Every sport has its touchstones on the path to victory.
In hockey, especially post 2005 NHL hockey, the tipping areas are power play efficiency, penalty killing culls, and clutch goaltending, the last two of which usually go hand in hand.
The 2013-14 Stars sit on the border of the bottom third of this 30-team league in all three areas: 23rd in PP percentage, 21st in PK ability, and 20th in goals against average.
Truth be told, the power play had been trending drastically better since mid-January but now has scored in only 3 of the last 11 games. The goaltending has been very good at times - but has it consistently been enough of a mistake mop? Which brings us to the penalty kill that has remained frustratingly inconsistent. Two PP goals allowed in St. Louis followed by a dominant performance vs the Caps #1 ranked PP in Washington (and a Short Handed Goal to boot!), but then, followed-up with a 'fall to the occasion' second period in Raleigh. WTF, right?!
On special teams the Stars have now been outscored 11-6 (11 PP goals against, 6 PP goals for) in the 14 games played in Eastern Conference rinks. They have two regulation wins and a 5-8-1 record overall in those 14 games with two more to play.
Two areas of the PK seem to be most culpable: 1) Screen shots from the point. 2) Out-battled in front of net on rebounds and scrambles. Those areas of concern certainly aren't exclusive to the Stars.
Fixes? (It's always easy from 200 feet above in the press box) 1) Bigger commitment from forwards to block shots. 2) Better battle from Kari to fight for space and track the puck. 3) D-men become bigger pricks vs opposing forwards in front of the net (Believe me, most refs don't want to call a second minor).
Now don't get me wrong, the PK hasn't been a disaster, it's just that it hasn't been able to gain any traction this season. The longest stretch of games without allowing a PPG has been five back in mid-to-late January. Lately, they can't stuff opposing power play units in back-to-back games. The last time they did so was out of the Olympics Break in early March when they killed eight straight over a three-game span. Since then, the PK has been like a toilet seat in a household of four men and five women.
I'll admit I'm an apologist for the position and especially when talking about Kari - who I think is insanely talented. But they are going to need 'game stealing' not 'good' netminding now. The team is looking at four games in the next five days and six in nine to close out the season. They need the position to win games for a group of players that is surely gonna feel the effects of the taxing workload.
By my recollection, opposing goalies have been 'the difference' in six of the last 10 regulation losses the Stars have suffered. Time to turn those tables.
And if this Wild Card race does in fact end up reducing to a one game showdown with the Coyotes in Glendale on April 13th, the Stars ability to triumph and a return to the post season might come down to whether they can silence the Yotes 5th ranked Power Play.
Special Teams and Goaltending, baby. It's kind of a big deal.