The Stars opened the homestand with a dominating win over the Montreal Canadiens. We wrote about that performance last week. It was amongst their best of the season. Hoping to garner momentum from a game like that, they instead followed it with a pretty lackluster effort on Tuesday. The Stars were outworked and outskated. They were stymied offensively, and too liberal defensively. They gave up a couple of soft goals, and spent the entire game playing catch up, after falling behind early. They lacked discipline. In short, everything they had done so well versus Montreal seemed absent against Winnipeg.
But then came Saturday against New Jersey. Once again, that same team that handled the Canadiens made an appearance. The Stars were physical. They won one-on-one battles. They had their legs moving. On that night, it was Dallas who jumped out to an early lead and never trailed in the game. Lindy Ruff said postgame that he felt his club "dominated" the first two periods. Their top line was outstanding, and they got help in all three zones from their entire lineup. It was again a reminder that the Stars can play how they need to. However, the fact that it was only there for one of the two games last week was also a reminder that performances like that need to be present much more often than they have been.
A question always gets posed after games like the ones against Montreal and New Jersey.
Why don't the Stars play like that every night?
It is mostly a rhetorical question. However, when looking for an actual answer, some people might point to their competition. The fact is that New Jersey is a struggling hockey team. After the loss in Dallas, they have just two wins in their last 11 games. You could offer that as a reason and suggest that the Stars capitalized against a wobbly opponent. But, remember, the Stars were struggling, too. They had just one win in six games entering the meeting with the Devils. So New Jersey could have just as easily said the same thing about Dallas. But it was the Stars, and not the Devils, who dictated the game. Additionally, not every slumping opponent means guaranteed results. (See: Games vs. Carolina & Philadelphia.)
To point at a slumping opponent as the sole reason that Dallas looked a certain way overshadows their effort. Don't forget, the Stars have also put forth similar games this season against top-tier teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles.
However, you also cannot completely discard that playing a team that is stuck in a funk presents an opportunity. Of course, it does not matter if you don't play well enough to seize the opportunity, but as the Stars have experienced, losing has can be contagious. As much as you want to just play the team across the ice from you, when you're caught in a rut, you are also battling the negative momentum from that slump. Losing skids can be the product of a variety of things. Injuries, individual slumps, suspect goaltending, overall poor play. But whatever the reason, when things go south, negatives seem to get magnified and repeated. The Stars have seen more than their share of that this season.
This all applies this week because Dallas is facing three teams who are all currently trapped in a skid. The Stars open a three-game road trip through Western Canada on Wednesday in Vancouver. There, they will face a Canucks team that is winless in their last four games (0-3-1). Vancouver has only scored seven goals in those four games, and only has one goal in each of their last two games. From there, the Stars travel to face the Calgary Flames. The Flames have lost five straight games in regulation, and have only eight goals over that span. Like Vancouver, they also have just two goals in their last two games. Dallas finally closes the trip in Edmonton on Sunday. Awaiting them is an Oilers team that has only one win in their last 16 games, just fired their Head Coach, and is a NHL-worst 7-18-5 this season.
Now, I cannot stress the following enough. None of this guarantees the Stars anything. Dallas has only two wins in their last seven games, so just like New Jersey was, the Stars upcoming opponents are looking to use Dallas to turn their fortunes around. It's also important to note that Vancouver and Calgary are not bad teams. Far from it, in fact. The Canucks are in second place in the Pacific Division and the Flames are currently tied for a Wild Card playoff spot. They are a combined 12-games over .500. Furthermore, the majority of the recent losses for both teams have come on the road, as opposed to home where they will face the Stars.
Still, all three clubs are undoubtedly slumping. And as mentioned above that takes a toll on a team. For the Stars, that presents an opportunity to take advantage against a few clubs that are "fighting it."
The Stars have had to endure some very difficult nights in their 29-game start to this season. They have been called "fragile." At times they've said to have "unraveled" or looked "discombobulated." Dallas still believes they are a good team. And they still believe they can turn around their season. However, the consensus belief is that for a team whose problems have been as much mental as physical, the real key to a turnaround is confidence. A confidence that can only come from a series of wins.
Dallas needs a winning streak badly. They need it for their confidence and the mentality of the team, but more importantly, they need it for the points. There are still four months left in the season, but the Stars have dug themselves a hole. If they don't climb out of it soon, they could get buried in it.
In two of the last three games the Stars were quicker, stronger, better, and more-driven than their opponent. In the other game, they weren't.
How much their opponent's recent run of play had to do with why is debatable. But the fact remains that when an opportunity presented itself, the Stars seized. This week provides a few more for the taking. A successful trip can put Dallas right back into the conversation before Christmas.
Opportunity is knocking this week in Canada. Let's see how the Stars answer.
The Stars have lost their last four road games in regulation, and have been outscored 21-9 during that stretch. This week they look for a reversal of fortune with three games north of the border. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as Dallas heads to Canada:
So far this season there are seven NHL teams that have at least three players with 24 or more points. The Stars are on that list with Tyler Seguin (38), Jamie Benn (26), and Jason Spezza (24). In Saturday's game against New Jersey, the Stars reunited that trio to form the top-line and it scored both first period goals. With the opponents getting the last change, it will be interesting to see if Ruff stays with that line intact on the road, or goes back to splitting them up. The other teams with three different 24+ point scorers are the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh, Penguins, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
For all the third period meltdowns the Stars have suffered this year, their record when leading at second-intermission is not as bad as some might have thought. Dallas is 7-1-2 this season when holding a lead after 40 minutes. That translates to an .800 points percentage. The final frame has still unquestionably been a problem, with Dallas getting outscored 39-20. However, perhaps surprisingly, grabbing a lead by the end of the second period has still resulted in points in nine of ten games.
Back to the Oil-field
Sunday promises to be an emotional night as Stars forward Ales Hemsky makes his much-anticipated return to Edmonton. Prior to signing in Dallas over the summer, the 31-year old Hemsky started his first 11 NHL season with the Oilers. Sunday will be his first game back at Rexall Place since he was traded from Edmonton to Ottawa at last year's trading deadline. Hemsky, who served as a longtime alternate captain for Edmonton, played in 652 games and registered 477 points (142g, 335a) in his Oilers career. This will also be just the second trip back for former Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff, who was traded to Dallas in the summer of 2013. Horcoff appeared in 796 games over 12 seasons for Edmonton. Last year he and the Stars made just one visit to Edmonton on November 13. Horcoff played 14:49 and finished a +1 in a 3-0 Stars win.
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.