We're finally heading into the home stretch of the hockey season and lo and behold, the Stars are sitting first place in the Pacific division and third place in the Western Conference.
Last season, Dallas went down to the wire in their playoff hunt, ultimately missing out as the Stars lost the very last game of the regular season against the Minnesota Wild. It looks like the race will be just as close this season so it's time for a good ole schedule and playoff chance breakdown.
While Dallas is in a good spot at the moment, there's a jumble of seven teams that are within five points of them (three of those teams are division rivals). I'll be referring to that jumble of teams (Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles, Colorado and Calgary) as the bubble teams so I don't have to type them over and over again.
In breaking down how the Western Conference race will go, three keys really jump out at me:
Key #1 - The Penalty Kill
The PK situation for the Stars has been one of the biggest reason for their recent winning streak. Dallas has gone 23 of 24 in the past eight games and has damn near dominating in preventing teams from even getting good chances at scoring. Dallas is one of the most penalized teams in the league (5th most with 243 times on the penalty kill) so the PK situation is essential to the success of this club.
Sheldon Souray, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, and Mark Fistric have really stepped up their games on the PK and have really kept the slot clear of opponents.The forwards have been throwing themselves to block shots and have been aggressive in attacking the puck. The Stars have actually been getting some good short handed chances lately and Loui Eriksson scored a shortie recently.
Key #2 - Goalies, goalies, goalies
It should be pretty obvious, but a huge key to the Stars success will be the goalie situation. Kari Lehtonen has been the MVP of this team for nearly the entire year and that won't change for the rest of the year. Dallas needs him to be great if they hope to make the playoffs.
This Stars team has been really bad with turnovers and has put Lehtonen in bad situations a lot this season. Those turnovers don't look like they're stopping anytime soon so stay on your toes Kari.
It's not just Lehtonen though. Richard Bachman has been just as good this season and Dallas needs him to play well when he's called upon. He's beaten the Rangers, Canucks and Blackhawks this season, all on the road.
Key #3 - The Schedule (from 3-8-2012 till the end of the season)
Dallas Stars (3rd in the West, 77 pts)
The Stars have 15 games left in the season (eight home and seven road). While it does cover a lot of miles, it isn't too taxing as Dallas has consistent home stands and road trips (including a four game home stand which is immediately followed by a four game road trip). There's no back and forth between the home and road that can really tire a team out.
The Stars are 18-12-3 at home and 18-14-2 on the road this year, so there's no real upside or downside to the remaining schedule. Seven of the remaining games are against the bubble teams, including three games against the San Jose Sharks. Against teams in the bubble so far this season, the Stars are 11-10-1. Dallas only one game left against the Eastern Conference (against the Jets) so nearly all of these games have huge implications.
The big games left on the schedule for the Stars: Three games against the Sharks, two against the Flames and two against the Canucks. Dallas can essentially put the Sharks and Flames out of the playoffs by taking care of business against those two teams. There's two back-to-backs left for the Stars, March 13 and 14 on the road against the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets and a killer on March 30 and 31 on the road against the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks.
Dallas might have to hope that the playoff hopes for the season does not rest on the final game again this year as they play the St. Louis Blues (possibly the best team in the league). Dallas has lost both game to the Blues since Hitchcock took over the team.
Chicago Blackhawks (6th in the West, 79 pts)
Chicago has 14 games left this season (eight home and six road). The Blackhawks have it tough because they need a lot of help from other teams. Chicago only has two games left this season against the bubble teams, a home game against the Kings and a road game against the Stars.
Chicago starts the home stretch of the season tough with a home game against the New York Rangers and ends it tough on the road against the Detroit Red Wings. In between those are two games against the Blues, two against the Nashville Predators and one more game against the Canucks. That makes seven of the remaining 14 games against the top five teams in the NHL.
Compound the difficult schedule with the recent loss of captain Jonathan Toews (who may or may not have a concussion) and very shaky goaltending and the Hawks are in for the long haul the rest of the year. Chicago will be doing a lot of scoreboard watching and I honestly don't believe Dallas has to worry about this team too much.
The Hawks are 22-7-4 at home, 14-18-3 on the road and 8-12-2 against the other bubble teams this year.
Dallas will play them once more on March 16 at home. The Stars are 2-1-0 against them this season.
Phoenix Coyotes (7th in the West, 75 pts)
Travel-wise, the Yotes have a very similar schedule to the Stars. Phoenix has 15 games left (eight home and seven road) and like Dallas, a four game home stand and a four game road trip left to play.
Phoenix has been in trouble recently, dropping its last four games and things don't get much easier. They have two games left against the Blues and one left against the Canucks, teams that Phoenix has beat only once this season in five games.
The Yotes also has seven games left against the bubble teams and just like Dallas, three of those are against the Sharks.
Phoenix is 17-12-4 at home, 16-13-5 on the road and a solid 15-6-3 against the bubble teams this season.
Dallas plays Phoenix once more on March 20 at home. The Stars are 2-2-1 against them this season.
San Jose Sharks (8th in the West, 74 pts)
I'm honestly not sure what to make of the Sharks. One month ago, they were one of the most dangerous teams in the league, but since the start of February, the Sharks have only won five of 17 games. These Sharks are toothless at moment.
San Jose has 17 games left this season (eight home and nine road) and a shocking majority of those will be against division opponents. The schedule makers made it difficult as 11 of the last 17 games are against other Pacific Division teams (Three each against the Stars, Kings and Coyotes) and only four of those are at home.
The Sharks have 11 games left against bubble teams and only one game is against an Eastern Conference foe (the Boston Bruins). No team has a better chance to decide its own playoff fate than the Sharks.
San Jose is 19-11-3 at home, 14-13-5 on the road and 12-5-2 against bubble teams this season. If Dallas takes care of business against the Sharks the rest of the year, the Stars should make the playoffs.
The Stars have three games left against the Sharks this year. They have lost all three of the previous matchups by a combined 14-5 score.
Los Angeles Kings (9th in the West, 74 pts)
The offensively challenged Kings have suddenly found their scoring touch recently. LA has 13 goals in the last three games, something that LA might have struggled to do for an entire month earlier this season.
The Kings have 16 games left in the season (seven home and nine road). Five of those games come against bubble teams, though three of those will be against the San Jose Sharks. The Kings will have to do a lot of scoreboard watching if they don't do well against the Sharks the rest of the year.
Aside from those bubble games, the Kings also play the Red Wings twice and the Blues, Predators and Canucks once more this season.
LA is 17-13-4 at home, 14-10-8 on the road and 11-8-7 (damn overtime points) against bubble teams this season.
Dallas has no games left against the Kings this season.
Colorado Avalanche 10th in the West, 74 pts)
The Avs are a team that most Stars fans have overlooked, but Colorado is also right there in the playoff race. They're lurking on the edge of the top eight seeds and have been sneaking up the standings.
Colorado has 14 games left this season (six home and eight road) but only four of those will be against other bubble teams.
There's not a whole lot to note about the Avs' remaining schedule. They play some bad teams (Edmonton and Columbus) and the best in the league (NYR, Vancouver x2, Nashville x2). If they play well the rest of the season, they could sneak in at the 8th spot. They receive some bad news though as Matt Duchene will miss most likely the rest of the year with an ankle injury. He hasn't had a great season, but is still an important cog on that team.
Colorado is 19-15-1 at home, 16-14-3 on the road and 11-10-1 against bubble teams this season.
Calgary Flames (11th in the West, 72 pts)
The Flames are the last real team that's in the playoff race (I left the Ducks out. They have 68 pts). They have 15 games left this season (nine home and 6 road) and seven of those will be against other bubble teams. I though they were knocked out of it about a week ago, but they've hung in there.
Aside from those bubble games, the Flames actually have a pretty simple schedule (though they do play the Canucks twice). They still have the Wild, Blue Jackets, Oilers, Jets and Ducks on the schedule. If Calgary takes care of business against those teams, they have a serious shot at passing the Stars if Dallas drops out of the division lead.
Calgary is 17-10-5 at home, 13-15-7 on the road and a stellar 11-4-5 against bubble teams this season. They're on the outskirts, but Stars fans need to keep an eye on this team.
All these keys are just words though. When it all comes down to it, the Stars just have to take care of business. They're in the drivers seat right now and it's all the other teams chasing them. They have to show up in the games against the San Jose Sharks and can't fall into another rut look they have gone into at points this season. They have to come out in these games determined and take control. Don't allow the opponent to bully them.
Play like determined men and this team will finally see the playoffs again.