Another week of Stars hockey is in the books and with the season just 2 games from the halfway point and with the trade deadline less than a month away, we are powering through this short sprint in no time. The problem for the Western Conference, of course, is that it is nearly impossible to get separation from the pack as teams try to find a way to get into the post-season.
Surely, playoff seeding still matters, but the Los Angeles Kings are this sports' version of the New York Giants who just barely made the playoffs, but then demonstrated that all you need is to "get in" to win and then hauled off and won the whole thing.
Home ice is nice, but any one of the 8 seeds will do. As write this on Wednesday morning, the Stars sit 8th, but tied for 9th and 10th with St Louis and Minnesota at 24 points. Los Angeles, San Jose, Detroit, and Phoenix all sit 2 points or less in front, and Nashville is just 1 point behind.
It is amazingly close.
And that is why you could make the case that every little thing matters. When you talk about characteristics that lead to winning and losing in the National Hockey League, we continuously hear great hockey minds talk about goaltending and special teams. There is no doubting that elite goaltending can take you places, and that is why the return of one of the most under-rated goalies in the game returning to the Dallas net in Kari Lehtonen is huge. I absolutely love to see that man back between the pipes, even if he returned to a less than stellar performance against the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night of last week.
It was almost like on that occasion, everyone let their guard down because their savior had returned. He was not sharp, however, and the Stars made things even more difficult on themselves by taking a ton of penalties, putting one of the league's best power play teams and worst even strength teams on the power play over and over again. 9 power play opportunities for Edmonton surpassed their previous season high of 7 that they had done 4 times. So, in 5 of their 20 games this season, the Stars had put their opponent on the man-advantage at least 7 times. As a point of comparison, the Stars have had more than 5 power play chances in just 1 game this year, the night of Jamie Benn's Gordie Howe Hat Trick when they had 6. Of course, in that game, San Jose had 7.
It is one thing to have a less-than-lethal power play, but it is another thing to give your opponent more chances than you get. And, just about every night out, the Stars put their opponent on the job more than they go on. It is routine that in a category where this result truly matters, the Stars take more penalties than they receive.
As you might expect, this has them ranked 29th in a 30 team league in power play opportunity differential. Only Colorado tries to tempt fate worse. The Stars are -20 in PP differential, while Colorado is -25. Meanwhile, San Jose is +18, and when the math is always in your favor, you can understand how it makes your actual power play conversion percentage a little less telling. Dallas ranks 12th in PP% right now, San Jose 13th.
Pretty close, right? Not if San Jose's 17.3% conversion rate is off 98 opportunities, and your seemingly better 17.7% is off 79 chances. It seems like power play percentage is a misleading number. There must be some way to easily calculate the chances to reveal the truth strength of the unit.
And when the Stars are shorthanded, they kill penalties very well this season, ranked 9th in the league. Trouble is, they get more practice than nearly every team in the league. The Stars are shorthanded the 2nd most times (congrats, Philadelphia), having been at a man-power disadvantage 99 times already.
So, they remain a team that takes a ton more penalties than they receive. It hasn't always been like this, in fact, this is a rather foreign concept to the Stars until last season.
In their 19 seasons in the Dallas, the Stars were always on the job more than their opponents it seemed. The year they won the Stanley Cup, they were +74 in PP opportunities. +50 in 2007, heck, even +40 in the forgettable 2010.
Only 4 times in 19 have they been negative in PP differential. 2006 they were a -6, 2003 they were a -19, and then these last 2 seasons. 2012 they were a stunning -59, and 2013 where they sit a -20 through just 22 games, a pace that would put them at -74 for a full-length season.
So, why do teams take penalties? We sometimes want to make it out to all be a mean demeanor and a bunch of goons skating around trying to intimidate, and once in a while that is true. But, the NHL isn't the movie Slapshot. This is a game about puck-ownership. Teams that retain possession have no reason to commit a penalty. Penalties are committed, generally, when a team is chasing the opponent or trying to defend against an opponent that is closing in on the goal. Then, you must try to keep up and when you cannot, there is the penalty.
What changed the last 2 seasons? I suppose the 2 biggest changes were that they appointed Glen Gulatzan as their head coach when Marc Crawford was relieved of his duties and they lost Brad Richards to free agency. They wanted to be "tougher to play against" and perhaps that led to a bit more physical battle, but with a relatively small team, even that doesn't totally add up. Losing Richards is huge, as the Stars have always had a player or two who carried the puck a ton, from Sergei Zubov and Mike Modano to Richards, and now maybe keep the puck on their own sticks much less - although Jamie Benn, Derek Roy, and Jaromir Jagr all seem to have those tendencies.
Some penalties are a lack of discipline - those have to be penalties that cancel out. Fighting majors aren't a big deal because they usually don't affect man-power. But, Vernon Fiddler's penalty at Nashville is a great example of losing your temper and really hurting your team. Some are completely unnecessary - such as the worst of them all, offensive zone penalties where a battle for a puck almost 200 feet from your own goal cost you a penalty kill. Some are being at a skill disadvantage and chasing the game.
You can bet that the front office is trying to sort this puzzle out. They know what works, and frankly, some of it is counter-intuitive. Think about it - many of us think the Stars are undersized and therefore not physical enough. I personally think Shea Weber or a younger version of Chris Pronger is the type of player that I believe would send this team to the next level the quickest. But, would that help with this issue? Most likely not. That is why the Stars think that acquiring guys who could possess the puck more (Alex Goligoski, Derek Roy) is the way to cut down on this issue. But, those guys are much smaller and make your team a target for physical play the other way. Further, it also makes you less likely to be able to clear the crease when the onslaught arrives. You can see how this dispute can go around and around.
But, when you are always trying to kill off more than you get, then the percentages mean less. Your 100% is 5, and there 100% is 6 or 7. That won't be able to stand the test of time for most teams.
And that is why as they sit 8th, you can see that this is a characteristic of the Glen Gulatzan regime that he is desperately trying to change. It is a delicate balance, because you want your team to take the body and be tough to play against, so you encourage them to go out there and "hit something", but you have to do it so carefully so as not to cross that line. And once again this season, despite changing personnel, it hasn't fixed it.
Do you know that of the top 5 players to take penalties last season, 4 are gone? Steve Ott took 156 minutes, Adam Burish 76, Sheldon Souray 73, and Mike Ribeiro 66. Even Brenden Morrow, who ranked 2nd, is now not even in the top 10 for this season.
And yet, the team still takes a ton of penalties. It is an oddity that is difficult to fully comprehend. And, I want to be clear - I don't mind penalties at all, provided you give as you receive. If you are giving more than you receive, it is tougher to win games. And by extension, tougher to get into the Top 8.
Meanwhile, the Stars rolled out one of their better performances of the season on Sunday afternoon as they got better and better as the game rolled on to beat the St Louis Blues. Now, they take a few days off before their first stop in Los Angeles. From 1993 until the 1999 season, the Stars won almost every time they went to Los Angeles (or the old Forum). They were 8-1-4 in trips to L.A. until the turn of the millennium.
Since then, they have won 15 of their 37 trips into Los Angeles, and now the Kings are coming of the 1st Stanley Cup of their franchise existence. After a stop in Los Angeles on Thursday and Phoenix on Saturday, March becomes an absolute home-cooked meal. 9 of the next 11 will be played in Dallas where the Stars will either open up some of their better hockey of the season, or enter April in that usual and uncomfortable situation of desperation to make the playoffs. It is that time again.
FIGHT(s) OF THE WEEK
When I was growing up and starting to love hockey, one of the top crazy men (goons) in the sport was Mike Peluso. He was there for one reason and one reason only, to fight. In 2 years with the Blackhawks, he had a ridiculous 728 penalty minutes in just 116 games. One of the games I attended at Chicago Stadium had 4 fights between Peluso and Lyndon Byers of the Boston Bruins. It was a memorable experience to witness to say the least.
I am sad to know that the new fighting Peluso is apparently unrelated. But, Winnipeg just claimed Anthony Peluso off waivers from St Louis to basically come stir things up for the Jets. And he caught my eye on Saturday when he battled Aaron Volpatti from Washington and had a decisive win. Prior to that, in his first NHL Fight, it was former Stars' big man, Krys Barch. With 40 AHL fights under his belt, there is no question what keeps his hockey career going. As a potential division mate of the Stars next year, I thought it was at least interesting to alert you to a new potential heavyweight to keep an eye on - and an excuse for me to show these around - he is a tough customer:
GOAL OF THE WEEK:
The homer edition says this Loui Eriksson game-winner in Columbus:
But, this spin-o-rama from Zdeno Chara needs to be seen, too:
Next week, we will take more emails in Bag of Pucks from you. Get em in at firstname.lastname@example.org.