The Olympic break is over and the Dallas Stars find themselves in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference. The good news is that as of February 25, they occupy the final playoff spot and have games in hand on four of the five teams they are battling with. Only four points separate eighth and 12th in the Western Conference, so the games in hand will be critical for Dallas. They do, however, face a very rough and busy final stretch of the season. There are five key factors that could determine whether or not the Stars finally make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
1- Get Everyone Healthy
The Olympic break allowed most of the team to heal their bumps and bruises. Aaron Rome and Stephane Robidas especially should benefit from the break. Rome has been injury-plagued this season, but serviceable when healthy. Robidas will be a key addition to the defensive unit when he returns in March. His season was feared to be over when he broke his leg Nov. 29. His hard work and dedication has him back skating with the team without a non-contact jersey already.
Alex Chiasson has not been the same since his sickness early this year. The break provided him an opportunity to rest, regain some weight and get back some strength. The break also should help the grinders and elders on the team a chance to recharge. With the schedule as intense as it is, the Stars need everybody healthy and ready for a physically-demanding final stretch.
2- Time for Dan Ellis to Step Up
The Stars developed a habit the past couple of seasons of playing Kari Lehtonen in as many games as possible, especially toward the end of the season. The plan sounds right, but there is a problem. If you have a great goalie who gives you a chance to win every game, you use him as much as possible. The problem is Lehtonen seemed to have run out of gas the past couple of seasons because of the heavy workload. Ellis has been a decent backup this season, and it looks like the Stars will be calling on their backup a little more the rest of this season than before. The rest of Dallas’ schedule doesn’t allow many days off. They face five sets of back-to-backs, and they only have four two-day breaks for the rest of the season. Ellis should find himself in the net more often, and the Stars will need solid performances from him to earn critical points in the final stretch of the season.
3- Consistency on Special Teams
The power play was atrocious for the first half of the season and red-hot before the Olympic break. The Stars need to find a middle ground and be able to rely on their power play. They have already missed out on several points this season because of their power play futility. They can’t afford to miss out on any more points at this critical part of the season, especially when given an opportunity to capitalize with the man advantage. Aside from a few rough patches, the penalty kill has done well most of the season. They will need to maintain consistency on the PK and avoid taking the occasional offensive-zone penalties that the Stars have taken too many of this season.
4- Trade Deadline Upgrades
There is no rush to do anything at the trade deadline this year, but a move or two could provide the push needed to make the playoffs. The Stars’ biggest need is a top-pairing defenseman. The salary cap issues and tight playoff battles throughout the league might force the Stars to address the issue in the summer. They can also look to acquire a second-line center or make small upgrades to their offensive and defensive depth. What they try to bring in will depend on who they ship out. They can afford to trade away a few players and have minor-league players step into lineup. Colton Sceviour and Travis Morin can fill holes in the bottom six, possibly even the second line if needed. The Stars currently have eight defensemen, so losing or upgrading one could be beneficial.
5- Put Olympic Experience to Use
The Olympics provided an opportunity for more than just Jamie Benn, Valeri Nichushkin and Lehtonen to gain experience. Team Canada’s defensive dominance and solid team play en route to a goal medal provided a great example for the Stars to try to emulate. Dallas’ defense grew more stable and effective together as the season moved along, and they will need to continue that down the final stretch. The Winter Games consisted of mostly tight-checking, patient team efforts that the Stars could learn from.
Lehtonen played in arguably the two biggest games of his career and did well in both. His experience in such high-pressure games will help him down the stretch. Nichushkin began the tournament well, but he saw his ice time greatly reduced as the games moved along. With more ice time and a reunion with Benn and Tyler Seguin, Nichushkin should be motivated to showcase what he can do when given more of a chance than he was in Sochi. Seguin missed out on an invitation to Sochi, but witnessing Benn’s tremendous play should push him as well.