Not only have the Stars been penalized far more often than they’re comfortable with, they’ve also received fewer power plays themselves, resulting in a wide disparity on special teams that has significantly hindered the club while it has lost five in a row by a combined margin of 21-4.
It is an issue that actually pre-dates the current losing streak, one that was covered up by the squad’s outstanding 11-3-0 start that had them sitting first overall in the entire NHL at one point just 10 days ago.
A quick glance at the numbers plainly illustrates the lack of balance. Through the first 19 games, the Stars have been short-handed a total of 93 times while they have gone on the power play on just 61 occasions for a league-high -32 differential.
The Stars’ short-handed figure, as well as their total of 103 minor penalties, is third-most in the NHL, as is their average of 16.6 penalty minutes per game. And the 61 times their PP unit has been on the job ranks 27th in the league out of 30 teams.
Individually, over 19 games, the Stars have enjoyed more power plays than their opponent just three times, while having the same number twice.
“I think we’re the worst penalty/PK differential team here in the league,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “Everywhere I’ve coached, we’ve always been the opposite, we’ve been the least penalized team in the league and that’s going to change here.”
The fact that the penalty killing unit has had some difficulties lately, surrendering 11 goals on 40 chances over the last eight games, further illuminates why the Stars have struggled lately.
“Our PK kind of let us down and that’s what happens when you’re in a rut,” Gulutzan said after Saturday night’s 4-1 loss to San Jose, in which the Sharks went 2-for-4 on the power play. “It’s stuff that we went over and it’s an individual mistake. We have to be better at cleaning those things up. I thought there were positive signs with that PK, but it’s that one mistake. And that’s what happens when you’re in these ruts, it’s that one thing that kills you. We’re all working on that PK, and our power play has to be better, too.”
With the man-advantage, the Stars have converted just once in their last 10 chances over the five games they’ve lost. They had a total of 16 opportunities, scoring five times, in the previous four games, so there’s clearly a correlation between accumulating power plays and scoring goals and winning games.
“It’s not good enough,” admitted forward Steve Ott
, who sees time on both the power play and penalty kill units. “You’re going to win in this league by special teams, every game is so tight now. You look at the standings, the Western Conference, it’s that tight throughout mainly because of special teams. You’re winning and dying by special teams.”
The Stars’ penalty problems have been compounded by their proclivity for arguing with the officials, which usually ends up back-firing, resulting in even more calls going against them.
“It’s tough, we shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes,” said Ott, who spent 12 minutes feeling shame in the box against the Sharks - two for diving and 10 from a misconduct. “We’re overly aggressive, including myself maybe sometimes, on the referees and sometimes it bites you. You got to work to draw penalties and for us, if you’re going to continue to show work ethic, obviously, they’re going to start calling them, hopefully it turns around in your favor.”
Gulutzan confirmed that the club feels it’s been on the wrong side of the penalty ledger too often this season, even before their recent losing streak, and believes it has a lot to do with their demeanor towards the referees.
“I do have issues with the officiating,” acknowledged Gulutzan after the San Jose game, which included some questionable calls going against Dallas. “I might sound like a whiny coach and I’ll go out there and say it, but I had some beefs with the officiating when we were 11-3 and now that we’re 11-8, I still have them. I think those beefs are warranted, we’ve been keeping a log of it. I think we’re on the wrong end of a lot of calls, but I think it’s our fault. We whine like little babies throughout the game and I don’t know if there’s been a history of that here or not, but every team I’ve coached, we’ve always been at the other end of the scale.”
“When things are going bad, it seems like they go even worse,” added center Vernon Fiddler
, who also received a 10-minute misconduct Saturday night. “We’re getting some bad calls, but there are some calls also that they made the right one. We got to back off the refs a little bit and let them do their job and maybe we’ll get some calls our way.”
Ott conceded that the officials have a difficult job to do and pointed out that the only way to turn their power play differential around is to outwork their opponents and force them to take penalties.
“The refs are doing their job and it’s hard,” Ott noted. “A lot of them have been in the league for many years and they see it how they see it and they’ll continue to do as best they can. For us, including myself, you got to stay off them, you can’t be whining and crying, because they’re human. It bites you in the back and for us, whining is not going to get us power play chances, work ethic is going to get us power play chances. Drawing penalties, making guys hook you, outworking them on those one-on-one battles, those are what make it easy for the referees to call it on you. Lack of work ethic for that little while, excluding (Saturday) night, has been one of the reasons.”
“The emotions are high and I think we’re just a little rattled,” added goaltender Andrew Raycroft, who made 34 saves against the Sharks. “We just have to keep our heads down and work hard and get ourselves out of it that way, with lots of hard work and patience.”
Gulutzan vowed that the Stars will alter their habits and correct this issue going forward.
“We’re going to change that culture here and we’ve got to do it by zipping our mouths one step at a time,” the 40-year-old rookie head coach declared. “The refs are human and if you whine that much, you’re not going to get the calls, they’re not going to give them to you, that’s the bottom line. And we’re not getting them and it’s our fault and that sub-culture here is going to change. We’re going to be men, we’re going to have character, we’re going to shut our mouths, and we’re going to play.”