The third period of the game is when high-quality NHL teams flex their muscles, shut down opponents, and find a way to win the game. That has all but eluded the Dallas Stars this season and plays a large role in where they find themselves today. Currently they are six points back of a wildcard spot with several teams to jump if they were to claw their way back up. The only reason they find themselves that close is that they have been one of the best second period teams in the NHL. The third period has been absolutely dreadful for the Stars and ultimately it appears as though it will cost them a chance at the playoffs.
The Black and White Statistics
Taking a look a third period more closely, the numbers are horrendous if you are a Dallas Stars fan. There are only three teams in the entire league with a worse goal differential in the third period than the Stars and they are the Sabres, Coyotes and Devils. There are also only three teams in the NHL worse than the Stars in save percentage in the third period and they are the Oilers, Coyotes, and surprisingly, the Islanders. Luckily for the Islanders, they have generally made up for it by also scoring a lot in the third period. The interesting thing for the Stars is that they aren’t a bad possession team in the third at all. They are 12th in the NHL in corsi-for % (CF%) in the third period, which isn’t too shabby. Going even deeper, they are also on the positive side of generating scoring chances, as they are a +36 in scoring chances for/against in the third period. However, despite having decent possession numbers in the third, they are generally unable to convert on those chances. They have scored 49 third period goals this season which slots them in at 22nd in the league. There are only two teams that currently occupy a playoff spot below them and that is because they have given up a lot less goals than the Stars have. The worst part of all of it, is a lot of these goals have been given up when the Stars were ahead or in crucial situations. The Stars have given up a total of 34 goals when leading in the third period. Only one time has given up more goals and only two teams have a worse goal differential when leading in the third period. The Oilers and the Sabres are the only two teams with a worse goal differential when the score is within one goal in the third period. Those two teams find themselves in the basement of the NHL. Only seven teams have a worse winning percentage when leading after two periods and most of them are below the Stars in the standings. Ultimately that is what really stings for Dallas. They are able to generate so many chances and have leads in many games but they fail to show up when it matters most.
It Only Gets Worse at Home
The “home-ice advantage” has been anything but for the Stars this year. Without going into the overtime and shootout struggles (haven’t won past 60 minutes at home in 7 tries, ouch), the third period problems really magnify themselves at home. There are a total of three teams with less wins at home than the Stars this season. Three. Dallas has lost a total of 19 games at home so far this season. They had a third period lead in seven of those losses. In four of the 19 home losses, they gave up the game tying/winning goal with less than five minutes left in the game.
Nobody in the NHL has given up more third period goals while leading the game than the Dallas Stars. The clutch play just hasn’t been there, and it isn’t fair to pin it all on one person. They have the second worst home goal differential in the third period in the entire league at -16. Dallas also has the third worst save percentage at home in the third period as well. The entire team has to be responsible defensively and they need to get good goaltending in crucial moments as well. The Stars really haven’t gotten either of those this season and that is why they find themselves where they are.
So What is the Deal?
I’m not an NHL player and I have no idea what goes through the minds of NHL players throughout a game. However, a lot of these issues seem to be more on the mental side of things. If you tunnel-vision looked at a page of NHL statistics without looking at the standings, you would probably think the Stars are at the very least a wildcard team this season. In fact, even if you looked directly at some of the third period stats you would think they are a playoff team. They have solid possession numbers and out chance the opposition. They draw more penalties than they take in the third and their face-off percentage is top-10 in the NHL. They take more faceoffs in the offensive zone in the third period than any other team in the NHL. It really comes down to execution in the third and it feels as though something changes mentally in the final frame for the Stars. Although their first and second period save percentages aren’t a whole lot better, their production is significantly improved in the first two frames. There just appears to be some sort of mental roadblock that hits them in the third period as the execution just completely fades away.
Their struggles in the third period will likely cost them a playoff spot and will leave much to be desired from a team that had so much promise heading into the season. While it certainly isn’t mathematically over, the hill to climb has gotten incredibly steep. Kari Lehtonen has to be better, especially in third periods. Lehtonen has really struggled to come up large in important situations this season and the Stars really haven’t gotten “that save” from him for many of their close losses. If he is able to give the Stars performances like he did last season they could find themselves back in the race. As we examined above, it isn’t just Lehtonen and keeping goals out that is contributing to their third period issues. They haven’t been able to convert their chances into goals in the third either. With Tyler Seguin out, they need some of the supporting cast to chip in some goals as well. Guys like Antoine Roussel, Ryan Garbutt, Brett Ritchie, and Curtis McKenzie will need to help produce if the Stars are going to find themselves in this race. And possibly even the most important aspect of all, they need to find a way to get over this mental hurdle that is the third period. If they are able to find that answer, they could find themselves back in the playoff race after all.