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Stars reflect on how season slipped away down the stretch

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars
As the bitter frustration of missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season begins to dissipate, the Dallas Stars have had a chance to peek beyond the raw emotions and reflect a bit on just how this season, which seemed so promising at so many points during the year, slipped away from them.

It’s easy to forget that the Stars reeled off a stunning 10-0-1 run starting in mid-February, and on March 13, looked to be in great shape, leading the Pacific Division and occupying the Western Conference’s third seed with 83 points on a 39-26-5 record

Then things began to unravel and the Stars stumbled to a 3-9-0 record over their final 12 games, losing the last five by a combined score of 18-6 to fall out of the race.

“We had more than one, more than two chances to nail that thing down,” said defenseman Alex Goligoski, who led all Dallas blueliners with nine goals and 30 points. “We were playing great hockey going into those last 8-10 games or whatever it was and things just didn’t go our way. Maybe we just tightened up a little bit, but we were struggling to get leads, we were chasing a lot of games and just couldn’t find a way.”

“I’m sure there’s a bunch of things, obviously, but we were all capable of doing a little more and now when we look back, we all wish we did do a little more,” added third-line winger Eric Nystrom, who achieved career-highs with 16 goals and 21 points in 74 games. “We needed someone to just chip in at the right time and it didn’t happen, especially down the stretch when we were playing some good teams in some big games. We didn’t rise to the occasion.”

Some of the veterans used more incisive language to describe what they thought happened down the stretch.

“I wasn’t here last year, but I think guys are a lot more disappointed this year, more because we blew it - we had it and then we blew it,” said defenseman Sheldon Souray. “I don’t think it was one thing. You look back, and there are some obvious things on the ice - our special teams didn’t help us out much. But overall, we just didn’t get it done for whatever reason and there’s enough blame to go around that everyone has to shoulder it - young guys, older guys, coaches have been responsible and stepped up. At the end of the day, you count on your leaders, your veteran guys to get things done and we didn’t. It’s not one thing, it’s a lot of things, but we’re going to have to shoulder the blame for not being able to motivate the team to get two or three more wins.”
“I just think the last 10 games or so we didn’t perform,” added abrasive forward Steve Ott, who totaled 11 goals and 39 points, while finishing fourth in the entire NHL with 278 hits and 14th in the league for winning 55.5 percent of his face-offs. “I thought our power play wasn’t good enough, obviously - it was a key stat for us, but just, I think we broke down a little bit in our defensive game as well. But over that last little stretch, I think plain and simple, we just weren’t good enough, and I think that’s where our season went. Before that, we went on that (10-0-1) run, and we put ourselves back into a playoff spot and we faltered at the end. We have to gain valuable experience from that and add that to our motivation for next season as well.”

As both Souray and Ott pointed out, likely the single biggest factor that contributed to the Stars’ demise was their ineffective power play unit. After converting just 1-of-29 over the final nine games, when the team needed it to produce the most, the squad finished dead last in the NHL in power play efficiency with a 13.5 percent rate, setting a new franchise record, going back 44 years, for lowest percentage. Their 33 power play goals were the fewest in the league as well as in franchise history. Also not helping matters was the fact that the Stars enjoyed 59 fewer power plays than their opponents.

“That’s the number one point we have to get better at,” agreed top-line winger Loui Eriksson, who was a mainstay on the first power play unit and led the squad in scoring with 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists), although only five goals and 12 points came with the man-advantage. “We just have to score more goals on the power play, that’s how you can win more games than we did this year, you can get more points if we had a better power play. That’s something we have to work on when next season starts. We have to just outwork them. I think we were a little too sloppy sometimes, and I think we have to put more pucks at the net, too. I think that’s how you score goals, you have to get traffic in front and put pucks there, then rebounds will come out and we’ll score more goals.  I think that’s something we definitely need to do.”

“Obviously, it was an issue, especially down the stretch - they’re all going to be tight games, your power play’s got to get one,” added Goligoski, himself a mainstay at the point on the PP unit. “You hope to get one every night, but I think we were hoping to just get one and get going, but we weren’t getting too many chances and the chances we were getting, we would get a chance and then be chasing the puck again. We weren’t getting a lot of sustained pressure throughout the whole two minutes or from power play to power play - definitely something that needs to get better.”

Club management seemed to share the opinion that the power play must be upgraded, but the prevailing thought is that it wasn’t necessarily the personnel that contributed to the weak unit, but more the tactics employed by the club while on it.

“I think some of it is a philosophy,” said Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “I’m sure that will be number one on Glen Gulutzan’s agenda this summer, breaking that down and analyzing. I know there’s a lot of discussion about Jamie Benn not being out there as much as some other guys. There was a time period where Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder and Loui Eriksson were kind of carrying this team for a time period, too, and they were having some success there. It didn’t translate on the power play for any of our guys, and we’re going to have to really dig in hard and figure out why.”

“I don’t think we need to bring in anyone for the power play,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan added. “I think as coaches, we could do a better job. I think the power play becomes a little bit of confidence and that got in our kitchens a little bit. We go about it a little bit differently with our power play, but we changed it four or five times - everybody focuses a little bit on the end, but we were getting pressure from Game 1 to Game 82 and we changed it four times, and changed who played with who four times. I just think it got in our kitchen a little bit. Certainly, it’s an area where we think we could get four or five more points from having a better power play - along with discipline, and if we’re not -60 as far as penalties for and against, but I think we have the personnel here to have a good power play.”

Beyond the power play, Nieuwendyk indicated that he would be looking at several other areas in an attempt to improve the club, which should be a little easier now with new owner Tom Gaglardi at the helm.

“I have my list, I have areas that are really important to me, some are intangible,” Nieuwendyk said of what he wanted to address in the off-season. “Obviously, I think our power play is going to be a big focal point, we have to get that better. I think if we have just an average power play this year, we’re probably in a better position than we are today. But clearly, I think moving forward, we need a player that has more impact in our top setting, that’ll be a focal point. The challenge is, top centermen are a rare commodity in our league, they’re very difficult to find and we’re going to do our best to improve that position.”

“As hard of a pill it is to swallow, the reality is we were in third place, first in our division with five games left to go,” Gulutzan said. “You’re pretty close when you’re at that point, and if we went into the year with the exact same hockey club, I know we have the ability to get in. However that’s not going to happen. If I could think of one need here, it would be another top forward, in reality, to complement Jamie Benn. If you could get another top six forward in here, that would help us tremendously. And with Tom on board here now and his vision moving forward on lots of things, in lots of different areas, and maybe we could move a couple of guys in here and maybe put ourselves in a position to be in first place in our division with a game to go.”

Nieuwendyk also admitted that he would take a hard look at the Stars’ veteran leadership corps, indicating that no aspect of the club would be immune to his final year assessment.

“We’re going to do a hard evaluation on all those players, there’s no question about it,” Nieuwendyk acknowledged. “We have guys that have been here for a while and are tremendous people and have a lot of character and a lot of pride. They’re not happy either about not making the playoffs for four years in a row and they’ve all been here and been a part of that, and we’re going to talk to them about that, find out where we can get better and we’re going to do our part and find out how we can make this thing better.”

So as the players begin to scatter for the summer, the pain will continue to linger for a while, and their minds will undoubtedly wander back to things they could have done differently to produce a more favorable outcome. But soon that will fade enough for them to turn their attention towards next season and they’ll start getting excited about playing again.

“Just rest and relax, got a lot of bumps and bruises to heal and you settle in for the summer,” said Nystrom about his plans for the immediate future. “Then just get ready to make strides and be the difference-maker for next season and it starts with training and working on your game in the summer.”

“There’s some good teams in our division, good teams in our conference,” noted center Mike Ribeiro, who accumulated 18 goals and 63 points this season. “And every year, you’re trying to think about, ‘Where’s those six points that you need?’ And those last five games, we played against top teams, but I think you want to get some points out of that. Obviously, we’ll reflect on our season, get back to work this summer and get back next year for a better season.”

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