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On the Radar: The Race in the West

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars

With seven weeks and 22 games remaining, the Dallas Stars are one of several teams jammed in the middle of the Western Conference Wild Card race. The Stars predicament can seem either simple or complex, depending on where your focus lies.

As play begins this week, the Stars are six points back of the final playoff spot, currently occupied by Minnesota Wild. In itself that seems like a basic number, and based on the records of the current Wild Card holders, the cut to make the playoffs projects to be somewhere around 95 points. That also provides a pretty basic - albeit very difficult - equation from a Dallas standpoint. To reach 95 points, the Stars have to collect 32 points in their final 22 games. An example of a record that gets them that would be 16-6. Not easy to do, but easy to do the math.

Where things get a little more convoluted is in the breakdown of the other teams also in the mix. The Western Conference has pretty much been broken into three tiers. Conference leaders Nashville, Anaheim and St. Louis are virtual locks for a playoff spot. Chicago is not quite in that group, and can't feel too secure about the footsteps they're hearing from the teams just below them. However, considering they are 12 points ahead of Dallas, when reviewing everything from the Stars viewpoint, the Chicago ship has sailed and they can be lumped in with the other three teams at the top of the conference. At the other end of the spectrum, Edmonton and Arizona are way back from the pack and not a part of the picture.

That leaves eight other teams. Vancouver, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Calgary, San Jose, Colorado, and Dallas. Those eight teams are fighting for the other four playoff spots. However, there are not four spots available for the Stars. There are only two.

Following the realignment from a couple of years ago, three guaranteed spots are awarded to each division. Since three of the top four Western Conference teams are in the Stars division (the Central), Dallas is only in contention for the two Wild Card spots. Pacific Division teams, meanwhile, have a crack at both the two unspoken-for divisional places, as well as the two Wild Card slots. Four teams in the pack are from the Central Division. The other four are from the Pacific. The latter have a much better outlook, because they are in two different races simultaneously.

That can become misleading to some fans when looking at the standings. It's not as simple as just focusing on the Wild Card teams. There are also two teams in the #2 and #3 Pacific Division spots, who from night to night, can drop into a Wild Card position, or even out of a playoff spot altogether. As an example, as this week begins, Los Angeles is third in the Pacific division tied in points with Calgary and San Jose. However, all three teams are one point behind Minnesota, the final Wild Card holder. Any win by Calgary or San Jose would knock Los Angeles out of a current playoff spot. If you're trying to gain an accurate depiction of who the Stars are chasing, all four Pacific Division teams are equally important because, regardless of where they reside at that moment in the standings, any one of them could easily become the team the Stars eventually will need to pass in the Wild Card race.

Additionally, while the Stars are just six points back of a playoff spot, the number of teams between them and that potential spot make the trek more difficult. The Stars are tied with the Colorado Avalanche for the lowest point total of the eight aforementioned teams. That means they have to leap over at least three other teams to obtain a playoff spot. When you are chasing one team, there is always the possibility they could fall off of pace and make it easier to catch them. However, the more teams involved, the less the likelihood that will happen to all of them. And the greater the likelihood that one could go on a run. (see: Minnesota and Los Angeles.)

Finally, adding even one more obstacle for the Stars, because all eight teams are in the West and split evenly between the divisions, their schedules are weighted so that they play each other frequently down the stretch. Even though head-to-head matchups mean one team has to lose, they mean that one of them has to win as well. And then there's always the possibility of the dreaded three-point game if they go to overtime. Here's a breakdown of the seven teams the Stars are fighting with, and the number of games they have remaining, and those against other teams also in the mix:

Los Angeles - 24 games, 9 vs. Wild Card competition
Vancouver - 23 games, 9 vs. Wild Card competition
Calgary - 23 games, 7 vs. Wild Card competition
Minnesota - 23 games, 5 vs. Wild Card competition
Colorado - 22 games, 10 vs. Wild Card competition
San Jose - 21 games, 6 vs. Wild Card competition
Winnipeg - 21 games, 8 vs. Wild Card competition

As you can see, that's a large percentage of games involving two teams the Stars are competing with. As time passes, some clubs from the group of eight may fall behind and no longer be viewed in the same vein as the others. However, for now those games all resemble nights where, at best, the Stars will only be able to keep pace with the winner.

Meanwhile, when looking at the Stars schedule, they have only six of their remaining 22 games against clubs from the pack. They play two vs. Calgary, and then one each against Winnipeg, Colorado, Vancouver, and San Jose. Those are opportunities to gain points while stunting the opposition at the same time. However, when you lose those games it becomes a more damaging loss. Dallas was unable to do themselves any favors by dropping three such games recently. Critical defeats at the hands of Colorado, San Jose and Minnesota in the last week and a half have put the Stars in a much tougher position than if they had been able to grab points in those contests. Turning that around immediately is a must, as this week begins with two of those remaining six games taking place on Tuesday in Winnipeg and Friday at home against Colorado.

Of course, the other parts of this race are only relevant if Dallas can do its part. Following their third straight loss on Sunday night, Head Coach Lindy Ruff said, "It's no secret. We've got to go on a real good run." Indeed they do. If the Stars play anything short of .700 hockey from here on out, they will be one of those teams that falls out of contention, and every other team's play becomes a moot point. As much as there is a tendency to watch the scoreboard when so many moving parts are at play, the fact is that all the Stars can control is their own outcomes. If they fail to string a good number of wins together, everything else becomes meaningless.

If the Stars can go on that run, they remain a part the complexity of the race. If they don't, the math becomes very easy, but brings bad news.

The Stars job is simple. They have to make sure things stay complex.

The Stars have three games on the schedule this week. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the Stars attempt to begin a run of victories:

Leading the Way

Since the All-Star Break, Stars captain Jamie Benn has elevated his play in an effort to try to lead his team back to the playoffs. Benn has 19 points (10g, 9a) in 14 games to pace Dallas. He's also upped his physical play with timely hits - and even fights - to spark the club. Benn is currently on a seven-game point streak, tying a season-long stretch. He has points in 12 of the 14 games since the break. Last week he recorded his 18th career multi-goal game, and first career hat trick in a victory at St. Louis. He also added a Gordie Howe Hat trick later in the week versus Detroit. Since linemate Tyler Seguin went down with an injury, Benn has really grabbed the reins with nine points in five games. Overall this season, Benn has 59 points, moving into a tie with Seguin for the Stars lead, and ranking tied for 7th overall in the NHL.

Fatal Finales

Early in the season the Stars had a lot of problems in the third period. During an improved stretch a couple of months in, Dallas turned things around and started consistently protecting their third period leads. However, in recent games the third period woes have returned in a huge way. The Stars allowed ten third period goals in a pair of back-to-back losses over the weekend. Dallas took second intermission leads into both games, and got outscored 10-3 in the third periods combined. Combined with a loss to Colorado on February 3, the Stars have lost three games this month when entering the third period with a lead. The Stars have a 21-2-4 record this season when leading at second intermission. Those three February losses account for half of their defeats in such games all season. Overall, the Stars have been outscored 72-49 in the third period this season. Their -23 goal differential is a stark contrast from their +20 margin from the first and second periods combined.

Sudden Death

Saturday's 7-6 overtime loss was the seventh post-regulation loss suffered on home ice this season for the Stars. That is the most in the Western Conference, and tied for the most in the NHL with Detroit and New Jersey. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Stars beat the Devils in a shootout in New Jersey, and the Wings beat the Stars in overtime in Dallas. The Stars have played 31 games at American Airlines Center this season. Their overtime/shootout losses have made up more than 22% of their home schedule thus far. The Stars have not won a post-regulation home game this season. Their last one came on April 8 of last season versus the Nashville Predators. That was the game where Vernon Fiddler scored in the third round to extend the shootout after tripping his way into the zone. Including last year's postseason, the Stars have dropped eight straight overtime/shootout games at home.

 

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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