When the Dallas Stars left the ice inside Madison Square Garden Tuesday night after a 6-2 defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers, a loss which came on the heels of the club becoming the last team in the NHL to lose back-to-back games, something was quite clear. For a team that had its way with the rest of the league over the first three months of the 2015-16 season, the first true rough patch had arrived.
The streak obviously comes with a silver lining; the Stars still hold an eight-point lead in the Central at 28-10-4 and, while this particular three-game skid featured ugly, uninspired and tired performances, it’s still just that: a three-game losing streak. Stars fans used to the frustrating, multi-week spirals of last season are probably experiencing mild panic attacks and flashbacks right now, but the reality is this; for any team playing an 82-game schedule, there will be stretches of head-scratching bleakness. The Stars have proven that they can be a dominant force in this league and that they can sustain success, and it’s a matter of time before the ship is righted.
However, in order to right said ship, it’s important to take a look at a few things the team can learn from the events of the past three contests.
Benn and Seguin Are as Crucial as We Knew They Were
During the current slide, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, who had combined for 102 points in 39 games to open the year, have zero points. Each also went for a minus-1, minus-1 and minus-3 over the three-game trip, their first negative performances since Dec. 12, and Benn also racked up an uncharacteristic 10 penalty minutes in the three contests. To cap it off, both were benched by Lindy Ruff in the waning minutes of Tuesday’s game, forced to watch helplessly as the club floundered its way to the eventual four-goal loss.
It’s no secret that the duo is the lifeblood of the Stars’ offensive attack, and of the team’s identity as a whole. They embody the Stars: young, skilled, confident and dominant.
Unfortunately, they’ve also embodied the team during this slump: unproductive, tired and frustrated.
It’s clear that where the pair goes, the team goes. This is a club that absolutely wins games on the strength of its lineup as a whole, but Benn and Seguin are what has driven Dallas to its perch on top of hockey’s toughest division.
It’s not a question of if the pair can get going again, but when. Prior to this trio of games, Benn had only been held pointless in more than one game one time, and Seguin hadn’t had it happen even once. You don’t hold two of the most prolific scorers in the game down for long, and the two are simply too talented to not get back on track. However, it’s likely the Stars won’t do so until they do.
The Power Play Needs to Bear Fruit
In the club’s last 12 road contests, the Stars were 2-for-33 on the man advantage. In their last 20 games overall, Dallas has netted just 12 power-play goals, with a three-goal performance against Montreal and three separate two-goal nights (all of which were at home) skewing that number.
While these stats are far from rock-bottom numbers, a team with the offensive firepower that the Stars possess should very rarely go 0-for-3 and 0-for-4 on the power play. Part of winning consistently is jumping on teams early and putting teams away late, and a first power-play unit that often includes Benn, Seguin, Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza and John Klingberg has no excuse for cashing in just once out of 14 chances over their last five games.
However, the current state of the power play bears repeating; the Stars sit at 22.4 percent on the man advantage through 42 games, good for fourth in the league. They’re no strangers to special teams success. If the club’s first unit, which seems as if it’s fallen into a bit of a “drop pass to Spezza, attempt to find Seguin, rinse, repeat” routine, can find a little more creativity and the second unit can chip in while playing its hard-working, puck-moving game, the power play will rebound.
The Goalie Tandem Isn’t Superhuman
While Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen have fed off of each other and have largely provided exactly what the Stars have needed through half of this year’s campaign, neither is an immovable object in the face of an unstoppable force. If the Stars are lax defensively, turn the puck over at a high rate and fail to clear the crease on a consistent basis, neither Niemi nor Lehtonen have the ability to consistently win games by themselves when hung out to dry.
The Stars have given up six goals three times in their last five games and 22 goals overall. For a team that has made a point of reducing goals against and has succeeded to the tune of a 2.64 goals against per game average, this isn’t good news. There were no illusions of either goalie coming into this season poised to be a Vezina candidate, but they’ve been able to find success through solid team defense, timely saves and the league’s most potent offense. The Stars need to get back to the defensive mindset that got them to where they are: protecting the man between the pipes, taking care of the puck and getting it in the hands of the offense in transition.
Turning it Around
Many a weathered Stars fan has waited all season for the inevitable return to Earth, when the team they watched falter so often last season would rear its ugly head and its dominant players would start to look altogether more human. Many, after Tuesday’s effort, wrung their hands in worry harder than ever.
However, this isn’t that moment. The Stars aren’t falling back to Earth; they’ve simply hit one of the inevitable bumps that comes with any long season. The time between the extended holiday break and the All-Star festivities at the end of the month is a slog for many teams, and the high-flying Stars are no exception. In addition, Dallas just played three games in four days, all on the road; no easy task, especially when your preferred style of play relies on speed, a strong transition game and more speed.
The Stars will return home, have a day off, and hit the ice again Thursday inside the American Airlines Center, where they’re 16-4 on the season. The team has drawn more than 18,000 fans in every home game since Halloween, and the atmosphere has been electric inside the club’s home barn, which won’t change with two division opponents coming to Dallas for the team’s next two matchups.
It isn’t time to panic in Dallas. Sustaining a high level of success for 39 games isn’t a fluke, and it took the Stars half a season to lose more than once in a row. There’s no reason to expect that a three-game losing streak will send the team into an irreversible downturn.