Despite cushioning their lead prior to the All-Star break, the Dallas Stars watch as the San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks pull even in the Pacific Division. The Stars recent losing streak includes losses to top teams in both Conferences; but in order to compete in the playoffs, Dallas will need to beat tough opponents.
The Stars are putting together their worst stretch of the season. Injuries appear to be catching up with the team, as Adam Burish, Jamie Benn and Krys Barch remain scratches. This has been the Achille’s heel for the Stars all season long: a lack of depth. The Stars rely on scoring from their top-six too often. Management’s addition of Jamie Langenbrunner was meant to quell some of the depth issues, but injuries mixing together with a tough schedule and the Stars can’t seem to find any traction. You also have to question if the inexperience on the backend is beginning to catch up with the team.
But this situation has a chance to benefit the Stars. Playoff-caliber teams are forged through adversity. A stretch like this one could be the fire the roster needs. Now that their lead in the Pacific has diminished, the players will have to turn it up a notch. The question is whether they can dig down a little deeper to make a strong playoff push.
The Stars have been a team built around good goaltending all season. The buck stops with Kari Lehtonen in net on most nights, and Andrew Raycroft when he fills in. During this recent erosion, the goaltending has been adequate at best. Of course blame can’t be singled solely on the goaltenders. Poor defense leads to scoring opportunities. But that’s the life of a goaltender: when you win you get the fame, when you lose you get the blame.
Lehtonen put up strong numbers in his most recent game, as the Stars got outshot by an almost 2-to-1 margin, with the Coyotes putting up 35 to Dallas’ 18. The Stars managed to scrap out a point, but they fell in overtime on a powerplay goal by the ‘Yotes. Special teams didn’t show up as well — the Coyotes buried two power-play goals and the Stars had none.
For the next four games, the Stars face teams in the lower tier of the West, so Dallas should get much needed points and hopefully regain their step. After that the schedule won’t get much easier though, as match-ups against the Blackhawks and the hot Canucks loom. The Stars need to get back on their winning horse, and in a hurry — the month of March is filled with inner-division games. The first week of March features games against the other four Pacific Division teams. And considering the fact that the Los Angeles Kings are in last place in the division, yet are only five points back, shows that the Pacific could flip from now to the playoffs. The Sharks seem to be gearing up for the post season, as they are 9-0-1 in their last 10 games. Outside of the Pacific, the Western Conference continues to be hotly contested; only four points separate the third-place Stars with the 9th-seed springtime tee time.
With Burish, Benn and Barch returning to the lineup (hopefully) in the near future, the team won’t have any excuses. Look for a competitive next three weeks of February and an intense month of March. We are starting to hit that patch of ice where it’s do or die. Clinging to a games-in-hand lead in the Pacific, the Stars have destiny in their own grasp. If Lehtonen can put up good numbers and the special teams return to action, the Stars can turn things around. That has been their formula for success all season, and it will need to continue to be if they want to do any damage in the playoffs.
Photo by Scott Ableman: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ableman/342985858