Since the All-Star break at the end of January, the Dallas Stars have dropped seven of eight games, and sit perilously close to missing the playoffs. Despite the relatively comfortable lead the Stars enjoyed for the first half of the season, only a single point now separates Dallas from the ninth seed.
Over the past three weeks, the compiling losses have begun to validate the early predictions of some fans and analysts that the Stars would, for the most part, resemble last year’s team and finish south of the 8th seed. And, though the team put up great numbers through 50 games, at their current level of play the Stars will miss the playoffs for the third-straight year. That’s right, it’s time to press the panic button; raise the white flag; file for bankruptcy — the Stars are collapsing faster than a Middle-Eastern dictatorship.
Of course, worse flops have occurred (see 2011 Canadian World Junior team and 2010 Boston Bruins playoffs), but this still stings. Even the most callous and pessimistic of Dallas Stars’ fans and observers were rooting for this team. The Stars are an underdog, and have been for the past two years. With the ownership’s inability to fully fund a winning team, the Stars entered this season at a definite disadvantage. Most fans and analysts gave Dallas little chance of making the playoffs. So when the team climbed to the top of the Western Conference, and stayed there for 50 games, it was a pleasant surprise. Gone were the talks of trading away Brad Richards — in fact, the team received Jamie Langenbrunner for a conditional third-round draft pick in order to gear up for the playoffs. Just three weeks ago the optimism ran thick in Big D, as this quote from Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk illustrates:
“I probably wouldn’t have thought we would have been here,” Nieuwendyk said to ESPN. “But funny things happen when you get this in place, where guys play hard for each other. You don’t have to have the most talented team or the highest-priced team. There’s a belief that’s grown over the course of the year.”
However, recent quotes from head-coach Marc Crawford would lead you to believe these were two entirely different teams:
“You just have to keep doing things right,” Crawford said to ESPN. “We’ve got to get that through our thick skulls.”
Since the beginning of February the Stars have shown little resolve against tough opposition. The game against the Boston Bruins on February 3 — just a few days after the All-Star break — was an embarrassing loss. Three fights in the first four seconds of the game, and a fourth a few minutes later, had Dallas reeling. Both Adam Burish and Krys Barch received injuries to the face during their fights and haven’t returned to the team since.
If you had to point at anything in particular to blame for the Stars collapse, it would be injuries. Along with Burish and Barch, Jamie Benn, Nicklas Grossman and Brad Richards are also dealing with injuries, and the players who are filling in just can’t carry the team as the regulars did. Young prospects such as Tomas Vincour and Aaron Gagnon, as well as new additions such as Jason Williams, haven’t been able to pick up where the injured starters left off.
In the recent loss against the Calgary Flames, mystifying defensive breakdowns made you think someone had put a tape of last season’s Stars team in and pressed play. Despite going down 1-0, the Stars battled back against the Flames and took a 2-1 lead. Early in the 3rd period however, as the Flames came down on a rush, all five Stars players collapsed around the front of the net, allowing Flames defenseman Cory Sarich to walk in from the blue line and pick his corner. Just over two minutes later the Stars defensive pair skated back with two forechecking Calgary penalty killers. When both Stars defensemen went towards the puck carrier along the far boards, the puck ended up on the stick of the lone Flame in front of the net. Despite Kari Lehtonen coming out to challenge, the Flames’ forward blasted a slapshot past the vulnerable goaltender. So have the Stars simply returned to Earth and joined the reality that they were supposed to occupy: missing the playoffs for the third straight year; or is the team simply dealing with multiple injuries at the worst moment of the season? As the wins accumulated earlier in the season, were the Stars’ fans (myself included) who gloated at those undervalued predictions of Dallas, simply wrong in believing in this year’s team?
In the game prior to the Flames, the Stars faced the lowly Edmonton Oilers in Edmonton. Not only does Edmonton carry the worst record in the NHL, but they also harbor the worst powerplay (You know where this is going). The Stars lost the game 4-1 — giving up all four goals to the Oilers’ powerplay. Throughout this season Dallas has been a team that wins through quality goaltending and strong special-team play. Over the course of the last 11 games, neither the former or latter have performed well enough to win games.
Before dropping nine of the last 11 games, the Stars had won seven of eight games. At that point, even if Dallas finished the season playing .500 hockey, the playoffs seemed assured — but no longer. The level of competition within the NHL is amazing. A team that plays solid and consistent over the span of 50 games can erase everything in ten games or less. And with this recent stretch of poor play, the subtle talk of trading Brad Richards has crept back in; slowly, the preseason predictions of the naysayers have been insidiously validated, making it seem as if the Stars had never played well through the first 50 or so games.
Although Dallas sits only one point from the ninth seed, the team rests a single point from the third seed. That is how competitive the Western Conference is: a five-way, 68-point tie for fourth place. The next five to seven games will spell out the remainder of the Stars’ season. If they turn it around and win a few games, the Brad Richards trade talks will diminish, and so will the predictions for missing the playoffs. Dallas has their 2011 fate within their own hands. The question is, do they know what to do with it?