The season as a whole for the Dallas Stars can be described as ‘up and down’. They have gone through long winning streaks, fallen into long losing streaks, and been a different team throughout the year. This has been most apparent in their performances across opponents of different skill levels.
During the 2021-22 season, Dallas has defeated Colorado twice, Edmonton, Minnesota, Nashville, Winnipeg twice, and other top-tier teams. They have also been defeated by Ottawa twice, Montreal on home ice, and recently lost to the Arizona Coyotes, who recorded just their sixth home win of the season. While their record has picked up over the last month, an inconsistent team is usually one watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs from home.
Stars Second Line Scoring
Behind the top line, Dallas has had significant issues scoring goals. Around Christmas, head coach Rick Bowness reunited Tyler Seguin with Jamie Benn on a second line along with Denis Gurianov. All three players had struggled early in the year but the line had instant success. Each player was more noticeable, creating chances, and producing more points on a nightly basis.
However, that was short-lived.
For a couple of weeks, the line struggled and was eventually broken apart. Dallas continued searching for the right combinations to find more offense, especially at even strength.
In mid-January, Bowness moved Seguin back to center, his natural position, resulting in a massive change in his game as he continued to push after two major surgeries last year. From there, the trio once again caught fire. In the last 15 games, Seguin has recorded eight goals and 16 points.
“He’s been skating really well,” Bowness said of Seguin. “That road trip he skated really well. In Buffalo, he was a force, and he’s getting his legs back underneath him and I think he’s feeling a whole lot more confident with his legs, his body, and his game.”
Over that time, Benn has four goals and nine points while Gurianov has one goal and eight points. Gurianov himself has been arguably the most inconsistent Star since coming into the league. He started off with a bang, scoring 21 goals in his first NHL season and added nine playoff goals during the run to the Stanley Cup Final. He followed that up by scoring only 12 goals last season and is currently sitting at just seven this year.
While the numbers outside of Seguin have not been spectacular, they are a huge improvement from earlier in the season. Now, all three players need to find a way to bring more offense on a consistent basis without the up and down streaks and drama.
“It’s okay,” Benn laughed when asked about his chemistry with Seguin on the second line. “We want to keep getting better. We are just trying to do our part. We can be a really good second line on this team. We need to bring that offensive side of our game and try to help out Roope [Hintz] line.”
Goaltending Should Be The Stars Strength
If there is anything that deserves the term “rollercoaster ride”, it is the Stars goaltending in 2021-22. Braden Holtby began the year on fire while Anton Khudobin struggled and Jake Oettinger played in the American Hockey League. Then, Holtby struggled while dealing with an injury, Khudobin was sick, and Oettinger led the NHL in all goaltending stats during his first call-up of the season.
From there, the story continues to get bumpy. Holtby returned from injury, was on top of his game, and reclaimed the starting job. Khudobin was placed on waivers and sent down to the AHL and after giving some hope of a potential return, veteran Ben Bishop was forced to officially retire due to a knee injury. Since then, Oettinger and Holtby have been the main duo other than a few games when Holtby was sick.
Both goalies struggled for a couple of weeks in December, resulting in some disappointing losses. Over a seven-game span, Oettinger held a .844 save percentage, including two games with numbers in the .7’s. Holtby was a little better but still struggled to find his game overall and the team paid the price.
Since the poor performance against Montreal, Oettinger has come alive. In his last nine games, he has a 6-2-1 record with a 1.85 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. With his resurgence, he has now started nine of the last 10 games for Dallas overall. Last week, the 23-year-old stopped 104 of 107 total shots, made 46 saves to defeat the best team in the league, and outdueled Marc-Andre Fleury in a rare double shutout shootout win for Dallas. His performance earned him the NHL’s Third Star of the Week honors.
“I actually said to him after the game in Colorado, `Welcome to the NHL,'” said forward Tyler Seguin. “It was a true coming-out party moment. We’ve seen him progress, but after that kind of night, I think he’s going to have a lot more confidence. He seems more settled in now and that could be huge for us.”
The coming-out party for Oettinger is a great sign for things to come. On the flip side, it has kept Holtby on the bench, not helping him to re-find his game. Going forward, it will be vital for Oettinger to not backtrack and for Holtby to eventually find his way back into the net to find his confidence and stay prepared for when he will be needed.
“The team, they have a lot of confidence in Jake right now, he is playing really well,” Bowness said. “Like any pro, you get out there and you are playing well and you want to keep playing. He is playing really well, he is feeling really good about himself, and when that happens you let them play.”
Stars Intensity Needs To Be 100%
An overlooked aspect of being on the playoff bubble is the importance of every single game you play. In a league as tight as the NHL, one loss can send you spiraling down the standings as other teams around you earn points. When you face that type of pressure every night, it can be both physically and mentally exhausting.
“It’s hard,” Bowness said about the constant pressure of being on the bubble. “There is 82 games and it’s hard to be at this level every game, it’s impossible. This is why Toronto goes into Montreal and is losing 5-0. It’s impossible to keep it there for 82 games. There’s going to be peaks and valleys. We need more peaks than valleys at this point. Now there is pressure to maintain that and we can’t have this emotional up and down.”
As humans, NHL players are not capable of being at 100% intensity every night. That is why it is so important for other players to step up when the top players are not on their game. For the Stars, they have had far too many instances where the entire team sleepwalks through nearly an entire game (at home against Washington and Colorado and on the road at Arizona.)
“For the most part, it has been good,” Bowness said about the team’s overall intensity. “It certainly wasn’t there on Sunday [against Arizona] for two periods. Chicago was good, the game in Colorado, they are a good team. We are three points out of a playoff spot, these games are huge coming up.”
If the Stars are going to make the playoffs, they need to find a way to bring the playoff intensity on a nightly basis. With a handful of games left against teams near them in the standings, they cannot afford any further mental or physical lapses. If they can do that, they have dug themselves out of an early hole and earned an opportunity to see what they can do in the playoffs.
Sam Nestler is a credentialed Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the Stars, the NHL, and college hockey. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!