Then they came home.
As has been the case for most of the season, the majority of the aforementioned success for the Stars came outside of Dallas. The American Airlines Center has doubled as a haunted house this year, and for whatever reason the Stars just cannot seem to exorcise the demons. After posting the tenth best home record in the entire NHL last season, Dallas is just 13-14-8 this year. They are one of only three Western Conference teams with a losing record at home. The others are Arizona and Edmonton, who both are more than 30 points out of a playoff spot.
As bad as things have been all season, they are worse as of late. The Stars are just 2-5-3 in their last ten home games and have not won back-to-back games at the AAC since December 31 and January 3. Of all the areas in which the Stars have had room for improvement this year, it is not an exaggeration to say that the home record may be the most costly. The Stars are 19-14-2 on the road. They are tied for the eighth-most road victories in the NHL. They have a better road record than Nashville and Tampa Bay, who are both currently battling for the best overall record in the league. Yet, they currently sit seven points out of a playoff spot. There are 23 teams in the NHL who are at least five games over .500 at home. Included in that list are clubs like Toronto, New Jersey, and Florida. The Stars, meanwhile, are one-game under .500.
As you digest some of those hard-to-swallow numbers, you might be asking yourself a question that Stars players and coaches have been asked repeatedly this year. Why can't this team play the same way at home that they do on the road?
Many inside the locker room have answered that they need to play a more 'North-South' game. They have to stop focusing on making the pretty play and make the smart one. They need to not worry about being entertaining and focus only on being successful. Perhaps all of those are true. However, if there were some grandiose difference in how they play in Texas as opposed to the rest of the continent, you would be reasonable to think the numbers reflect that, right?
Surprisingly, they don't.
On average, the Stars score 3.03 goals per game at home and allow 3.20. On the road, they have a similar average of 3.11 goals-for and 3.26 goals-against. Through 35 games of each, the Stars overall goal-differential at home is -6 goals. Their road goal-differential is -5. Shots on goal tell the same story. At home Dallas averages 32.3 shots per game, while allowing just 29.3. Those numbers are actually better than their road splits which feature 30.3 shots-for and 31.0 shots-against. The club's shooting percentage on the road is marginally better (10.3% vs. 9.4% at home), but it's certainly not a gap you would expect to be record-defining.
So if the team stats even out, what about individuals? Are the players who the Stars rely upon the most significantly better on the road? Actually, they're not. Looking at the top six scorers on the Stars (including Erik Cole's time with the club), three of them have more points on the road, while the other three are more productive at home. Furthermore, since to what degree they are better matters, it's worth noting that the combined totals are almost the same. In fact, when adding all six players' stats together, they actually combine for three more home points than they have on the road.
How about goaltending, you ask? Good question. Since we already covered the goals against, let's look at saves. This year Stars goaltenders have combined for a .896 save percentage at home. That's a dismal number and can explain a lot about this year. Until you find out that on the road, that number is .895. To be fair, Kari Lehtonen does have slightly better road numbers than at home, but as an entire body of work, what you see between the pipes is very similar to what you see with all of the numbers. There is a striking similarity from home to road. Certainly more than you would expect for a team whose home versus road record is anything but similar.
While the stock answer seems to be that the Stars have to keep things simple and not get caught up trying to dazzle in their home environment, it seems like they actually are playing the same type of hockey as they do on the road. They're just not getting the same type of results.
Teams that prevail in games are often labeled as a group that "found a way to win." Unfortunately for the Stars, dating back to opening night, this year it seems like when they are home, the club has found a way to lose instead. Causing even more frustration, it often has been a different thing from night to night that costs them. Maybe it's a soft goal. Or one guy losing his man in a key situation. Perhaps the other goaltender having a career-best performance. One time it was even a defenseman literally falling down twice in the same shift. Seriously, it was.
Whatever the incident, something happened in Game #1 of the season. Then it happened again. And then again. And again. In fact, it happened so frequently that somewhere along the line "it" became a thing. The other shoe, just waiting to drop. Now when the Stars are in a close game at home, they are not just battling the other team. They're battling themselves. They're battling five months of the same question being asked to them after a home loss. They're battling the seeming inevitability of a way to not close out a game.
That is a huge problem, since the large majority of Dallas games are close games. Almost half of the Stars games this season have been one-goal games, and a total of 51 of the 70 played have been decided by two goals or less. Those games are split almost evenly between home and road contests. However, again, the record is not. Dallas has only won 38.9% of their one-goal games at American Airlines Center, as opposed to 60% of their one-goal away games. Additionally, the Stars are just 2-7 in two-goal games on home ice, but 6-3 in those games on the road. All told, when the final margin is within two goals, the Stars are 15-7-2 on the road, and 9-10-8 in Dallas. Looks pretty similar to the overall home and road records, doesn't it?
The fact is that regardless of what zip code they are in, the Stars play mostly high-scoring, mostly close games. When results are so contrasting from home to road, it makes sense to assume that there is some huge difference in how a team is playing. But that doesn't necessarily make it the case. In hockey the margin between winning and losing can be paper thin. You can outplay a team and lose. You can get outplayed and win. It happens all the time. Often it boils down to simply closing out games more than anything else. While the home versus road numbers may be a lot more similar than most people thought, when it comes down to closing out games, we finally find the huge difference. We already pointed out the record in close games, which tells a lot. But perhaps the most telling difference between closing games at home and on the road can be found in the overtime/shootout records.
When talking about a thin line between winning and losing, games decided after regulation are as narrow as it gets. One break. One save. One shot. A skills competition. It is completely up for grabs, and as close to a 50-50 proposition as there is in the sport. Yet this year, the Stars are 1-8 at home, and 4-2 on the road. Perhaps no other statistic better illustrates the difference between the Stars at home compared to the road this year.
Maybe it's tightening up. Maybe it's pressing too hard. Maybe it's bad luck. Maybe it's a combination. Whatever it is, in the end, it appears that has been the real difference between the records this season.
As it turns out, the Stars don't have to figure out how to play the way they do on the road when they're home. It looks like they already do. They just need to figure out how to close like they do on the road. Unfortunately that, they definitely do not.
The Stars have a slow week with just two games on Thursday and Saturday as they continue their four-game homestand. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the Stars try to stay in the hunt:
The Stars have talked about committing to improved defense down the stretch, and over the last week it has certainly been on display. Dating back to first intermission of the game in Philadelphia on March 10, the Stars have only allowed a combined 71 shots and eight goals-against in 11 periods of play. Looking at those numbers over a 60-minute average, the Stars have allowed only 19.4 shots and 2.18 goals-against per game during that span. Furthermore, one of those goals was an empty-netter by the Blues on Sunday. Taking that out of the equation, the Stars GAA for the last 11 periods is an impressive 1.91. Dallas went 3-1-0 in those four games.
Veteran forward Vernon Fiddler has been on quite a tear over the last two weeks. The Stars alternate captain has scored five goals in his last seven games, and has set a new career-high with 12 goals this season. He is tied for the seventh-most goals on the Stars this season. The run by Fiddler continues a late-season trend he's had for the last few years in Dallas. Last season, Fiddler had his most productive stretch of the season, registering points in eight of his final 11 games. Prior to that, in 2013, Fiddler set a career-long streak, tallying points in six straight games in early April.
The last nine Stars goals have been scored by nine different players, and over the last four games, the Stars have scored a total of 11 goals from ten different guys. Over that span the Stars who have scored are Fiddler, Tyler Seguin, Colton Sceviour, Shawn Horcoff, Patrick Eaves, Cody Eakin, Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski, Curtis McKenzie, and Brett Ritchie. The only player to score twice was Fiddler.
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.