams remain in the hunt for a berth in the final-16. That is especially true in the Western Conference, where all but two teams start the post-break schedule within seven points of a playoff spot. The Dallas Stars are right in the middle of the pack currently on the outside looking in. Dallas resumes play on Tuesday, fifth in the division, tenth in the conference, and four points back of the final Wild Card holder. They have 36 games over the next 75 days to try and climb into playoff position. With that in mind, let's take a look at what the next 11 weeks have in store for the Stars, and measure it against what they've done thus far.
Of the 36 games left on the Stars schedule, exactly two-thirds come against teams who currently occupy a playoff spot. So far this season the Stars have a combined record of 9-9-5 in 23 total games against current playoff teams. The other dozen games obviously come against teams that right now would not qualify for the postseason. To date the Stars have played an equal, 23 games against non-playoff clubs, and have posted a 12-9-2 mark - a .565 points percentage, compared to their .500 play against playoff teams. While Dallas could have possibly hoped for an easier close to the schedule, their results through the All-Star break suggest that they have shown the ability to beat, or lose to, anyone. Still, they will have to be markedly better than .500 against those playoff teams if they hope to make it to the second season.
Another potentially unfavorable split for the Stars comes in their home versus road games remaining. Dallas plays 21 games on the road, with just 15 left at home. However, while traditionally teams are far superior at home than on the road, that hasn't been the case for this year's Stars. Dallas is 10-8-2 on the road (.550), and 11-10-5 at home (.519). The Stars are one of just six NHL teams this season with a better points percentage on the road than they have at home, so it may not be a disadvantage after all. Last year the Stars were 23-11-7 (.646) at home and 17-20-4 (.463) on the road. Their road record nearly cost them a playoff spot. This year it has the potential to be the key in getting them one. That will get tested immediately though, as eight of the first 11 games out of the All-Star Break will be on the road, including all three this week.
Speaking of nearly costing them last year, the Stars struggled greatly against Eastern Conference teams, going just 13-17-2 for the entire season (.438). This year the Stars are much better, but still pretty average against the East. They are 8-7-1 (.531) in interconference games so far. That record will be pivotal down the stretch, as nearly half of their remaining games come against the East. The Stars will play 16 more games against Eastern Conference opponents, compared to 20 against the West. Much like the case of road games, they will dive right into this category coming out of the beak, as seven of the first nine games come against teams from the East.
Finally, when you look at recent run of play, the Stars have their work cut out for them as well. While the All-Star Break may throw a wrench - either positive or negative - into how a team was playing heading into the week off, looking at recent records still gives as good an indication as any as to how teams might look when they restart. Since recent results are a constantly evolving picture, looking any further than a handful of games down the road seems superfluous. Yet, if you check in on the Stars first five opponents, you find that most of them have played pretty well in the ten games leading into the All-Star Break. In order Dallas will take on Montreal (7-2-1), Ottawa (4-4-2), Winnipeg (7-2-1), Colorado (5-3-2), and Tampa Bay (7-3-0). By comparison, the Stars went 4-4-2 over that same span.
When you add it all up, it may not be the most favorable schedule possible, but it also does not present an insurmountable obstacle. The Stars knew that after digging themselves into a hole early this season, they would need a strong close, regardless of who was scheduled in their way. The best news for the Stars is that while all of these stats incorporate the entire season, Dallas has been a much better team lately than they were at the beginning of the year. They are 11-5-2 in their last 18 games, and even in their losses, they are usually playing a better brand of hockey than before.
Most people projected the cutoff to make the playoffs at approximately 94 points. That math held true at the midway point of the season, and right now, the final Wild Card team - the Calgary Flames - are on mathematical pace to finish with fewer than 94. Still, keeping that number in mind, that means the Stars would need to get 45 points in their final 36 games. That translates to a .625 point percentage from here out. If you're trying to break that down even further, it comes out to just about four points per week for the remainder of the season. Essentially, if the Stars want to see the Stanley Cup Playoffs logo on the ice at American Airlines Center in April, they've got to take two of every three games, with room for an occasional consolation point sprinkled in.
That is the picture of what the Stars are facing. The players and coaches will tell you they are taking it one game at a time, starting with Montreal on Tuesday. That's how they should approach it, and we'll all be along for the ride on the step-by-step journey.
But it's still fun to zoom out on the map every once in a while and take a look at the whole thing.
It's back to work for Dallas and the rest of the NHL, as the Stars resume play with a three-game road trip in Canada. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' while the Stars are up north:
Power Play Predictor
The Stars have had a much better record since mid-December and there is a lot of credit to go around. The goaltending has been better. The offense has been scoring more. The defense is cutting down the chances against. However, for the last month, one crazy statistic has been able to correctly forecast whether or not the Stars will win. Dating back to December 21, the Stars have won every single game in which they've scored a power play goal. Furthermore - and just as incredible - they have lost every single game in which they haven't. That is a stretch of 15 games. Dallas has a record 8-5-2 over that span. In their seven losses, the Stars are a combined 0-for-31 on the man-advantage. During that time, four of the seven Stars losses and five of their eight wins came by a single goal. In other words, one power play goal added or removed could have likely been the difference between a win and loss. Special teams are always key, and will be extremely important for the remainder of the season, but that stat showcases exactly how influential and pivotal the Dallas power play has been.
Back in the Saddle
The return from the All-Star break also means the expected return of forward Patrick Eaves to the Stars lineup. Eaves has been sidelined since December 2 with a broken ankle, but was cleared to return just before the break and should see action this week. Originally estimated to miss somewhere in the range of 4-8 weeks, Eaves has been out the long end of that projection. Tuesday's game in Montreal will mark eight weeks to the day since Eaves last played a game. His arrival could be a welcomed one for Lindy Ruff, who already has to shift his roster with the absence of Erik Cole. Eaves, who has eight points in 19 games this season, while averaging just 11 minutes of ice per game, has been a versatile piece for Ruff, playing on all four lines throughout the season. With Brett Ritchie also expected to return from a three-game absence, and Cole vacating a spot on what had been a very productive second line, Ruff will have a decision to make on where he feels Eaves will fit in best. Before his injury, he had points in three of his most recent five games.
When Jason Spezza faced off against the Ottawa Senators two weeks ago in Dallas, he admitted that even though it was strange, the really emotional meeting with the Sens will come in his lone visit to Ottawa. That game comes this week. On Thursday, Spezza makes his much-anticipated return to the city he called home for 11 seasons. Last year the Stars went through a number of emotional homecomings and had success in each stop. The Stars returned to the longtime homes of Ruff (Buffalo), Tyler Seguin (Boston), General Manager, Jim Nill (Detroit), Sergei Gonchar (Ottawa), and Shawn Horcoff (Edmonton). They made only one trip apiece to each location and won all five games. Earlier this year the Stars also won in Ales Hemsky's first ever visit to Edmonton. The Stars pride themselves on having a tight locker room. Everyone knows this will not be just another game for Spezza, and they will do their best to keep that emotional winning streak alive in Spezza's homecoming.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.