Bag of Pucks – March 25 – After Game #70

The following is a column written on Monday, before the Stars beat Winnipeg 2-1 and the Coyotes lost in overtime against the New York Rangers, 4-3.  Things change rapidly out on these streets, but just about everything below applies just how it was written:
If you know me even a little bit, you know that I have looked at the Stars fortunes as a franchise over the last 15 years from every possible direction.  During hockey season, I absolutely see every shift of every game and do not enjoy being unable to do it live on those rare occasions where that cannot be avoided.  I follow this team very closely, and therefore, have clearly crossed the line from covering a team as part of a job description, into following a team that I wish to see do well.

I would never call myself a cheerleader, in fact, many of you think my brand of tough love when I follow this franchise is actually over-harsh, which would fall in line with my natural pessimism about my team’s fortunes.  I learned long ago when having a team that I love that my best ability to cope with failure was to expect it.   That protected my spirit from being crushed when the opposite is true where you always expect success and then are steamrolled when they fall short of your hopes. Therefore, I generally find myself entering crucial games with a bit of a sense of dread, feeling like I know what is around the next corner.  Bad things, man.  And then, when my side shows it can handle this challenge, I am very pleased.  Happiness is such a pleasant surprise in sports.  Expect the worst and you will never be disappointed, right?

I realize this tact is not for everyone, but it helps.  The weird thing is that I haven’t felt it much this year.  I find myself as optimistic as I am capable of being with this version of the Dallas Stars.  I think this team will make the playoffs and I think when they do that they will be capable of turning some heads.  I also think that this is the tip of the iceberg of what the next 5 years or so hold.

I am not saying it is rational, in fact, I would argue that feelings about a team or a game are generally irrational.  I don’t know why I feel pessimistic about my teams most years, but this year optimistic about a young group in Victory Green.  It has very little bearing on the outcome, either way, so don’t worry about me.

But, I do have to tell you that as we have played out the string of the spring of 2014, we are nearing a place in the schedule where there is a very huge disturbance in the force.  In a season where I have had the cup half-full for the entire campaign, I will confess to you, loyal reader, that the next portion of our ride comes with an advisory and a warning to take heed.  If you touch a hot stove enough times, you begin to train your behavior to avoid hot stoves.  These trained feelings reappear when conditions are right.  And look, we have arrived in a spot that is in close proximity of a hot stove.

The Stars played Game #70 on Saturday afternoon.  It was a wonderful day where they took down Ottawa in a game that required a committed effort and another Saturday where a late push took the game over the finish line in the right direction.  It was a game of determination, strong goaltending, bad feelings, and secondary scoring – all good things that lead to success in the playoffs.

The win combined with a Boston win in the desert against Phoenix put the Stars back in a virtual dead heat with the Coyotes where on this day the Coyotes have a 58% likelihood of the post season and the Stars right on their heels with a 51% case.  Phoenix has 11 games to play on 79 points and the Stars sit at 77 with 12 to play.

Dallas has 5 more at home, 7 more on the road.  The Coyotes have 5 more at home, 6 more on the road.  The Stars will need to go out East one more time (which has been a real issue this year) and the Coyotes are on an airplane doing that this week.

Dallas owns the tie-breaker with 1 more regulation win at this juncture, but as I have said plenty in the last few weeks, this is most likely going to roll all the way to game #82 in Phoenix on April 13 for all of the marbles and the right to open in the playoffs against St Louis.

So let’s get back to why Game #70 is associated with the 5 year trend of Stars issues and why they have to now prove they can run the next 3-week gauntlet that lies ahead of them.

In the 2008-09 season, after 69 games, the Stars were sitting pretty at a spot in the standings that was the #8 seed and were tied with Minnesota for the final playoff spot after 70 games at 74 points.  Unfortunately, they finished the season on a run where they only won 3 games the rest of the way and ended the year on a 3-7-3 slide altogether to finish 8 points out of the playoffs and saw everyone fired.

In 2009-10, they were never really in the race, but for the sake of the conversation, let’s remember that it was an Olympic-break year and that the team was the only team in the NHL to not win 3 consecutive games the entire season.  They did go 7-5 down the stretch, including the fairy tale like endings for Mike Modano, Marty Turco, and Jere Lehtinen, but they finished 7 points out of the playoffs.

In 2010-11, they were in the 7th playoff spot after 70 games at 82 points (wow!) and actually were in a great position, but it was a very tight pack of teams as we would soon find out.  They then collapsed and lost 7 of 8 games after Game #70 and ended up the final dozen with a 4-8 record and finished with an amazing 95 points, but as you will recall needed 2 more to make the playoffs and fell short the final day in St Paul against the Wild who spoiled the party to say the least.

The next year, in 2011-12, they were leading the division by 4 points and therefore the #3 seed at the 70 game mark.  They were in maybe their best spot in this run with 12 games to play.  They then absolutely fell on their faces again, finishing with just 3 wins in the final 12 games for a 3-9 record that was absolutely as gutting as it gets.  Somehow they went from 4 points up to 6 points back in just a dozen games as several teams zoomed by them in Glen Gulatzan’s first year.

Finally, last year was a much more truncated 48-game season, but with 12 games to play (what would normally be the 70 game mark), they were 3 points out of the final playoff spot, and they actually caught fire and won 5 games in a row.  Unfortunately, they ended the year losing 6 of the final 7 and finished 7 points back again at the end with a 6-6 record down the stretch in the final dozen games.

2009:  3-6-3
2010:  7-4-1
2011:  5-4-3
2012:  3-9-0
2013:  6-5-1

Total:  24-28-8

60 games and 24 wins with 8 consolation points for 56 points in 60 games.  If you just count the 4 years they were actually in contention, that falls to 17 wins in 48 games with 7 additional points for 41 points.

How does this not apply to this 2014 Stars team?  Well, aside from Trevor Daley, nobody is left from that 2009 team.  Jamie Benn and Kari Lehtonen joined in 2010, and then came Alex Goligoski in 2011.  Those were the only 4 players who were in that game against the Wild in April of 2011.  The point is, that even though these last 5 years are fresh in our heads, most of them wearing Victory Green have been a part of between none and one or two of these 5 runs.  If their name is Tyler or Val or Sergei or Colton, they have no idea what you are talking about when you talk 2012 Stars collapse with them.

Sure, the arena is the same.  Ralph and Razor are the same.  I am still watching them play and so are you.  Beyond that?  Well, not much.

Now, how does that apply to this season?   Well, these boys might be new, but they still have to prove they are different than those that came before them.

12 games to play.  I think the Stars need a 9-3 finish to get in, with the outside possibility that 8-4 (93 points) can also get them in if one of those 8 is in Phoenix.

The math is not easy and with road games at Chicago, St Louis, Tampa Bay, and Washington all ahead it is going to be a real test of their mettle.

Can they pass the test of the final dozen games?  I think this is their year, but there are no more mulligans to play.  The importance of each game is huge and obvious.

They look to earn their own identity.  This is the way to do it.