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What is Stars' best path to postseason? Outshine Chicago and Columbus

With 28 games remaining, Dallas' mission could be just that simple as it fights for the Central's fourth and final playoff spot

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

The second half of the Stars' season comes down to this, basically: Be better than Chicago and Columbus.

Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina have torn out of the gate and made it almost impossible to catch them. That trio is dancing around at .700 or above in terms of points percentage, and a 10-10-8 Stars team will have a tough time reaching that altitude with just 28 games left in the season.

However, Dallas is at .500, and Chicago and Columbus are both at .516. The Stars have four extra games, so that's pretty much a dead heat. Four teams make it to the playoffs out of the Central Division in this unique one-year format brought to you by the COVID pandemic.

So you have three teams fighting for one spot. Pretty simple.

If you want to include Nashville in the race, you can. The Predators took a 4-3 shootout win Sunday in Dallas and sits at .453 in points percentage, so they are still in the mix. But if you have to look over your shoulder right now, that's probably not a good feeling.

Instead, focus on picking up points wherever you can, and moving ahead.

Video: Razor on where Stars stand at halfway point of season

"Regardless of what the other teams do, we've got to help ourselves," said Stars coach Rick Bowness. "We've played better than our record, I'll stand by that, absolutely. So as long as we keep pushing and playing as well as we have, you hope it evens out."

Now, you're not wrong when you say the Stars should have had that in their heads for the first 28 games. They did, it just didn't work out so great. Too often, they lost in overtime or shootouts (2-8 in those games). Too often, they came up one goal short (3-4-8 in those games). Too often they found a way to lose.

Statistically speaking, Dallas is plus-5 in goal differential. Chicago is minus-11, Columbus is minus-17 and Nashville is minus-26. The Stars should have a better record. Statistically speaking, Dallas is 6th in goals against average at 2.41. Chicago is 25th (3.25), Columbus is 22nd (3.13) and Nashville is 21st (3.12). The Stars are better in net.

Scoring goals is a different matter, as the Blackhawks are 17th at 2.91, the Stars are 20th at 2.72 and the Blue Jackets 24th at 2.63, but goal-scoring sure seems like an area where the Stars can make up ground if they just get back to normal.

Jamie Benn has five goals in 24 games. Denis Gurianov has five in 28 games. Each is ready for a surge. Joe Pavelski is exceeding expectations and could have a slip, but there seems to be enough there.

"With the guys that we have, I think we should be a few points better," Bowness said. "We have played better than our record up to this point. We haven't been able to get the goals for when we need them, but in terms of how we've played up to this point, we have played as a team and we have played very, very well."

Returning health from injuries could play a role in pushing that winning percentage significantly above .500. Roope Hintz has been dealing with a nagging lower-body injury and is being called a "game-time decision" for the remainder of the season. Alexander Radulov missed 15 games with a lower-body injury, returned for three, and missed the past two, He's being put in the same category as Hintz for the remainder of the season.

Video: Bowness on 'disappointing' shootout loss to Predators

Tyler Seguin has been out all year after off-season hip surgery, but could return sometime in late April. Ben Bishop has been out all year after off-season knee surgery, but could return sometime in late April. Those would be big boosts for a team that could use a big boost. They also could provide motivation that if the Stars can get that fourth playoff spot, then they could be a formidable playoff foe when the post-season begins in May.

"The fact that we have lost points in these shootouts and overtimes; it goes back to the people that we are missing," Bowness said. "We could be four or five points, easily, better than what we are. But we are where we are, and the guys have worked very, very hard. We have never questioned their work effort, and after 28 games there have been maybe five or six bad periods. That's pretty good that we can sit here and say that, and that speaks a lot about the work habits of the team and our team play.

"The disappointment is that there is four or five points out there that we know we could've had, had we been able to finish."

Still, a team that has had to lean heavily on its depth and has seen players like Jason Robertson, Jake Oettinger, Ty Dellandrea, Nick Caamano, Tanner Kero and Rhett Gardner step up, has to be deeper than it was when it started. Just think what it might be if it gets on a roll in the second half.

If you want to look at everything so far, it's easy to imagine better outcomes in the future, it's easy to imagine the team finding ways to win games instead of lose them, it's easy to imagine that the numbers will balance out.

"Listen, if it takes us to the 56th game to get in, then that's what it's going to take," Bowness said. "Everyone is banged up, everyone is tired. We've got guys who are hurt, but they're going to play through it."

 

Stars vs. Lightning

Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. CT

American Airlines Center

TV: FOX Sports Southwest, ESPN+ (blackout restrictions apply)

Radio: The Ticket 96.7-FM, 1310-AM

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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