Way up, way down and back up again. Welcome to the Dallas Stars rollercoaster.
The 2020 bubble playoff tournament brought magic for the Stars, who slew two giants, the Colorado Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights, before finally running out of steam in the final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That season ended on a painful note, with a veteran team featuring a handful of thirtysomethings falling just short. And in the months that followed, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Murphy’s Stars. Top center Tyler Seguin required hip surgery after clearly playing at nowhere near 100 percent for the entire post-season. Starting goaltender Ben Bishop needed surgery to heal a knee injury that knocked him out of the playoffs early. With RFAs Roope Hintz, Radek Faska and Denis Gurianov needing new contracts and the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 million, GM Jim Nill had to devote most of Dallas' cap space to that trio and had no financial flexibility to pursue any notable upgrades.
So Dallas entered 2020-21 with an aging core of veteran forwards, lots of wear on the tires after playing through the end of the bubble tournament, still minus its top forward and goaltender, unable to acquire outside help…and then the COVID-19 outbreak hit, shelving the Stars for the first week of 2020-21 and condensing an already-condensed schedule. By March 7, they’d lost 11 times in a 13-game stretch, depressing their record to 7-8-5. They sat 12 points back of the Chicago Blackhawks for the fourth and final playoff position in the temporarily realigned Central Division. Every grim prophecy for Dallas' season was playing out as predicted. The Stars were trying to compete with two hands tied behind their backs. And yet: they had six games in hand, enough to provide some theoretical hope.
Six weeks later, after ousting the Detroit Red Wings Tuesday night, the Stars are reborn. They’ve won four straight games and eight of 12. They’ve passed Chicago in the standings and sit one point behind the Nashville Predators for fourth with two games in hand. Dallas’ .556 points percentage ranks ahead of Nashville’s.
“We knew we needed to have a successful homestand to get us back in the hunt,” coach Rick Bowness told reporters on a Zoom call after Monday’s win. “It wasn’t that long ago we were 12 points back. Now we’re one. It’s not like the schedule’s going to be any easier because of the nine road games we have coming up. But we’ve known all along it was coming. So the most important thing is, step by step, get back in the hunt. We’re back in the hunt, and now we’ve got to manage it as best we can.”
Overcoming the injuries to Seguin and Bishop, not to mention Alexander Radulov and, this week, top scorer Hintz and No. 1 blueliner Miro Heiskanen, the Stars have branded their season with ‘Next Man Up’ T-shirts. As Bowness told reporters Monday night, the Stars figured injuries were inevitable with their compressed schedule, so they’re shrugging them off. How have they defied the odds with such a depleted lineup and gruelling slate of games?
Hintz’s incredible breakout year has been a driving force, and the already-career-high 37 points in 32 games don’t tell the full story. His 2.74 points per 60 minutes place him 11th in the NHL (min. 400 minutes), between Mitch Marner and Leon Draisaitl. Producing at a rate even higher than Hintz has been his regular linemate, the sensational rookie Jason Robertson. How good has Robertson been on Hintz's left wing? Robertson sits third in the NHL in points per 60 behind Artemi Panarin and Connor McDavid and third in primary assists per 60 behind McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon. And Robertson isn’t your typical rookie handling insulated matchups. Because he plays high in the lineup, his most common opponents include the likes of Seth Jones, Mattias Ekholm, Victor Hedman and Jaccob Slavin.
“He’s a smart player,” said Stars center Jason Dickinson, who set up Robertson for a goal Monday night, on the post-game Zoom call. “He knows how to find the open ice and where to go and find the puck. He likes to have the puck, so he’s yelling. It’s easy when he’s talking. I can just kind of hear where he is and know he’s going to be there. He’s playing really great hockey.
Even wiith Seguin and Radulov out, key internal improvements have helped the Stars slot 14th in the NHL in offense, actually up from 26th last season, and they boast the No. 6 power play in the league at 23.9 percent. The spike in scoring hasn’t come at the expense of defensive play, either. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Dallas allows the second-fewest shots on goal, the second-fewest scoring chances, the second-fewest high-danger chances and owns the second lowest expected goals against per 60 minutes. That’s how it works when you have a D-corps led by Heiskanen, John Klingberg and Esa Lindell. And the chances that do get through are being turned away more often than not. Another breakout Dallas rookie, goaltender Jake Oettinger, has gradually earned a bigger share of the starter’s load from Anton Khuodbin. Delivering on the promise that made him a first-round pick in 2017, Oettinger has the third-highest save percentage at 5-on-5 among 28 netminders who have logged 1,000 or more minutes this season. Among that group, he’s top-five in goals saved above average per 60.
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together: The Dallas Stars have overcome injuries and illness to rally in the Central because their next generation of young players is contributing so dramatically. This team never lost its Cup-contender tendencies in terms of sound defensive play. So what happens if Dallas squeaks into the No. 4 playoff spot just in time to get Seguin back? The Stars’ D-corps can hang with anyone’s, their goaltending looks strong with or without Bishop, and the young guns have taken over as their marquee scorers. Suddenly, they look like a tough out if they can overcome a challenging end-of-season schedule that includes nine games on the road and seven games against teams ahead of them in the standings.
Say the Florida Panthers, minus top defenseman Aaron Ekblad and with Sergei Bobrovsky’s wobbly playoff track record in net, win the No. 1 Central seed. Would you bet on them to beat a fourth-seeded Dallas team that went to the final last year and has more scoring punch this time around?
Don’t sleep on the Stars if they make the playoffs.