Monday January 26th, 2015

Finally, the Stars look like the team we all expected they were going to be.

Led by sublimely gifted sniper Tyler Seguin, Dallas is 11-5-2 in its last 18 games. They're fast, aggressive and lethal at five-on-five, ranking second in the league with 106 goals at even-strength. Even when they're losing, they’re dominating play with their improved puck possession numbers and fire-at-will mentality.

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If only they’d played like this earlier in the season.

Problem is, they didn’t. The Stars came out of the gates with one eye on the game and another on their summer press clippings. They were soft, inconsistent, showing little of the discipline in their own zone that coach Lindy Ruff demanded.

And so instead of delivering on the massive preseason hype, Dallas enters the unofficial second half of the schedule in 11th, four points behind the eighth-place Flames.

Four points might not seem like much, but the hole is a lot deeper than it appears. Before they can even think about Calgary, the Stars need to leapfrog both the Avalanche and the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings. The odds of that happening? Not good. According to Sportsclubstats.com, Dallas has just a 14.1% chance of making the playoff cut. To give themselves even a 50-50 shot of getting in, the Stars would need to finish the regular season on a 20-12-4 tear. That’s a winning percentage of .611—a considerable step above the .533 rate they’ve posted through the first 46 games of the season.

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If Dallas wants to return to the postseason, it will have to turn up the heat while facing a cruel schedule down the stretch. The Stars play 21 of their final 36 games on the road, starting with a crucial three-game swing this week that features stops in Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg. That’s not the obstacle it is for some clubs—at 10-8-2, Dallas is one of just six teams that is playing better on the road than at home—but it is hardly ideal, especially given that the Canadiens and the Jets are each 7-2-1 in their last 10 games.

The Stars also have 12 divisional contests remaining, a daunting task for a team that’s 3-9-5 against its Central rivals. Only the Oilers, at 2-14-3, have a worse intradivisional record so far this season.

Dallas could get some momentum from a five-game East Coast trip from March 5 to March 13, but the Stars would then have to carry any forward progress into a nasty eight-game stretch in which seven of their opponents rank ahead of them in the standings.

And then, if they survive all that, they face a brutal April in which they host the Blues (4/3), and then go on the road to face the Predators (4/4), the Sharks (4/6) and the Ducks (4/8) before closing out the regular season at home against Nashville (4/11).

For Dallas to stay in the mix, it will need something that the team hasn’t gotten all year: consistent goaltending. Kari Lehtonen has played well for short bursts, including a stretch last month that saw him win seven of eight decisions. But even as the Stars were making up ground, he’s been losing steam, registering save percentages below. 890 in six of his last seven starts. For the season he's at .904, 28th among goalies with at least 20 appearances. His. 2.94 GAA  ranks 30th.

That's not going to get it done.

The math is simple here: If Lehtonen doesn’t play All-Star-caliber hockey the rest of the way, Dallas will vacate the American Airlines Center by mid-April.

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And he'll have to get it done while dealing with the growing pains of his young defense. While Trevor Daley works his way back to health, the group has relied heavily on rookies John Klingberg (22), Jamie Oleksiak (22) and Jyrki Jokipakka (23). All three, particularly the bloodless marvel Klingberg, show flashes of being special players ... and yet all three are vulnerable to costly rookie errors. To their credit, they’ve all played key roles over the past few weeks as the Stars have cut back on shots allowed (they’re now middle of the pack in the NHL after being mired at the league’s bottom early on) and improved their possession numbers. But that hot house growth has to continue for Dallas to have a chance.

Funny how that works. The Stars came into this season as offensive darlings, but in the end it will be goal prevention that determines their fate.

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