I have been a sports fan my entire life. I have watched more games than I could ever recall, and have seen all kinds of finishes, from the run-of-the-mill to the once-in-a-lifetime.
And yet, for all of the countless games that I've seen play out, there is a very basic element to sports that I find remarkable. I'm amazed by how many games come down to the wire, and how small of a difference there usually is between a win and a loss.
It may seem silly, because if you've watched even a small amount of sports, it's the norm and certainly not something at which people marvel, or even usually discuss.
But it really is amazing. In all sports, teams of varying skill and strategy prepare ad nauseam for a game. Then they square off for about three hours, and in the end, the outcome is usually decided by a few key plays, and many times hangs in the balance until the closing minutes or seconds.
Think about it. Turn on a football game at 2:50pm on Sunday. How many come down to a final drive or field goal attempt? Watch every March as game after game comes down to a buzzer-beater in the NCAA tournament. How many baseball games are decided in the late innings. It's what has vaulted the closer role into one of the most important roster spots on a team. And how many Stanley Cup Playoff games are decided in overtime every year? In fact, how many hockey games in general are decided by a single goal?
It's been the case forever, so this is hardly breaking news. But every once in a while, you get reminded of the paper-thin margin between a win and a loss, and how that margin often dictates whether you're a good team or not.
Watching hockey in Dallas over the last year-plus has been filled with those reminders.
Winning games can become a skill. I don't mean outperforming your opponent. I mean actually winning the game when it's on the line.
For whatever reason, last year's version of the Dallas Stars struggled to find that ability. You saw it over and over. The Stars would outplay their opponent. They would control, if not dominate, for the majority of games, and yet, they would somehow leave empty-handed, wondering what happened.
This year, winning hasn't been a problem. The Stars are winning games at a league-leading rate. At 17-4, they pace the NHL standings, and are off to their best start in franchise history. More importantly, however, they are winning games when they are on the line.
When you talk to the Stars players and coaches, they mention a confidence that wasn't there last season. A belief - that feels more like a fait accompli - that the Stars will get the goal, or the save, or the play that they need to win the game. Why is that confidence there when the opposite feeling seemed to hang over this team at crunch time last year?
Perhaps there were lessons learned through the turmoil of last season's late-game struggles. Maybe the addition of three veterans who have won six combined Stanley Cup titles has helped change the feeling. It might be a confidence in the goaltending that stumbled last season but has been rock-solid this year. It definitely could be as simple as winning breeds winning - just like losing breeds losing - and getting on an early-season roll produces the kind of confidence that can only be derived from repetitive success.
It's likely a combination of all of the above. But as much as the reason is debatable, the results are anything but. The Stars are one of the best late-game teams in the NHL and the numbers are on display for all to see.
Dallas leads the NHL with 31 third-period goals this season. More telling, their goal differential in the third period and overtime is a combined +16, which also leads the league. Last year they were -30, near the bottom of the NHL. Dallas has a 15-2 record this year when leading or tied heading into the third period. That is tied for the most wins, and the .882 points-percentage ranks as the fourth-highest in such situations. By comparison, last year Dallas went 33-12-9 (.694).
As much as the Stars offense is undoubtedly what the team is known for, goaltending has also been a huge part of their success. Especially when the game is on the line. This season the Stars team save-percentage is .920, eighth-best in the NHL. That's a huge bump from their .895 number last year, which finished second-lowest. However, as good as that number is, it gets even better at crunch time. When the score is either tied or within a goal, in the second-half of the game, the Stars team save-percentage jumps to .934. That's the sixth-highest percentage in the league. In other words, the Stars are getting the save they need at the right time.
Last year in those same situations, the Stars save-percentage was a dismal .880. Dead-last among all 30 NHL teams.
Remember when it was asked earlier, how many games are decided by a single goal? The answer is the majority. Entering this week, there had been 307 NHL games played this season. Not counting empty-net goals, 180 of them were decided by one goal. That's more than 58%.
That means that more than half of hockey games are decided by the slimmest of margins. That the difference between a win or a loss can be traced back to just about anything. One goal. One save. One deflection. One hold at the blue line. One bar-in versus one bar-out. Anything could be that play that wins or loses the game. When the difference is as seemingly small as a coin flip, it's hard to believe that a team can continue to dominate in those moments. Yet the Stars have been doing just that.
For as nice as the earlier late-game numbers look, they really only serve to explain the most important statistic of all. That being a team's win-loss record.
Of the first 21 games of the season, the Stars have played 12 one-goal games (again, not including empty net goals). That's 57% of the time - almost identical to the NHL number. In those games, the Stars are an astounding 11-1. That's a .917 points-percentage. Last year, Dallas was 26-14-10 (.620).
How big of a difference is that?
If you kept all the other results the same, and simply swapped out last year's one-goal percentage with this year's, Dallas would go from the best record in the league to third in the Central Division, and only three points up on the final Wild Card spot. Similarly, if you take this year's rate and apply it to last season, Dallas goes from missing the playoffs, to leading the league in points. By a pretty wide margin, in fact. Remember, that's not touching any of the Stars multi-goal games and looks only at those decided by a single tally.
Hockey, like all sports, is built to come down to the wire. Teams that consistently find the difference-making plays are the successful ones. There is no denying the Stars are that team this season. Statistically speaking, they are the best team in the NHL. Judging by those same numbers, they might also be the most clutch.
There's a cliché in sports that says a team needs to "learn how to win." The Stars went through their struggles last year, adjusted their game, added some critical pieces, and came out a different group this season. If teams do have to learn to win, then the Stars have earned a master's degree this season.
Whether you're taken by it or not, it's a fact that sporting events are won in the late stages. No team this season has been better at that time than the Stars. That tells you all you need to know about why Dallas sits atop the rest of the NHL.
The Stars have three games this week, with the Thanksgiving holiday sandwiched in between. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as you mix your hockey and turkey:
Two early favorites for the NHL's top defenseman award will face off on Tuesday as Dallas' John Klingberg goes up against Ottawa's Erik Karlsson. Karlsson is a two-time winner of the award and won it last season. The fellow countrymen currently rank first and second in defensemen scoring, with Klingberg narrowly edging Karlsson 23 to 22. Klingberg is tied for fifth in overall NHL scoring, while Karlsson ranks tied for seventh. Additionally, Klingberg is tied for the NHL lead with 19 assists and a +14 rating. Karlsson has 325 points in 417 career NHL games - an average of .779 points/game. Klingberg has 63 points in 86 career contests, a rate of .733 points/game. The first of Karlsson's two Norris Trophies came in his third NHL season. Klingberg is currently in his second season.
After the Stars host the Senators on Tuesday, Dallas will have played 15 Eastern Conference teams in their first 22 games. By the time they come out of the Thanksgiving break, the Stars' seven games against Western Conference opponents will be the fewest of any team in the entire NHL - including Eastern Conference teams. Beginning Friday, the Stars will start a run of five straight games vs. the West, including a Saturday visit to Minnesota, for just Dallas' fourth divisional game this season. So far this year the Stars are 2-1 against the Central and 6-1 overall versus the West.
Through the first seven weeks the Stars have only had one back-to-back set of games. They won the second game with a 5-3 win in Boston on November 3rd. This weekend features their second back-to-back slate of the season, and also kicks off a run of them through the end of the calendar year. After hosting Vancouver on Friday, the team heads straight to Minnesota for a Saturday night contest. That's the first of five sets of games on consecutive nights over the next five weeks. The second-leg comes on the road for the first three, but then will be a home game for the next two, on December 22 and December 27.
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.