Monday, February 10, 2014 - Stars at the Break In The Playoffs!

With 24 games to go, but none of them in the next 2 weeks, the Stars wait for the spectacle of the Olympics to pass with no unsavory developments (Stay healthy, Dallas representatives!).

For they have dug in and reeled off result after result since their debacle 3 weeks ago tonight in Nashville where many of us wondered if all was lost as that capped off a 10-game run of form that included just 1 win.  And during that time, the Stars fell like a rock from the edge of the playoffs all the way back down to the 11th spot in the conference, and a full 9 points off the final playoff spot.

Now, I don't know where you stand on these matters, but to me, a 9-point deficit in late January spells a perfect time to pull on the brakes and sell off your veteran players to play for next year.  That might seemed a harsh stance to take at roughly the 50-game mark, but sometimes if you are the first to declare yourself a seller, you can get more for what you are selling.

But, the Stars returned home the very next night, a 4-0 spanking of one of the team's they were chasing - Minnesota - and basically the Stars haven't stopped reeling of results since.  Points in 8 of their last 9 games with 6 regulation wins, 2 OT losses, and the only night in which they didn't gather at least a point to keep moving north in the standings was a home game against the Colorado Avalanche which might have been one of their better performances of the entire streak.

So, how long does it take to catch a team with a 9-point lead?  Evidently, not long, as the Stars passed Vancouver on Saturday night when the Stars beat Phoenix for the 2nd time in the week and the Canucks lost again.  The Canucks surely aided the effort by losing their 7th game in a row and have pretty much remained at where they were 3 weeks ago, but I suppose it offers some perspective on how big a lead a team has if you can make up a 9-point deficit in 9 games with 14 points gained to Vancouver's 4.

Of course, the situation is much deeper than enjoying Vancouver's tailspin timed up perfectly with Dallas' rise from the dead.  There are still 24 games for Dallas to play (22 for Vancouver).  The roller coaster ride isn't over.  Oh, and most importantly, it isn't those two teams.  It is Los Angeles, Vancouver, Minnesota, Phoenix, Winnipeg, and Nashville all fighting over 3 playoff spots.

7 teams for 3 spots with 24 games to go.  Do the math.

Let's look at it from a team-by-team basis:

TEAMS WHO ARE IN THE WEST BUT OUT OF REACH:  St Louis, Chicago, Anaheim, Colorado, and San Jose are not sweating March/April at all.  They all have at least 15 points on Dallas and the top 3 have a 20 point lead meaning they could basically not return from the Olympics for a month (Spring Break!) and still make the playoffs.

TEAMS WHO ARE IN THE WEST BUT OUT OF REACH IN THE OTHER DIRECTION:  Edmonton and Calgary are both well aware of how hopeless their season is this year.

And that leaves the 7 who are resting for the stretch drive.  Let's spend a moment on each one:

(6) LOS ANGELES:  59 games/68 points - The Kings are in the middle of a streak where they are just as happy as Vancouver that the Olympic break has arrived so they can stop losing.  They have lost 8 of their last 10, all of them in regulation, and many of them on home ice.  During that run they have scored only 13 goals in 10 games and Anze Kopitar is the only player with any level of point production during that stretch.  The Power Play is a mess, the penalty kill is a mess and the Kings look like they have lost their groove.  The good news is that they are still in front of the pack and are guaranteed the 6 seed as the 3rd best team in the Pacific under the new format.  The other piece of good news is that most people agree that they will find their form again because they are a really strong team.

(7) MINNESOTA:  59 games/69 points - The Wild are looking like a strong candidate for the top wildcard spot and have outplayed just about every team in the league since the calendar turned to 2014.  On January 1, they were actually behind Dallas in the standings, but have put on a 40 day run that has them at 11-4-2 over that run and has left the pack in the dust.  They are really playing solid hockey and since they are only losing 1 game every 10 days, it looks like the Wild are going to be in the playoffs.  The beauty with Minnesota right now is scoring depth as Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, and Zach Parise on the top line are not being expected to do it all.  They are getting production from Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley, too.  This is causing teams to have to score on Minnesota 3 times to beat them and that doesn't happen much.

And if you believe those 2 spots are pretty well set, then we are talking about these 5 teams for 1 spot.

(8) DALLAS: 58 games/64 points - We have talked plenty about how the Stars have started scoring on the power play and have limited all shots on goal by their opponents to well below 30 on a nightly basis.  But, clearly, the fact that they were so awful in the first 3 weeks in January (1-8-1) and then so red hot in the last 3 weeks (6-1-2) makes us wonder a bit which Dallas team we will see over the final 24 games of the stretch.  As it stands at this very moment, they hold a tie-breaker over the Coyotes so they are in, but given that there are 5 teams within 4 points, there is no time to do anything but keep winning.  The great news is that even though he was in a goal scoring "drought", the team is still led by Tyler Seguin in points in 2014 as he has 17 in the new year, with Jamie Benn at 16.  But, they have been aided with plenty of help and the 18-year old Val Nichushkin has 6 goals in January-February and that trails only Jamie Benn.  Keep digging, boys.

(9) PHOENIX: 58 games/64 points - The Coyotes are that one team that you don't want to depend upon for losing a game down the stretch because it sure seems like nobody grinds out results like Dave Tippett and his crew in the desert.  The Stars had to take 4 of 4 points from them last week to close the gap they had built up over Dallas, and they did.  However, the two teams are in a deadlock with the same number of games to play and points in the bank.  The stretch run will be fantastic and if there is a team that should not be undersold, it would be a team that figures it out almost every year.  And we all know that the Coyotes have been pretty solid in that department over the Tippett run.

(10) VANCOUVER: 60 games/63 points - The Canucks have really been a spectacle in the last month as the NHL's ironman Henrik Sedin has missed a bunch of games with a rib injury after being crosschecked by Martin Hanzal of Phoenix.  Then, of course, the Canucks lost their coach, John Tortorella, after the line brawl incident against Calgary 3 weeks ago.  Well, that hasn't really worked out very well for Vancouver which has now lost 11 of their last 14 games and went from 9 points up on Dallas on Jan 1 to 1 point behind at the Olympic break.  They also have played 60 games so the Stars and Coyotes will have that advantage when play restarts.  You certainly do not want to count them out, as this time will give Sedin more time to get his body right, but Vancouver looks really lost without a compass at the moment.

(11) WINNIPEG: 60 games/62 points - If it is possible for a Canadian team to have a story under-reported, it would seem that there should be more talk about this insane run that has occurred over the last month since the Jets decided to fire Claude Noel and hire Paul Maurice to coach the Jets.  Since the firing on January 12th, the Jets are 9-3-1 and have absolutely dominated the scoreboard with a ton of goals.  People have always talked about he talent on the roster, but it had never really resulted in wins.  But, Maurice knows his way around the NHL circuit for sure and looks like they have caught lightning in a bottle.  The odd part is that Winnipeg was dead and gone before this rally and still may not be considered a real playoff contender by some, but discount this Winnipeg team at your own peril.  They have done much of their damage with Maurice on the road, and we all know what advantage their rink can represent.

(12) NASHVILLE: 59 games/60 points - And then those Predators.  Like the Coyotes, they get results because of their ability to play their system and depend on grinding out results that aren't pretty.  In fact, they have points in 7 of their last 9 games (since their spanking of Dallas on January 20), but have been outscored over that stretch 27-25.  They have nobody with over 40 points, but 5 players with at least 30 points.  The Stars, for example, have 2 players - Seguin and Benn with 50 points, but nobody else over 30.  The Predators are balanced and confident in their system, and if Pekka Rinne returns down the stretch, things could get very interesting.  As it stands, they appear to be on the outside looking in at the present.

It is great to say you have the 8th spot at the Olympic break, but in the big scheme of things, it is merely a landmark along the way.  The Stars have the inside path (ever so barely), but also have 5 years of demons to deal with as they try to strike down that wall that has killed the organization's proud run of excellence through 2008.  It should be noted that Dallas, Phoenix, and Nashville still have cap room to deal until that March 5th deadline if they want to add a piece to go for the present tense, without sacrificing the future.

This is going to be excellent theater, but for now, grab you favorite flag and enjoy the Olympics.  The players who are there will avoid looking at the standings for a few weeks and try to achieve their dreams as we hope for their health.  Those who aren't in the Olympics will find a beach and get off their tired feet for 10 days before practices fire up again.

There is optimism in the air and hope rolling in.  24 games to go and I assume they will be filled with tension and the normal roller coaster of emotions.

5 teams for 1 spot?  It is never easy around here.

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