Six weeks into the season this is not where the Dallas Stars had hoped or expected to be. The last month has not been kind to the Stars as a once-promising 4-1-2 start has dissolved into a 6-8-4 record. They have seen multiple games spiral away from them in the closing minutes. Often times have been left scratching their heads as games they were controlling get pulled out from under their grasp.
Compounding the issues the Stars have also taken some huge blows to their roster. We're only in mid-November and Dallas has already lost two important, young players - Patrik Nemeth and Valeri Nichushkin - to injuries for all, or most, of the season. The Stars have struggled defensively, while also going without key goals at pivotal moments. Those two players have been sorely missed in those departments.
Lately it feels like one blow after another for the Stars. The most recent one came in the form of a four-goal, third period by the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday. It was a period that turned a tied game into a blowout loss, and was essentially a microcosm of what the Stars have experienced recently.
Last week the Stars saw an increase in a lot of areas that had been lacking this season. Kari Lehtonen looked like the goaltender of old. He came up with big saves when the game was on the line, and pulled rabbits out of his hat like this one in Los Angeles, that is the leading candidate for Save of the Year. Their penalty killing tightened up, as they went 13-for-14 on the week. They limited the number of bad turnovers they were committing - especially in their defensive zone. They saw the emergence of a wildly impressive young defensemen in John Klingberg, who showcased that he could be trusted with enormous minutes. The Stars won a couple of games on the road to snap a winless skid. The first came in dramatic fashion. The second game in controlling fashion. The confidence appeared to be resurfacing. Then Dallas suffered a setback when Minnesota squeaked out a win on Saturday, setting up a Sunday finale in Chicago. The Stars and Hawks traded blows - both figuratively and literally - and played an even, opening-40 minutes. Then came the third period, and...
In one horrific, 20-minute spell, all of the improvements from earlier in the week were long forgotten. That it came in the third period, where the Stars have been abysmal this season, only added to the frustration.
The fact is that the Stars had an "OK" week. When the dust settled, they went .500 against tough competition and scheduling. But it could have been a "great," or even "good," week, had the Stars claimed anything to show for the weekend. Instead, the lasting impression becomes the third period in Chicago. And, unfortunately, that's where the Stars are right now. The negatives are overshadowing the positives, and the most important parts of their tests - the finishes - are overwhelmingly one-sided against.
That has to change. And while it is still early in the season, it is no longer very early. At the conclusion of this week the Stars will be more than one-quarter into their schedule. December is right around the corner. New Year's follows shortly after that. Before you know it, it will be the All-Star Break and teams that have been left in the dust will be wondering exactly when the season got away from them. The Stars need to make sure they are not one of those teams. With that in mind, Lindy Ruff said following the loss on Sunday that the Stars need to, "make a stand."
Well, how about a home stand?
Beginning Tuesday the Stars will play five straight games at American Airlines Center. The two big issues for Dallas this season have been their third period play, and their record at home. In most games in Dallas, those issues have overlapped. However, the upcoming schedule is a big opportunity to turn things around.
The Stars schedule so far has been a gauntlet. Of the 18 games they've played, 13 have been against clubs who currently rank in the top half of the NHL standings. It's been even more difficult at home as seven of the nine opponents to come to Dallas currently sit in the NHL's Top-14. While Ruff and the rest of the Stars would never look for any excuses, that is a tough draw. Especially when you're not playing your best hockey, which the Stars are not.
By contrast, here are the five opponents on the docket in this coming homestand, along with their current NHL rank in terms of points percentage:
Carolina (29), Arizona (24), Los Angeles (11), Edmonton (27), Minnesota (12).
Let's be clear. Those rankings do not mean anything unless the Stars perform. Dallas is in absolutely no position to take anything for granted. They need to play all of these teams as if they were playing the top team in the league. But the fact remains that if the Stars are looking for a place to make a stand, statistically this appears to be the most optimal segment so far this season.
The Stars need to win. They need to win at home. They need to win third periods. They need to make a stand. They'll get their chance to do all of it, this week.
The Stars kick off the homestand with three games this week, beginning Tuesday night. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar':
Rookie defenseman John Klingberg made his NHL debut last week and was instantly impressive. Among those taken with the 22-year old was Ruff, who increased Klingberg's playing time each game last week. He led all Stars on Saturday with 25:29 of ice time vs. Minnesota, and then played 25:44 the next night in Chicago. Klingberg assisted on the Stars second goal on Sunday, notching his first career NHL point. Both the Stars and Klingberg were patient with his ascent to the NHL, but it appears that now he's here, he will be used as much as possible.
Benn There Before
Stars captain, Jamie Been is currently on an 11-game goalless drought. His five goals this season came in five straight games during a streak, but he has not tallied since October 24 in New Jersey. He went through a similar stretch last season when he also played 11 straight without a goal from November 17 - December 12. He broke out of the skid with a two-goal game, and proceeded to score six goals in the eight games following the drought. Dallas could use a repeat breakout performance from their young leader this week.
Goals have been a tough commodity for the Stars in November. Dallas has only scored 16 goals in 8 games this month - a paltry average of two per game. In October, the Stars scored 32 goals in 10 games - an average of 3.2 per game. The drastic decline in scoring can be traced back to their top offensive players. With the exception of Tyler Seguin (5g, 2a), the other players counted on to be top producers have struggles. Career point per game star, Jason Spezza has 4 points (1g, 3a) in 8 games this month. Jamie Benn has two assists. Trevor Daley has one goal. Ales Hemsky has one assist. Alex Goligoski has been held without a single point. While the defense has drawn its fair share of criticism lately, the fact remains that the Stars need to score more goals. They need their top-end players to carry the torch in that effort.
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.