Beware the Slide of March

–A Hockey Soothsayer

With apologies to William Shakespeare, the Dallas Stars should’ve heeded this chilling phrase of warning. On the morning of Saturday, February 10, the Stars were celebrating their fifth straight victory, a 4-3 win the previous evening over the visiting two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins at American Airline Center. The winning streak culminated a recovery from the early season when Coach Ken Hitchcock’s skaters had lost three of their first four games as they tripped and trundled out of the 2017-18 gate.

As Valentine’s Day beckoned, the Stars were getting great goaltending from free agent signee Ben Bishop (current stats of 26-17-5 with a 2.49 goals against average and .917 save percentage), their defense was playing well, and there was balanced scoring. The top line of Tyler Seguin (39 goals, 73 points, including his 500th career point), captain Jamie Benn (28 goals, 60 points), and free agent signee Alexander Radulov (27 goals, 67 points) was producing consistently. And skaters such as Mattias Janmark (19 goals) and Radek Faksa (15 goals) were providing timely secondary scoring.

Dallas began entertaining visions of a deep Stanley Cup playoff run. The winning streak was highlighted by a 4-2 triumph in the Windy City that completed a season sweep of the Blackhawks and the win over the Pens. As the team continued to stage a season-long celebration of its 25th anniversary since moving from Minnesota to Texas in 1993, things were looking very, very promising.

How things have changed, though. Bishop suffered an injury that has kept him out of uniform since March 18, leaving the puck stopping duties to incumbent Kari Lehtonen. The Stars became a one-line team with very little secondary scoring. Their record since that five-game winning streak is 6-11-4, netting them only 16 of a possible 38 points while several Western Division rivals have caught and surpassed them.

Fortunately, Radulov’s overtime goal enabled Dallas to upend visiting Philadelphia, 3-2 on March 27 to snap an eight-game winless streak (0-6-2). The Stars have barely kept their post-season hopes alive with only their third triumph in 15 games during their Slide of March.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 28, the Stars (39-30-8) had salvaged at least a “puncher’s chance” of making the playoffs. Their 86 points put them five behind 7th and 8th place Anaheim and Los Angeles and four behind ninth-place Colorado, but with just five regular season dates remaining. They include a home-and-home with the Wild and season-ending road dates at San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

“You’re happy for the guys because today was bizarre,” said Hitchcock after the OT victory. “Both teams worked hard and Philly has a heck of a hockey club.  They’re one of the strongest teams on the puck.  We saw that against Pittsburgh (Sunday) how they controlled down low against Pittsburgh so much.  You knew as a coach and having experienced this before, that to bring the game back to where you feel good about yourself the game was going to be bizarre.  You knew that it was going to be one of those games where nothing was going to be clean and there was going to be a lot of effort but a lot of mistakes.  You have to look at the end result.  We live to fight another day.  We’ve got to go win a road game.  That’s the player’s attitude; one game at a time.  Everybody’s focused on that.  More than anything, for everybody, it’s relief and now you can move forward.

“I think this is one of those games where you would like to have a hockey practice tomorrow but because of the health of the hockey club we can’t do that,” Hitchcock added. “This is one of those days where you do need a hockey practice because we have to get ourselves reorganized.  You can’t live on effort every shift with no structure and today we didn’t have much structure.  There was a ton of effort and a ton of desire.  If you play poorly and lose it’s easier to bring it back but we played so well and lost it’s hard to bring it back.  You’re thinking, ‘I’m doing everything I think I should be doing,’ but there’s no result.  Panic can set in on the ice where the puck just becomes a magnet for every player on the ice.  That’s what we had; we had five people for two-and-a-half periods staring at the puck.  All moving towards the puck and trying to help.  We got through it and we can get adrenaline in Minnesota (Thursday) and try to get things sorted out positioning-wise and try to get moving.”

The Stars had dropped a 4-1 verdict two nights before at the American Airlines Center to a struggling non-playoff Canuck team and fell to 0-6-2, their longest winless streak since moving south. They lost in spite of Janmark’s first period shorthanded breakaway that gave them a 1-0 lead. Later on the same power play, Vancouver evened the count.

“We don’t deserve to win right now,” said defenseman John Klingberg after the setback to the Canucks. “We’re doing all of the right things before games, coaches give us all of the information, we just don’t execute enough. We don’t have any confidence at all in the way we’re playing right now in the D-zone, the neutral zone, the O-zone. You can tell there’s no confidence right now, and it’s tough to play then.”

Added Hitchcock, “I don’t think there is one part of our game right now that’s exceptional. We’re getting scored on the power play pretty much every game, we’re not scoring on our quality chances. We’re not scoring, so we’re not extending any lead. It erodes at your confidence level.”

Looking back, the Stars’ Slide of March, probably had had its origins back in late February when Dallas dropped three of its last five games. Along the way, they began losing key role players to injuries.

Still, Dallas entered early March like a veritable lion, winning a 5-4 overtime thriller over Tampa Bay thanks to Janmark’s game-tying goal with :04 left in regulation, and winning in overtime against the Blues as Radulov tied the game with just under three minutes left in the third period and Jamie Benn scoring in OT. After a 3-2 overtime setback vs. Ottawa (Seguin’s goal with 1:08 in regulation forced extra hockey) and a 2-0 setback at Nashville, Dallas rallied for a 2-1 win against Anaheim as Devin Shore and Benn scored third period goals.

As mid-March dawned, the Stars embarked on what will be known as the road trip from H…E…double hockey sticks. Dallas played well in a 3-1 loss at Pittsburgh, then dropped a 4-2 verdict to a Montreal squad that will not make the playoffs. The following evening, they led on two occasions before Patrick Marleau scored with :16 left in the third period, and lost on a shootout. Tyler Pitlick’s game tying goal with 1:48 remaining salvaged another point in a 3-2 loss at Ottawa.

A schedule maker with an intriguing sense of humor sent the Stars across the border and back to the Central time zone for a 4-2 loss at Winnipeg, then returned them to the East Coast where they dropped a 4-3 verdict at Washington.

“That road trip was a target and we knew we were in a tough go and we lost some confidence,” said Hitchcock. “There were so many emotional games that eroded at our confidence. I think that is pretty evident. We battled back and lost points in games we should’ve had points in. (Had we earned more points) we’d be feeling a lot better about ourselves. In the big picture, it has eroded our confidence right now and we have to find a way to get back.”

Was Hitchcock’s defensive style of play undermining the team’s offensive capabilities? Since Feb. 11, Dallas is last in the NHL in scoring with 43 goals in 21 games.

Limping home from their 0-4-2 excursion, Dallas exhibited its own version of “Boston Strong” for two periods against the visiting Bruins. Defenseman Esa Lindell gave the Stars a 1-0 lead less than three minutes into the game, and Benn converted a shorthanded breakaway with just :12 left in the second period to give the home team what appeared to be a psychological lift.

But the Stars surrendered a shorthanded game-tying goal midway through the third period. They also made two bookend turnovers. The first resulted in a Brad Marchand goal just 1:17 into the third period, and the second enabled David Pastrnak to emerge from the side of the net and beat goalie Kari Lehtonen with less than 12 seconds before Dallas would’ve at least earned a point and a chance for another in overtime.

“I didn’t think we were very good in our own end with the puck,” said Hitchcock after the gut punch of a loss to the Bruins. “We had all kinds of opportunities on their first and third goals to get it out.  It really started with icings.  We iced it.  We ended up getting hemmed in but we had the puck on our stick and fumbled it.  Then we over-committed to the board play on the winning goal.”

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