For all of the progress they’ve made during the first half of this season, the Dallas Stars have not yet become a team that knows how to win. That is, they have not yet ascended to the level of a sextet that does the right thing at the optimum juncture of a hockey game to ensure a victory. In fact, they are just the opposite.
If anything, they are currently mired in a six-game losing streak, in which they play just well or poorly enough on a nightly basis to bring about defeat. The only silver lining – if you can call it that – is that each loss has been at the skates of an Eastern Conference foe. This somewhat softens the blow in that none of the teams that defeated them were able to gain nor able to pull away from Dallas in the Western Conference wild card standings.
The Stars scored only four goals while losing three straight games in the last week – a 4-2 verdict at home to the New York Islanders on Sunday, Jan. 12; a 3-2 heartbreaker to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Jan. 10; and a 1-0 nail-biter to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, Jan. 9.
Especially painful were the losses to the Isles and Rangers, which both occurred after Dallas either held the lead or was tied heading into the final two minutes of regulation. Fortunately, the Stars’ 47 points trail 8th place Minnesota by just eight points, and they have three games on the Wild to boot.
The Stars’ (20-18-7) six-game skid is their first since March 2011, and it’s the first time that they’ve lost six straight in regulation since the 1995-96 campaign.
Against the Islanders at American Airlines Center, Dallas relinquished puck and territorial control at the worst possible juncture of the game – the last 10 minutes of regulation while they were nursing a 2-1 lead. The Islanders’ offensive onslaught enabled them to score with 4:16 remaining to tie the game at 2-2, then net the eventual game winner with just 1:24 left in regulation against goalie Dan Ellis, who made 27 saves in an otherwise outstanding performance. New York added an empty netter.
“We turned the puck over too many times,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “We gave them breakaways. Dan [Ellis] made probably three or four great saves to keep the score where it was at. It caught up to us. I thought [Ellis] gave us a chance to win. He made the saves that could have allowed us to win the game, even get a point out of the game.”
Dallas controlled play throughout the opening 20 minutes and grabbed a 2-0 lead on goals by forward Ray Whitney (his 5th of the season) and defenseman Sergei Gonchar (1st). The Stars, who had 11 giveaways in the game compared to only two by New York, saw the lead halved by the visitors midway through the middle stanza.
“They came at us pretty good for the last 40 minutes,” Whitney said. “It was a combination of them playing a little better than they did in the first and us turning the pucks over at the wrong time and against the wrong line.”
Ruff said the Stars’ power play, which went 0-for-2 for the game and has the worst at-home power play in the NHL at 7.5 percent (6-for-80), must improve in order to contribute.
“You get a chance to really change the game, to either boost yourself up or push the other team down, and you have to take advantage,” Ruff said of his team’s power play, which ranks 29th in the NHL with a 12.4 percent success rate. “We’re getting close, but we have to relax and find a way to finish.”
Two nights before at Madison Square Garden in the finale of a three-game East Coast road swing, center Dallas Eakin scored his 9th goal less than five minutes into the game to give the Stars a 1-0 lead, and forward Ryan Garbutt added his 8th early in the second session for a 2-1 Stars lead. But the Rangers tied it just more than two minutes after Garbutt’s marker and won with 1:58 left in regulation. With the game tied 2-2, goalie Kari Lehtonen stopped Chris Kreider’s shot from the side of the net but was unable to control the rebound. Rangers forward Rick Nash grabbed the loose puck at the top of the crease and lifted a shot past the goaltender’s blocker as he fell to the ice.
“It’s a great way to judge a person’s character, when you’re dealing with adversity. We’re dealing with it right now,” Ruff said after Lehtonen made 31 saves in a credible performance. “That’s painful when you battle all game long and one goes in with two minutes left. But you’ve got to get over it. We’ve got to move on. We created some great opportunities but didn’t finish them.
“[The line of Garbutt, Eakin and Antoine Roussel] gave us everything they could,” Ruff added. “They were in on the majority of the chances. I thought every time they were on the ice they were dangerous. And as a team, I thought we skated better. I thought we created a little bit more and I thought we were better with the puck. We still have a ways to go, though.”
The previous evening, Ruff called the Stars’ first shutout loss of the season at New Jersey “a wasted game.” Although Dallas skated much better than they had in several of the previous three games (all losses), they could not solve the Devils’ confusing trap and were held to just 26 shots. The Stars also failed to cash in on a four-minute power play at the end of the second period.
“We didn’t make good plays,” said Dallas forward Tyler Seguin. “We gave them a lot of chances. We need to find more 60-minute desperation in here and maybe a little bit more accountability. We want to win very badly, but we [do not hate] to lose [enough]. I think that’s a big thing we need to fix.”
On the positive side, Lehtonen rebounded from a seven-goal onslaught in the previous game, a 7-3 loss at the Islanders, to make 33 saves, allowing only a goal to former Stars’ teammate Michael Ryder in the second period.
“[The Devils] have big bodies,” Ruff noted. “They defend well. You have to give them a lot of credit for it. They had the lead, and they were playing a pretty tidy game. We came at them, but they had four or five guys back in the neutral zone and they did a nice job of defending, so give them some credit.”
Stars’ Player of the Week –Kari Lehtonen
Despite not winning or picking up a standings points in any of their three games, goaltender Kari Lehtonen gave the Stars an opportunity to do just that in two of the matches. The Big Finn made 33 saves in a 1-0 loss at New Jersey on Thursday, Jan. 9, and then followed that performance with a 31-save outing in a last-minute 3-2 loss at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.