The Dallas Stars are in the thick of a playoff race in the Western Conference. With 16 games remaining, they currently sit just one point behind the Vegas Golden Knights with four games in hand for the final wild card. While the team and coaching staff have shown their desire to improve their seeding, the boys from Big D seem destined to remain right on the line of the playoff bubble in 2021-22.
“I think everyone here is all-in now,” said forward Joe Pavelski. “You can’t sit here worrying about it and then look back in a month and be like ‘Aw, I wish everyone stayed’ or this or that. Guys are in. Guys want to make the playoffs.”
Stars Expectations vs Reality
Let’s look beyond this season real quick. Over the past five seasons, the Stars have made the playoffs only twice. In one of those seasons, they were slotted into a wild card spot, and in the other, they were a teeny-tiny point percentage away from missing the round-robin and being forced to play a play-in series.
The other three seasons resulted in a complete absence of playoff hockey in Dallas. Beyond that, the Stars have one season in which they were a higher seed, coming in 2015-16 when they won the Western Conference. What’s the point here? The Stars are a bubble team. They have been for a while now and they do not seem to be making any moves to change that this season.
“I’d rather see us in the eighth spot than ninth or 10th,” said Stars coach Rick Bowness. “We’re not that far out of third. That’s your next step, to get in and stay in. It’s there, and you’ve got to go get it.”
Again, this has been the common response around the dressing room. Everyone around the team states that they want to get up into the top three in the division, and while I have no doubt that is true, they appear to be completely complacent sitting where they are at the same time. However, the seemingly true mindset behind these comments is what has infuriated fans for years.
Stars Just Hoping to Get In
The Stars have spoken a lot about “just getting in” over the past few seasons, believing that once they are in the tournament, they are a tough team to beat. While that was certainly true in 2020 and 2018, is it really the case this season?
Dallas is a .500 team on the road. At home, they began the season as one of the best teams but have fallen off over the last month or so. They do not score a ton of goals, which is nothing new, but they also struggle to keep pucks out of their own net this season, which is very new for a team that has prided themselves on being a top defensive unit for years. They sit near the middle of the pack in both categories and have been unable to improve either on a consistent basis. They also have multiple players severely underperforming this season.
“We’ve been saying from day one that our team, on paper, is really good,” Tyler Seguin said. “Paper doesn’t mean anything, so, it’s about putting it all together at the right time. We have a lot of vets on this team, and we know what that means. Once the trade deadline’s gone, it’s the exciting part of the year. You have 20-ish games left. It’s the push and it’s getting ready to try to get into that dance and then get in. Once you’re in, I don’t want to face us.”
As much as I love this confidence from the group, I am just not so sure it is an accurate depiction of where they are at. After a very successful run following the All-Star break, Dallas has had to take the long winding road to defeat teams, many of which should not be much of a challenge. They needed late comebacks to defeat the Anaheim Ducks twice, were forced to overcome multiple deficits at home against the Edmonton Oilers, needed overtime to defeat the last-place Montreal Canadiens, lost to a very poor New York Islanders team, and you get the point.
This is concerning because it shows that Dallas is not only struggling on a larger scale, but they are also showing massive inconsistencies and issues within each game.
Think about it. When was the last time you felt fully comfortable as a Stars fan? When is the last time the team had a nice cushioned lead that you felt they would easily maintain? Those days of playing even better and locking things down with the lead are over for this team and they are now being forced to use their determination to go to the whip late in games to pick up points. It is concerning, and that scratch and claw, hang around in games, just find a way approach is exactly what has had Stars fans calling for a new head coach ever since the run in the bubble in 2020.
“Stay in the fight, stay in the battle, and let’s keep pushing,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said.
Need one more reason that Dallas should not be complacent with just getting in? It comes in the form of the top-seeded Colorado Avalanche. The Avs have been the best team in the NHL for much of the season and it has not even been close since the calendar turned to 2022. They score a ton of goals, have some of the most elite and skilled players in the sport, and are finally receiving good goaltending and defensive play to balance them out. If they were the favorites to win the cup in 2020, they are the super favorites to do so this year.
While the Stars have a decent record against the Avs this season (2-1-0), the games have been a bit alarming. Dallas got their first win way back in November when the Avs were still finding their game and Colorado absolutely dominated them in the next two matchups. The Stars were shut out at home 4-0 and needed a heroic 46-save shutout from Jake Oettinger in Colorado to steal a 4-1 win that they simply did not deserve.
“Until we see that ‘X’ beside our name in the playoffs, we just gotta keep pushing,” Bowness said.
Yes, anything can happen in the playoffs, and we have seen that with the Dallas Stars in recent past. However, the challenge in front of them is a big one and it would serve them greatly to improve their seeding before the playoffs begin. Will they? I am not sure. But, if the first 66 games of the season are any sign of what is to come, don’t expect them to be any better off than a second wild card spot and a date with the high-flying Avs in the first round.
“Getting points is important,” Pavelski said. “When you have a chance to do that, even if you haven’t played your best, you need to get the points. We understand how close this is and that it could come down to one or two games at the end of the year.”
It certainly could and very likely will. So buckle up Stars fans.
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!