"I've never seen anything like this," said the man who has spent almost all of the last 35 years of his life in the NHL. With that kind of resume, you'd be hard pressed to find anything Ruff hasn't seen before. Yet, here we are. The Stars are 0-5-2 in their last seven games - winless since a shootout win in Newark, New Jersey back on October 24. At the time, that win lifted the Stars record to 4-1-2 - points in six of the first seven games. That was just over two weeks ago. But emotionally, it feels so ancient that it probably replays in fans' minds in black and white.
How could things take such a drastic turn for the worse? And how could it happen so quickly? It turns out those questions apply to more than just their winless skid. They also apply to practically every individual game during it. In their seven consecutive games without a victory, the Stars at one point held leads in four of them. In six of the seven, they either led or were tied in the third period. However, in those 50%-or-better scenarios, the Stars unfathomably have claimed 2 of a possible 12 points. You can't blame Ruff if he can't find a matching scenario in his archive of experience.
So, what is it that's plagued the Stars? Well, there are a few things that jump out at you. Simply put, the Stars have been poor finishers. And that's putting it lightly. Not counting shootouts, Dallas has been outscored 21-9 this year after 2nd intermission. That number is even worse at home, where they trail 16-4. Considering almost all of their games have come down to the final minutes, that's an easy place to start. The Stars are 2-1-2 when leading at 2nd Intermission. Their win rate of 40% in such games is tied for the lowest in the league. They are 1-3-1 when tied at 2nd intermission. Added together that's a 3-4-3 record in games where they are in complete control of their own fate with 20 minutes to go. When Jason Spezza called the current stretch, "beyond frustrating" on Saturday, that's what he was talking about.
Additionally, in 14 games this season, Dallas has not had a goaltender truly close the door a single time. The Stars are the only club in the NHL that has surrendered at least two goals in every game this season. That's not to say the goaltender has always played poorly. That's not the case. But Dallas has seen a number of netminders "steal" a game against them. They've yet to pocket one in that category themselves.
There are also a bevy of other factors. The Stars have victimized themselves with way too many turnovers. They've had a number of players they were counting on to produce that haven't so far. Their special teams have let them down. They have had key personnel either sidelined or slowed due to injury. There have been a lot of contributing factors to the skid.
However, when things snowball like this, it also becomes as much mental as anything else. There becomes a sense during a game that as soon as something bad happens, it's the beginning of the end. We certainly saw that unraveling process in the third period on Saturday. While Ruff says he hasn't seen anything like this before, he has seen something in the neighborhood.
Last year the Stars were playing tremendous hockey in late December. Then, in an instant, they weren't. Dallas closed out 2013 on a tear, going 5-0-2. But they opened January by losing six straight games in regulation. That was part of a 1-8-1 stretch that threatened to derail their season. A couple of the games featured hard to believe, late losses that looked a lot like each other. A lot like what we've seen so far this year. If you want to revisit what it felt like during that losing skid, you can check out my OTR column from the week that featured losses #5 and #6, here.
While not exactly the same, that stretch has enough parallels to the current one. And if the Stars need to draw some positives from something, perhaps they can point to the aftermath of those ten games. Dallas had squandered a 20-12-7 record and fell to just one game over .500. However, literally one day after their ninth loss in ten games, the Stars made a sharp u-turn. They dominated the Minnesota Wild in a 4-0 win, finished the week winners of three straight, and outscored their opponents 14-1. In the span of a few days the funk was over, and the Stars looked untouchable. After going 1-8-1 over a ten-game span, they responded by going 7-1-2 in their next ten.
The blue print is there. Most of this year's locker room was a part of that ride last year. The Stars talk about their closeness, leadership, and compete-level. That is all getting tested right now. The only way out of this is to get results. Playing well isn't enough at this point. They've done that. They did it for the majority of the last two games. They probably deserved better, but they got what they got. Right now, the only cure is wins. There are ways they can help themselves by cleaning up certain areas. But one way or another the Stars need to win hockey games. They have four games this week, beginning on Tuesday in Arizona. Last year showed that one game, one week, can turn things around and save a season. However, conversely, last week showed how one game, one period can keep a struggling team down.
What kind of week will this be? It's another one of those 50/50 scenarios that hasn't treated the Stars kindly this year. That's one of the many things they need to improve to right this ship. They might as well start now.
The Stars begin a busy four-game week with a pair of games out West, before returning home for a Saturday matinee, and then closing it out on Sunday night in Chicago. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' in the upcoming schedule:
Not So Special Thirds
In the above section we covered how the Stars have struggled late in games. A good portion of that struggle can be traced back special teams in the final period and overtime. The Stars have surrendered six power play goals after second intermission this season. Those six were spread out over five different games. Dallas lost all of them. Five of the six goals had direct impacts in their defeats. On opening night, they surrendered a PPG that forced overtime. On October 18, they allowed a rally-starting PPG goal to Philadelphia, and then gave up another for the game-winner in OT. On October 28, the Stars lost in OT on a PPG to St. Louis. Then on Saturday, San Jose's first third-period goal came 11 seconds into a power play to spark the comeback. Overall this season, Dallas is a sobering 9-for-15 on the penalty kill in the third period and overtime. That comes out to just 60%. At the other end, Dallas is ok, going 2-for-10 on the PP. Their first PPG was the game-winner with three seconds left in Pittsburgh. Their other was a go-ahead goal vs. St. Louis before the surrendered the equalizer and then lost in overtime (on a power play). However, as good as 20% is on paper, there have been times when Dallas could have changed the outcome with a power play goal, but failed. On Saturday, they had an extended four-on-three power play just after the Sharks tied the score. Then Dallas was given another man-advantage just after they fell behind. They were unable to convert either.
Those numbers also show that Dallas is giving their opponents 50% more power plays in the third and OT than they are getting. It's impossible to know if that's due to fatigue, frustration, nerves, or anything else, but that's a troubling number. Remember that 12 of the 14 Stars games this season have been tied in the third period. That means that virtually every game has been on the line during the time in question. And with the outcome hanging in the balance, the Stars have been less disciplined and less efficient. That's a bad combination and it has cost them valuable points this season.
Kling to Something
The Stars have been forced to alter their lineup this season due to multiple injuries, and they made another move on Sunday. Dallas recalled defenseman John Klingberg from the AHL and placed Valeri Nichushkin on IR. Klingberg came into this season as an intriguing option because of his terrific skating, offensive upside, and the fact that he is considered to be the only NHL-ready, right-hand shot defenseman in the Dallas organization. Ruff exhibited how big of a deal he thought that was when he broke up his unquestionable top-pairing of Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley last weekend. He did it so that he could have a stronger Goligoski play on his off-side and move one of his other struggling defensemen over to the left. Klingberg was a longshot to make the opening night roster, but looked great in training camp. However, he struggled in his preseason game appearances and began the season in the minors. He has been outstanding for the Texas Stars so far this year with 12 points (4g, 8a) and a +5 rating in 10 games. He currently ranks second in scoring among AHL defensemen and third among all AHL rookies. He could make in NHL debut this week, and if he is able to impress, he could inject some much needed depth and versatility to a struggling Dallas blue line.
Tyler Seguin notched his second hat trick of the season on Saturday night, accounting for all three Stars goals. It was his fifth hat trick in 94 career regular-season games for Dallas, and the sixth of his NHL career. He has a total of 47 goals with the Stars - averaging exactly one every other game. This season Seguin is tied for third in the NHL in goals (10) and points (19). Seguin's five hat tricks are just one shy of Mike Modano's record for the most all-time in Dallas Stars history. Modano played in 1,142 career games for Dallas. That's 1,048 more than Seguin to this point, which translates to a difference of just under 13 complete 82-game seasons.
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.