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Stars look to make push out of All-Star break

But they know they'll have to clean up some areas to climb into playoff spot over final 32 games

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

Three points out of a playoff spot with 32 games to go. That's what the Dallas Stars face as they get back at it this week after the NHL's short All-Star break.

Fifty games into the season, the Stars are 20-20-10 (50 points) and in 11th place in the Western Conference. Not where they want to be or where they expected.

"It's been tough," said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. "We started the year with probably half our forwards different and with half our defense [different]. Lot of injuries and battled through that. We've had a lot of missed opportunities."

But despite those missed opportunities - whether you want to point to the points squandered in overtime or the lack of finish on some quality scoring chances or something else - the Stars are still right in the thick of the playoff race with several other teams. Teams that are having their own issues. And that's left the Stars with an opportunity coming out of the All-Star break.

"We wish we were in a playoff spot right now, but we can make up three points," said Stars captain Jamie Benn. "We just have to take advantage of our next three home games (coming out of the break) and try to get all six points."

"I don't think we have quite hit our stride the way we know that we are capable of," said forward Patrick Sharp. "I think the last three or four or five games we have played really well, and hopefully that's the sign of things to come. It's just a matter of stringing some games together and staying within striking distance."

Stringing some wins together is going to be a key for the Stars, but they have struggled on that front so far this season. They are 3-12-4 in games following a win this season. They've had one decent run, and that was back in late December when they won three straight games and put together a five-game points streak. That pushed them into a playoff spot briefly, but they are 4-6-3 since then and that's put them where they are now.

"There's only one thing, and you've got to win," Ruff said. "We're sitting there close but when we come out of the break we've got to win."

The Stars have three straight games at home coming out of the break and then five of six on the road, where they have struggled this year. Getting better on the road will be key in March, when they play ten of 14 games away from home.

There are a some positives the Stars can lean on moving forward. They've been a pretty good team five-on-five. And they have been competitive in regulation. It's a cliché, but it's true: there's a fine line between winning and losing and you can point to some key areas that have pushed the Stars to the wrong side of that line too often through the first 50 games. Those are areas they'll need to improve moving forward.

Special Teams

Special teams have been a weak spot for the Stars. Including power play goals for and against and shorthanded goals for and against, the Stars are a league-worst minus-19 on the season during special teams play.

The penalty kill has been a major issue, ranking last in the league at 74.0 percent and it's been particularly bad over the past 13 games, allowing 17 goals on 44 opportunities for a kill rate of 61.4 percent. The Stars have allowed 44 power-play goals in 50 games so far this season, already matching the same number they allowed in 82 games last season.

"I look at special teams, that's on me, improving special teams," Ruff said. "I don't like where our penalty kill is. We've worked on trying to change that."

The power play ranks 20th in the league at 17.2 percent. It's been inconsistent and has missed out on chances to be the difference maker in games. The Stars have allowed eight shorthanded goals, tied for most in the league.

If you add in the 44 power-play goals surrendered, the Stars have allowed 52 goals on special teams, which accounts for 33 percent of the total goals they've allowed this season. Five-on-five they've been pretty strong, allowing 2.05 goals per 60 minutes, which ranks eighth best in the league. Their 80 total five-on-five goals allowed is fifth lowest in the league.

Overtime

It's no secret that the Stars have had little success in overtime and it's hurt them in the standings. Their 2-10 record in games that have gone beyond regulation, which includes a 2-9 mark in three-on-three overtime, is the worst in the league.

"The biggest minus for us being further up the standings is the overtime," Ruff said. "There are a lot of lost points there, which tells us that we've been able to be very competitive. But we haven't played well enough in that frame to put the other team away and get that extra five or six points. Even if it were just five points, it would put us in a lot better place."

Ruff has a point. Just four more wins in OT - a 6-6 record - and the Stars would be sitting in a playoff spot. The Stars are a top eight team in the Western Conference when it comes to regulation play. They have the seventh most points gathered in regulation among Western Conference teams when you award a point for two teams being tied at the end of 60 minutes.

But they've left a lot of points on the table in overtime, and that's an area that will need to improve moving forward.

Finishing Chances

Although the Stars have seen a recent uptick in offense, averaging 3.17 goals per game over their past 12 games, finishing opportunities has been an issue. The Stars rank fifth in the NHL in high-danger chances (605) but 26th in high-danger shooting percentage (11.74), according to naturalstattrick.com.

"We just have to keep working at it," Ruff said. "Some of it is just individual focus, attention to detail."

Then there are the missed shots. The Stars lead the league in that category with 702. Put shots on net, and it can create second chances. Miss the net, and there's a chance you can create an opportunity for the opposition going the other way.

Ruff can look to last Tuesday's loss to Minnesota when the Stars were outshot 14-8 in the first 20 minutes and fell behind 1-0.  

"The biggest negative for us was missing the net on key opportunities. Three of them led to the play going down the other end," he said. "Even if it is just a play that goes off the goaltender it turns into a positive play. You get in the zone, you do a good job but you miss the net, it goes around the glass and all a sudden the other team is going in the other direction."

Starts to games

Starts to games have been a recent issue. The Stars have allowed the first goal in seven straight games, and they are 2-3-2 during that stretch.

"It's something we need to work on," said defenseman Jordie Benn. "I don't know what it is because we are always talking in here getting ready to go for the game, but we just get caught a little flat-footed, so it's something we are going to work on."

Some big saves early could help as well. The Stars in four the past seven games the first goal against has come in the first couple minutes of the game.

The Stars have not been a good team when allowing the first goal of a game this season. Their 5-14-7 record when the opposition scores first is the second-worst in the league. The Stars are 15-6-3 when they score first. Good starts tend to equal good results.

Your best players

It's another cliché, but it's true. Your best players have to be your best players, and the Stars will need their best players to be their best players if they are going to make a push up the standings over these final 32 games.

That will mean big contributions from Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, John Klingberg and others.

"It's going to come down to them being our best players," Ruff said. "They are the ones who on the power play and quite of few of them are on the penalty kill. The difference makers have to be the ones that have to get in done for us. We've missed some great opportunities and those are the situations no in this last stretch we have to capitalize on."

"We've got to lead the way," said Jamie Benn. "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and probably up to this point in the season it hasn't been good enough. We've had a few days to relax and rest and regroup. We've all come back with fresh minds. We're all looking forward to having strong finishes to the season."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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