Playoffs no longer a dead certainty for the Dallas Stars

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 11: Karl Lehtonen
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 11: Karl Lehtonen /

Goals and wins are scarce commodities for the Dallas Stars these days. As a result, their spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs is in jeopardy.

We’ll go with the bad news first for the Dallas Stars. Since February 11th, their record is a lethargic 5-6-2. In that span, their opponents are outscoring them by a margin of 35-23. Worse yet, Dallas only topped two goals three times in the last month. The most bewildering aspect of this is that it came after a period in which they played their best hockey of the season.

It seems like an eternity ago now, but the Stars had won five in a row–and seven of nine–prior to February 11th. At the time, a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs seemed like a mere formality. They were getting goals from up and down the lineup. Goaltending and defense were becoming hallmarks of this team. They had the look of a squad rounding into form.

Since then, however, they’ve begun to take on a bit of water. In their last thirteen games, they’re averaging 1.77 goals per game while giving up 2.69. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that this is hardly a winning formula. And frankly, they just have this look about them that I find disconcerting. They’ve hit a wall, and it shows.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. The truth of the matter is that coach Ken Hitchcock’s system is highly demanding. He constantly repeats the mantra of prioritizing work over skill. When they’re on their game, the Stars can play with anyone. Heck, even during this lull, they’re not getting their doors blown on most nights. An unlucky bounce here, a bad penalty there, and their mistakes seem to find their way into the back of the net.

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This isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom. Despite some troubling recent tendencies, one must take the big picture into account. The Stars still hold the first wild card spot in an insanely competitive Western Conference. If the season ended today, they’d play the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round, and I don’t hate that match up at all. While they’re only three points up on ninth-place Los Angeles, they’re only three points behind Minnesota for third in the Central Division and a guaranteed playoff spot. They’ve put a lot of good work in prior to this wobble, and they’re still in a great spot. Even then, they still need to steal a game or three down the stretch.

Furthermore, the decision to stand pat at the trade deadline sent a crystal clear message to the locker room. It’s ride-or-die time. The Stars didn’t want to mortgage any part of their future for a rent-a-player, and that’s wholly understandable. General Manager Jim Nill must have also felt as though the players on hand were enough to contend for the playoffs.

By and large, this is a correct assessment. The onus is squarely on the shoulders of the guys on the ice. There are times in a season or a career where they have to collectively look at the face staring back at them in the mirror. For certain members of this bunch, that time is now. To be sure, the season-long six-game road trip got off to a tough start Sunday night in Pittsburgh, but fortunately there’s another game tonight in Montreal. You can’t start a winning streak without winning your next game.

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I have faith these guys will still make the playoffs, although my belief isn’t as strong as it was a month ago. But the top line talent and the coach will have to provide the impetus, and the rest of the team must fall in line. They’ve come too far to let it slip through their hands at this juncture of the season. Anyone who’s followed this organization for the past ten years–or longer–doesn’t want to see that shoe fall again.