It’s beginning to sound like a broken record.
After starting the season as one of the top teams in the Western Conference during each of the past two seasons, the Dallas Stars once again find themselves floundering throughout the mid- and late-season stretch. Since the All Star Break, the Stars are 4-5-2 and 1-3-2 in their last six games. Because of this slide, Dallas is three points out of a playoff spot in the West and sits in fourth place in the Pacific Division. The team continues to display a gritty and tough work ethic; losses seem not from being thoroughly outplayed by the opposition but from a simple mistake at a crucial moment that ultimately costs the Stars two points.
Goaltender Kari Lehtonen continues his reliable play, and after the Stars recent 2-1 OT loss against the Phoenix Coyotes, admitted the team needs to improve but finds a silver lining in the Stars play, despite the outcome.
“When you get that close, it’s always hard, but I think it was promising the way we played,” Lehtonen said. “We were gritty and worked hard. I think overall it was the way we needed to play and keep playing.”
In that 2-1 loss to the Coyotes, the Stars battled back to tie the game in the second period off a slick goal by Michael Ryder, who batted the waist-high puck out of the air and into the back of the net; however, that was the only highlight for the Stars. This was a pivotal game against an inner-division rival, and in overtime Mark Fistric, facing pressure behind his own net, turned the puck over, allowing Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata a wide-open opportunity, and he buried his 28th of the season to clinch a victory for the Coyotes and a heartbreaker for the Stars. Dallas head-coach Glen Gulutzan had a simple summation about the game.
“We played hard, but we need results,” Gulutzan said. “It’s a results-based business and we need results. We need to capitalize, and we can’t make a mistake at the end to give a point away.”
Indeed, the mistake by Fistric goes back to a recent article I wrote titled “Dallas Stars Trade-Deadline Strategy,” outlining how the Stars need more reliability in their back end, specifically with their bottom two or three defensemen.
Special teams also continues to be a problem for the Stars, as the team went 1-2 on the penalty kill and 0-1 on the power play in their 3-2 loss against the Nashville Predators. The Stars lone power play in that game was monumental, as Nashville’s just-acquired defenseman Hal Gill took a two-minute penalty for tripping with just two minutes left in the final period–the Stars were unable to capitalize. Also, in the first period, the Stars allowed a decisive power-play goal with under a second left before intermission.
The difference between teams that make the playoffs and teams who spend the spring playing golf is who can execute plays in the clutch and who can’t. The Stars last two games have ended with the Stars being on the losing side in those clutch situations: a turnover by a Stars defenseman in OT against the Coyotes and a failed power play late when the Stars were down by one against the Predators. Whether or not Dallas makes the postseason will come down to these clutch moments. If the Stars can find a way to capitalize on these pivotal instances, they can secure a playoff spot.
As the 2011-2012 season approaches its final stretch, teams must bring solid 60-minute performances in order to make the postseason. Let’s just hope the Stars don’t continue to mimic last year and let the postseason just barely slip through their grasp in the final moments of the regular season. That’s certainly a record Stars fans are tired of hearing.
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.