1. 4.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

To Everything, There is a Season

Turn, Turn, Turn. Right?

On Goal Analysis sees the Dallas Stars have fallen below the threshold on the Playoff Qualifying Curve (PQC) and OGA now calls them OUT of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (Tee Time).

But don't tell the team that news. They don't want to hear it and nor should they.

Obviously, the Stars know the rough road that lies ahead as they host the Vancouver Canucks tonight at the American Airline Center for the first of their remaining 10 games to the 2008/09 NHL season. With points at their premium, the Stars hope to fasten together 3 wins, one game at a time, in their 3-game home stand and then see where they go from there.

From the Stars website today, "The key, according to Mike Ribeiro, is focusing on the game ahead of you, rather than the big picture. Staying focused and staying positive are also vital components needed for a solid effort this week that will hopefully produce three much-needed wins. Don’t look at the rest of the season, look at the next game, the next period, the next shift. Give 100 percent every single minute you’re on the ice, and the success will come."

And it is absolutely true. However, this is what various players in a Stars' sweater have been saying for the better part of the past 3 weeks when they declared themselves to be 'in the playoffs now', fighting for the right to compete for the Cup. And if they have been measured one game, one period, one shift at a time, one must admit they have fallen short of the success they seek especially coming off a 3-game road trip (all losses) billed as their chance to get back into the race.

In other words, if this had been the playoffs, they would already be eliminated.

Yet the team is determined to not let the frustration creep in and affect their fading hopes of stealing that 8th and final seed in the west. The Stars, as they have proven this season, are true competitors and are not ready to give up the ghost. Despite missing key players for large chunks of the season (Morrow, Zubov, Lehtinen, Richards) and despite the on and off-ice distraction of the Sean Avery Show, the Stars have given their all through the ups and downs. There are things to build on for next year.

For example, Mike Ribeiro has been able to play in every game so far this season and leads the team in points with 68 (19G, 49A). Breakout player, Loui Eriksson, who had 14 goals last season, already has 33 goals for this campaign and is one of the few players on this team with a double-digit plus/minus stat (+12). James Neal is 2nd in the NHL in rookie scoring with 23 goals on the season. And Steve Ott, battling a broken hand for the middle part of the season, is having a career-year with 37 points (16G, 21A) as he does his part to carry the team on his back through an injury-ridden season.

But no player (or team in the NHL for that matter) will pointedly blame the 'injury ninja' (thank you, the Program) or other distractions for a team's struggle. Stars' goalie, Marty Turco paints it well with his quote on the Stars' site today :
“They’re numerous, and we could scroll down a long list of excuses that could be made [for missing the postseason], but this team is not all about that,” Marty Turco said. “As openly criticized as we are of the position we’re in, we’re not willing to really accept defeat through excuses. We’re going to see how it all plays out over the next 10 games.”
So, without 'accepting defeat through excuses', let's take a moment to examine a few random thoughts about why OGA believes, although hard-fought, this season will not end with the Stars sneaking into the playoffs:
  • SERGEI ZUBOV. No, not only because he has missed all but 10 games this regular season, but because the Stars have, unfortunately, no real replacement (as if there could be) for one of the game's best puck-moving defensemen. Zubie sees the ice and the game at the same speed and with a similar vision to the Great One. Anybody who has watched the Stars (in seasons past) was familiar with his nonchalant, heads-up exit from the defensive zone into neutral ice, carrying the puck gently on his magnetic stick, leaving fore-checkers in his wake like children who have fallen off the inner tube behind the boat on a Texas lake any given summer. Zubov has been a fixture in Dallas for over a decade (since 1996) and I am sure this team is already thinking about what can be done in the off-season to come to terms with the fact he will have to retire at some point (38 years old). The hopes of last season wherein Matt Niskanen was given the chance to 'audition' for this role are all but vanished as the mentorship Zubie would have provided was shortened by injuries this season as well as the previous campaign. One has to wonder if the UFA Jay Bouwmeester will be notified this summer that the climates in Florida and Dallas are very similar when it comes to weather...and hotter in Dallas when it comes to hockey.
  1. Marty Turco started the season with a near 4.0GAA. Then shut the door and opened the window for a winning streak in the middle portion of the season - the 2nd period, as it were - giving the Stars a chance to win every game in December, January and February as he regained his former composure and confidence. And win the Stars did...including 12 of 17 in January and February. But come the 'third period' (Late Feb, March), the Stars are struggling again to win 2 in a row and instead have lost 5 consecutive games in this time-frame.
  2. And speaking of 3rd periods, the Stars simply cannot score goals in the final frame of a game (28th in the league with only 56 goals in the third period) and only ONCE this season have they come back to win a game in the 3rd period when trailing. This is complete reverse from the Stars' teams of previous seasons wherein this club owned the 3rd period, outscoring their opponent and shutting them down.
  3. The Stars, since the late 90s, have been one of the hardest teams to score against with Eddie Belfour's reign transitioning to Marty Turco's tenure back-stopping a disciplined and tight defense. One of the best shut-down defenses in the NHL has now become 23rd in the league this season in Goals Against (3.03). True, Dallas' defensive corps are young and the past two seasons are providing the experience the players need to adjust but to observers, this Stars team is almost foreign in their defensive play. This is sure to be addressed during the off-season.
  • THE POWER PLAY. The Stars have scored 10 goals on their previous 90 Power Play opportunities. Enough said.
Over the past 2 weeks, many quotes from Coach Tippett and the Stars players have one common theme - we need everybody to play their top game in order to win. Since they have not been winning much over the past few weeks, the flip side here is the belief that not all players have been giving their top game every night. Games labeled as 'must wins' have looked like 'must get throughs' once the Stars fall behind on the scoreboard. Although the players and coaches will not blame injuries for the frustrations of this season, it may be true the frustrations, and increased responsibilities placed on young players, have snuck into the mission objective, unbeknownst to this team.

And as a fan, it's tough to see such an uphill climb at the end of the season for a playoff berth. Especially knowing how many 'knocks' this team has endured this season. Missing a true leader like Brendan Morrow, their captain, for all but 18 games has been frustrating. Having the majority of Dallas' hockey attention (from the rest of the NHL fan-base) devoted to a term like 'sloppy seconds' has been frustrating. Getting Brad Richards back after weeks of nursing, healing, rehabbing a broken left wrist only to watch him break his right one in the first game back is simply too much to endure.

But the next 10 Stars games should be fun to watch as they stay on message and stay focused on battling. 'Frustrating' can also be an opportunity for growth and character building. But the team must stare face to face with the battles of a long season and try not to let the 'speed bumps' get in the way of the race. As coach Dave Tippett stated,
“That’s something that you can let it eat you, or you can attack it,” Head Coach Dave Tippett said about the feelings of frustration. “I’ve always been a big believer in that you look at things like that head on and find solutions for them. It’s frustrating not winning hockey games when points are so big right now, but you’ve got to find a way to beat that and get on top of it. It can eat away at you and you’ve got to find ways to get it out of your system and bring the positive in and use the positive energy to get the results you want.”
Here, Here, coach. OGA doesn't mind you proving us wrong on our call - a potential OGA Shot off the Post. In fact, we wouldn't mind buying a few playoff tickets and do what we can to help support the economy. (The beer's not cheap, but neither is success.)

I saw one commenter on a blog suggest an Avery Curse. Get real. How about 'what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger'? So although OGA says the Stars playoff hopes are dead at Tee Time for this season, we reserve the right to believe they can only come back stronger.

But perhaps not this season. For everything, there is a season...and what a season it has been.

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