For a team with such high expectations heading into the season, the Dallas Stars struggled in the season’s first half.
However, for as bad as it got, especially trying to win games at home, the Stars are still just four points out of a wild card spot and were riding momentum before the All-Star break.
“We’ve done a much better job in the last 15 games or so in being a consistent team,” Stars’ forward Jason Spezza said. “We’re getting better results because of it. If we defend better and focus on our defending, we know we can score goals and we’ll get results.”
As simplistic as it sounds, results are what the Stars have to achieve in the final stretch of the season. Another substantial losing streak could push the team out of any hope of a postseason berth.
If only it were that simple.
Here are five keys to the next 36 games that will give the Stars their best chance to make the playoffs:
1. Continued road success
Dallas is 10-8-2 on the road so far this season and ranks 15th in the league in goals on the road.
The key difference is in goals against, a category in which the Stars are last in the league, allowing 81 at home, but only 19th on the road, allowing 69 at the break. This is significant because 21 of the Stars’ final 36 games are on the road, including a three-game road trip through Canada that keeps the team away from Dallas until the beginning of February.
Dallas hosts more than two consecutive home games only once before the end of the season in a four-game stretch from March 15-23.
2. Protect the net
Coming in dead last in the NHL in goals against doesn’t allow for much success and that falls back on the defensive play and goaltending, which is head coach Lindy Ruff’s primary focus coming out of the All-Star break.
“I’m still going to start with keeping the goals against down and playing well defensively and making sure the number of big mistakes are at a minimum, which we’ve done a lot better job at considering where we started the season,” Ruff said.
Kari Lehtonen is last in the league in goals against with 110, and ranks 51st in save percentage at .904.
“Kari is still my guy,” Ruff said. “It’s a tough place to be because he’s the reason a lot of times we’re winning games and there have been some nights that he’s had some tough ones go in and it’s probably the reason we’ve lost. He’s got the ability to be the guy that can put that strong push together.”
3. Improve special teams
Just as expectations were high for Dallas entering the season as a team, the power play was tabbed to be one of the best the NHL had to offer, featuring Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Spezza and Ales Hemsky.
At the break, Dallas sits with the fifth-worst power play in the league, converting just 15.7 percent of their man-advantage opportunities this season.
Ruff said he hopes Dallas can push their way into the top 15 in the league. Dallas is 23rd in the league on the penalty kill, fighting through 79 percent of time that they play a man down.
4. Grow up on defense
Stars’ general manager Jim Nill made a statement early that Dallas was going to lean on its young corps of defensemen to carry them through the season after trading Sergi Gonchar and Brenden Dillon early in the season, allowing players like John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka to get significant time on the blue line.
Klingberg has certainly been a push, registering 18 points in 32 games and filling the role of puck-moving defenseman the Stars’ have been trying to address for several seasons. However, Dallas must find consistency in the play of its defenseman to help Lehtonen reduce the goals Dallas lets in the net.
5. Jump-starting Benn
A year after being the darling of Team Canada and their gold medal win in the Winter Olympics, Jamie Benn didn’t make the 2015 All-Star Game and has failed to post the kind of offensive numbers that he usually does.
He still sits second on the team in scoring with 40 points, but has scored only 10 points in the past 14 games. In addition, he has netted just 13 goals to Seguin’s team-leading 28.
Scoring hasn’t necessarily been a problem for this Stars’ squad, but Benn has had the knack of scoring important goals at key junctures in the game and that’s exactly something Dallas has needed through an up and down first half of the season.