Heading into Friday night, the Dallas Stars were as hot as they had been all season. They had won a season-high four straight games. They had also won four straight on the road, another season-long stretch. The Stars were winners in nine of their prior 11 games. This team, that has allowed the fifth most goals in the NHL this season, had only given up a dozen in their last six games. They had done everything they talked about doing to keep their playoff hopes alive. Then it all came to a screeching halt in one night in Edmonton.
Yes, after knocking off teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders, and dominating the Chicago Blackhawks, the Stars got shut out by the Oilers. The Richard Bachman led Oilers. The 21-40-13 Oilers. The... Well, you get the picture.
The road trip was not supposed to go like this. Not after an uplifting shootout win in Calgary a couple nights before. Not with only eight games left in the season and all of them virtual must-wins. Not when the team was playing their best hockey of the season. How could the Stars team that took the ice the last few weeks allow this night and this opponent to be the one to derail them?
In spite of a night where they definitely wish they had a mulligan, you do have to give the Stars a lot of credit. Suffering an immeasurably deflating loss, Dallas rebounded very nicely the following night to beat a solid Vancouver Canucks team in their rink. Making it even more impressive, they did so by overcoming a second-intermission deficit in the second game on consecutive nights.
When the dust settled, it was a pretty good week for the Stars. They won three out of four games, and bookended their trip with gutsy victories in Calgary and Vancouver. They gained a little ground and enter this week six points back with six games to play.
Still, you can't help but think about just how much better things would feel if they had just beaten Edmonton.
But the more you do think about it, the more you realize that this year's Stars have been a team that plays to their competition all season. Be it up or down, it seems like Dallas has a chameleon-like way of matching their opponent. When they rise to the occasion against elite teams, it can be a thing of beauty. When they lower their game against some of the league's lesser clubs, that beauty gets replaced with frustration. Even before Edmonton, at the start of last week, the Stars had to come from behind twice in the third period to squeeze out a victory over the lowly Buffalo Sabres.
The record tells the story.
Against the top-20 NHL teams based on record, the Stars are a combined 26-18-7 (.578). Against the NHL's bottom-10, the Stars are an even 11-11-3. Included in those games are some hard-to-fathom results. The Stars went 0-2 this year against Toronto. They split the season series with Buffalo. Dallas went winless in five games this year against Colorado. They split their season series with Carolina. And they had a number of season-high streaks snapped Friday night at the hands of Edmonton. The Stars have only been shut out three times this season. Two of them came against the Maple Leafs and Oilers - the third and fourth worst teams in the standings.
At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, you see just how good the Stars can be. The Stars swept the season series against the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. They have points in four of five meetings with the Chicago Blackhawks, and are 2-1-1 against the St. Louis Blues. All four are top-10 teams in the league. The Stars are also a perfect 7-0 against much-improved teams in Vancouver, Calgary, and Washington.
It is difficult to explain why the disparity exists. Maybe the Stars have been guilty of, at times, underestimating the opponent. Maybe teams ahead of the Stars have been guilty of the same when it comes to Dallas. Maybe lower teams in the standings see Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza across the ice and use that as motivation to show how they can measure up. Whatever the reason, the Stars need to make sure none of it plays a role in the future.
A reoccurring message from the Stars this season has been that the team needs to be more consistent. Whether they are talking about defending, goaltending, special teams, play at home...anything. They talk about finding a way to put in a more consistent effort. This year's results have shown that they need that consistency when it comes to success no matter who they are playing. Granted, it seems a little backwards. It would make a lot more sense to be talking about finding out a way to beat the good teams more consistently, rather than the other way around, but 76 games into the season that has not been the case.
The truth is that the pieces appear to be there (or close to there) for the Stars. If the defensive effort from the entire team (forwards included) and goaltending had played the whole season like they have in March, the team would undoubtedly be in a different spot right now. What separates the great teams from the rest of the league is an ability to perform nightly. Regardless of who they are playing, or where they are playing. The Stars are working towards that. It starts with a game. Then it becomes a week. After that it's a month. And finally it's a season. That's the Stars goal. They have taken great steps this month, even if Friday night served as a reminder that there is still a ways to go.
In what has been a roller-coaster year, the Stars have shown the ability to hang with anyone in the league. Next they need to learn how to not let anybody hang around. That's a project that the club will work on heading into next season.
In the meantime, there are still six games and two weeks left in this season. Those games come against clubs like St. Louis, Anaheim, and Nashville twice. All three are currently in the top-5 of the NHL standings.
It looks like the schedule sets up perfectly for the unpredictable Stars.
The Stars return home for Monday and Friday contests, before starting their final road trip of the season on Saturday night. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the Stars begin the penultimate week of the season:
The third period has been a source of frustration for the Stars for most of the season. However, their March turnaround has seen a bit of a reversal in that department as well. In two of their wins last week, the Stars overcame second intermission deficits. In fact, four of their ten wins this month have come when Dallas was trailing after 40 minutes. The Stars now have seven wins this season when entering the third period playing from behind, tying for fifth most in the NHL. Expect no lead to be safe this week, as the Stars face-off against Calgary, St. Louis, and Nashville. Calgary has ten wins when trailing at second intermission, second most in the NHL. St. Louis and Nashville both have six, tying for seventh in the league.
Better at Back-to-Back
Another Dallas Achilles-heel for the past few seasons has been the second game of a back-to-back. However, they have turned a corner in the second half of this season. Dallas is 4-2-1 in their last seven games when playing the night before. All seven games have been road games, and their wins have come against quality opposition, which based on the article above should come as no surprise. The Stars have beaten Vancouver, Washington, the New York Rangers, and Chicago over that span. The losses came in Minnesota and Colorado, and the overtime loss was in Chicago. This weekend features the final back-to-back of the Stars season when they host St. Louis on Friday night and travel to Nashville on Saturday.
Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen enters this week sitting on a couple of career-highs in his ten-season NHL career. Lehtonen's 34 wins and five shutouts both equal the most he's ever posted in a single campaign. This is the third time he has earned 34 wins, matching 2006-2007 with Atlanta and 2010-2011 in Dallas. In both of those seasons, he had 24 regulation losses, also career-highs and much higher than his current mark of 34-15-10. This is the second time Lehtonen has posted five shutouts, matching the career high he set last season. He begins this week ranking seventh among NHL goaltenders in wins and tied for seventh in shutouts.
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.