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On the Radar: Hard Ground to Gain

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars

On Monday, March 2 the Dallas Stars were reeling. They had just lost their sixth straight game, had given up 30 goals over that span, fell all the way to just one-game over .500, and sat nine points out of a playoff spot. They were 12th out of 14 teams in the Western Conference.

In the three weeks since, the Stars have completely turned around their play. They have won seven of their last nine games, beating premier teams like the Blackhawks, Penguins, and Islanders along the way. The Stars have shut the opposition down, surrendering just ten goals in their last six games combined. However, they have still maintained their scoring punch, averaging three goals per contest over those nine games. Dallas has raised their record to 34-28-10, and has arguably played their best hockey of the season since snapping that six-game skid.

So, let's see where that impressive run of play has left them in the standings.

Entering this week, the Stars are eight points out of a playoff spot. They are 12th out of 14 teams in the Western Conference.

Wait, what?

Yes, unfortunately that was not a misprint. After putting together a run for which the Stars had been searching most of this season, and claiming 14 of a possible 18 points, the Stars have gained all of one point in their race for a playoff spot. All the while, seeing about half of their time left to close the gap disappear.

The Stars have learned in the last three weeks just how difficult it is to make up ground when you're on the outside looking in late in a season. If you've ever heard coaches and players preach about the importance of every single point in November and thought to yourself that it was cliché dramatizing, think again. Falling behind the pack stays with you all season long, and essentially eliminates your margin for error. Case in point, had the Stars gone a perfect 9-0 over the last three weeks, they would still be four points back. Obviously, that's a much better position than they currently find themselves, but asking for almost a month of perfection only to gain five points illustrates exactly what chasing from behind is like.

Another tough element of chasing is the helpless feeling of scoreboard watching. We are at the point of the season where before, during, and after every Stars game, you have to check the other games and see how the teams the Stars are chasing did. What we've seen lately is very little help that Dallas desperately needs. When it comes to scoreboard watching, it shouldn't be surprising that teams in position to make the postseason for the most part play good hockey and collect wins. Yet, even still, the last three weeks have been particularly difficult in that department.

Over the last six seasons, the average points percentage of the lowest-seeded playoff teams in both conferences has been .567. That comes out to 93 points in a full season. Using that average, that means that to make up any ground at all, those doing the chasing normally must play that much better than .567 hockey to expect to see any increase in position. This year, however, the final Wild Card team in the West has a current points percentage of .597, and is on pace to finish with 98 points. While the Stars have been on their recent tear, the rest of the teams they are concerned with have, for the most part, gone on runs of their own.

Here's a look at what the Western Conference clubs Dallas is chasing have done since March 2, ranked by their current standings:

Vancouver: 6-3-1 (.650)
Minnesota: 7-3-0 (.700)
Winnipeg: 5-3-0 (.625)
Calgary - 6-2-2 (.700)
Los Angeles: 5-2-2 (.667)
Colorado: 6-1-1 (.813)
San Jose: 4-4-0 (.500)
Dallas: 7-2-0 (.777)

All but one of the teams has played better than .600 hockey since the trade deadline, making a significant climb in the standings virtually impossible. That brings up one additional, key part of the chasing equation - the number of teams between you and a playoff spot. Last year when the Stars were essentially in a two-team race with Phoenix, they were aided by a Coyotes skid. When you're chasing as many teams as Dallas is this year, even if a one or two teams does fall off, the likelihood is that the others will not.

Finally, this year has proven to also be more difficult for the Stars because of the playoff format. Entering this week, the two Wild Card teams are the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets. However, they rank sixth and seventh in the conference standings. The Stars are only six points behind Calgary for eighth place in the West, and still have two more head-to-head games with the Flames. However, because since the realignment the Pacific Division is guaranteed three spots and the Central can have no more than five, unless the Stars catch either Minnesota or Winnipeg, they cannot make the playoffs regardless of what Pacific Division teams they pass.

Over the last nine games the Stars have done a great number of things right. However, the payoff in the standings has been minimal. They have advanced one point in the last three weeks. In order to continue their season, they'll have figure out how to make up eight in the next three.

With how they have been playing, the Stars absolutely look like a playoff team right now. But as good as the team looks, the standings still do not. It's the harsh reality of the outside position in a traditionally unforgiving chase.

 

 

The Stars have three weeks and ten games remaining in the season. Four of those games come this week. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the Stars try to keep up their solid play of late:

Remaining Schedules

Since the Stars must catch either Winnipeg or Minnesota, looking ahead at their remaining schedules becomes critical to any Stars playoff hopes. Both clubs have very similar, difficult calendars to close the season. After playing Edmonton on Monday, eight of the final nine opponents for Winnipeg are current playoff teams. The other is Colorado, the only Western team with a better post-deadline mark than Dallas. The Jets' ten remaining games are split evenly between home and road. They have two more back-to-back sets.

Minnesota has a similar looking schedule. After they play Toronto on Monday, eight of their final nine are also against teams currently in a playoff spot. The lone exception is a game against the defending Stanley Cup Champion, Los Angeles Kings. Despite their struggles this year, you can't consider the Kings an easy matchup by any means. The Wild also split evenly between home and road, and they play in three back-to-backs.

Meanwhile, the Stars have ten games left, and only seven are against current playoff teams. Six of the final nine are on the road for Dallas, but the Stars have played their best hockey away from American Airlines Center this season. Furthermore, as mentioned above, even though the Stars must catch a Central Division rival, the two games against Calgary give them a big opportunity to make up ground against the Flames. That could be big if Calgary gets swallowed up by the Kings or Sharks, and return to the Wild Card race. The Stars have two remaining back-to-back sets on their schedule.

Last Look at East

Monday night's game against the Buffalo Sabres marks the end of the Stars' 32-game schedule against Eastern Conference teams. Struggling versus the East was a big problem for the Stars last year, but they have been terrific outside of their conference this season. The Stars are 18-11-2 this year against the East, for a points percentage of .613. Most of that damage has been done lately, as Dallas is 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, dating back to an overtime win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on February 8.

Closing the Door

On paper this week's game against the Sabres provides an opportunity for goaltender Jhonas Enroth to face his former club. However, he likely will be serving as the backup Monday night with Kari Lehtonen on a terrific run over the last two weeks. Lehtonen has started the last six games and his 5-1 in those contests with a 1.50 GAA and a .940 save percentage. Entering Monday, in his last four periods of work, Kari has stopped al 48 shots he has faced, and has done so against the potent offenses of Pittsburgh and Chicago. Despite the turbulent season for the Stars netminder, Lehtonen has lowered his season GAA to 2.82 and raised his save percentage to .908. He also has 31 wins, just three shy of his career high. As long as the Stars remain mathematically alive, Lehtonen should get an opportunity to surpass that number as he tries to keep up his best stretch of the season.

 

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.

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