With a playoff spot slipping out of their grasp in mid-February, the Dallas Stars unleashed an impressive and inspiring mettle that rocketed the team into 3rd place in the Western Conference. The Stars went 10-0-1 in the three weeks at the end of February and into the middle of March. With only 10 games left for many teams in the league, we have officially reached crunch time.
Although the team has dropped their previous two games, their sudden rise in the Pacific Division and Western Conference standings have not gone unnoticed, as fans are beginning to attend home games at levels not seen over the past two seasons. Although Dallas still ranks 28th in the NHL in average attendance with 13,800 fans at home games, in recent weeks, the team has seen a dramatic upswing in attendance, as illustrated in a recent hockey article in the Dallas Morning News titled “Winning Them Over.” Since the Stars have lowered the price of ticket prices in early December, average attendance has gone up over 15,000, and in the subsequent weeks during the Stars recent winning streak, average attendance was around 17,000 and 18,000, which is about capacity at the American Airlines Center. The lower ticket prices amalgamated with the recent winning streak has fans flocking to home games.
Forward Jamie Benn, who recently returned from an injury, talked about the team’s recent success. “We’re not trying to make it pretty out there,” Benn said. “We want to keep it ugly, play a simple game, and that’s why we’re successful lately… What you have to do is stay patient. We know the game is 60 minutes, and if it takes 59 minutes, then it does. Keep sticking with the game plan.”
Head Coach Glen Gulutzan pointed out the team’s need to stay the course and continue to work hard, as the level of competition in the league, conference, and division is razor thin. “I’m really realizing in this league that there’s no breaks,” said Gulutzan. “If you take your foot off the gas for a second, someone’s going to pass you.”
Sure enough, as the Stars have dropped back-to-back games, the San Jose Sharks have won two games and sit only a point behind the Stars with a game in hand. The Stars have a few inner-division games in their final ten games, with two against the Sharks in the the coming weeks. The upcoming game against the Phoenix Coyotes will be a test. The Stars also have two games against the Vancouver Canucks and another two against the Calgary Flames. The final stretch of the season will be critical, as possible playoff match ups linger against a number of the Stars remaining regular-season opponents.
During the Stars recent winning swing, standout players included Michael Ryder, who has played in all 72 games this season, tied his career record in goals with 30, and boasts a +20 +/- rating. Kari Lehtonen continues to prove why he deserves to be the Dallas franchise netminder for years to come, as his stats speak volumes for his adroit play in net: 29 victories, a 2.24 goals against average, a .924 save percentage, and four shutouts. Philip Larsen has also given the defense a level of reliability that was dearth throughout much of the season. Loui Eriksson also continues to improve as one of most agile and proficient offensive forwards in the league. If the Stars hope to push into the playoffs, these players will need to continue to display the same level of effort and production in the final 2+ weeks of the season.
A playoff berth, or even a division title, could go a long way for reenergizing a fan base that was crumbling in recent months and years. A playoff trip would also be a welcomed sight for the franchise’s rookie head coach, rookie owner, and returned President Jim Lites. What a turnaround for a once-lost franchise.
Tim lives in Dallas, TX, and serves as a Dallas Stars correspondent for the Sunbelt Hockey Journal. He has professional sportswriting and editing experience in print and online media.