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Monday, March 28, 2011
It's a fine line between winning and losing

By Mark Stepneski

“It’s timing. You look statistically, we’re not great offensively, we’re not at the top of the league defensively, we’re not at the top of the PK, we’re not at the top of the PP and yet all of those elements of our game have been very good. I think it’s scoring the timely goal, getting the timely save, scoring a timely power play goal and getting a timely penalty kill. It is much like comedy, the No. 1 rule is timing.”

That was Dallas Stars coach Marc Crawford’s take on his team on December 23, back when the Stars were battling for the top spot in the Western Conference. He had a point. The Stars weren’t that great statistically in a lot of the key areas, but they were winning games. They were scoring those key goals at the right time. They were getting the big save. The special teams were delivering as well, whether it was the well-timed power play goal or a much needed penalty kill.

At that time, they were the best team in the league in one-goal games with a 14-2-3 record and they were tops in the league in games that went beyond regulation with an 8-3 record.

And they continued to roll on for almost another month, sitting with a 29-13-5 record on January 20 after a 4-2 win in Edmonton.

There’s a fine line between winning and losing, and on most nights back then the Stars were on the right side of that line. Whatever it was they needed, on most nights they seemed to find it and the timing couldn't be better.

Since then the timing has been sporadic and the Stars have been on the wrong side of that fine line more often than not.

They are 9-13-5 in their last 27 games. They’ve gone 5-3-5 in one-goal games during that stretch and 2-5 in games settled beyond regulation. The ability to win the close one, a key ingredient for the Stars in the first half of the season, has been hit and miss in the second half.

In fairness, there was a pretty rough stretch around the All-Star break where there were some ugly losses, but the Stars righted the ship. Over the last 15 they have been in every game and how they’ve fared in the points department rides on those close games.

When they put together that recent 6-0-2 run, four of their six wins were of the one-goal variety. They were the team getting the late game-winner just seconds after the opposition had tied the game (Jamie Benn’s power play goal in Phoenix), the overtime winner (Brenden Morrow in Los Angeles) or the favorable bounce (Jason Williams’ game-winner in San Jose).

Since that eight-game points streak ended they’ve gone 1-3-2 and they are 0-3-2 in those close games that were one-goal contests in the final minute or two. That includes games like Saturday night’s loss in Nashville, where the Predators scored a late empty-net goal. Ditto for the recent 6-3 loss to San Jose in which the Sharks tallied two late empty-netters. Those were still close games.

During this stretch it was the Kings who scored a late game-winner just after the Stars had tied the game, the Ducks scoring late to tie thanks to a favorable bounce and then getting the win in overtime.  There were other losses where giveaways played a role or where a timely power play goal could have been a difference. To be honest, those were the same things opponents were talking about when they lost to the Stars a couple weeks earlier.

Hockey can be a funny game sometimes. The Stars have played well over the last month or so, putting together a 7-4-4 record and staying in every game they’ve played. They’ve had some stretches where things have gone their way and some stretches where things haven’t.

They’ve had some moments where players have made some big plays to get them points and times where the opportunity was there and no one could make the play.

But there are eight games left and they are still just two points out of the final playoff spot and three points out of seventh. There are still plenty of games left and a workable number of points as far as a deficit.

“We’ve done a lot of good things over the last two weeks, but for whatever reason, it’s not going our way at certain points,” center Brad Richards said after Saturday’s loss in Nashville. “If we stay positive, everything could go our way the last eight games and you get all those little breaks or those little turning points and they go your way. You never know what can happen. We’re going to stick with it.”

Quotable

“The late giveaways and things like that. The inability to close games recently. We’ve been a team most of the year that’s been able to come from behind and ultimately win games. We’ve shown a struggle to maintain our composure in games recently. But this group is a very resilient group. I truly believe in them and I think that, even though we’re on the outside looking in and it feels like the sky is falling, we’re going to find a way.”

Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, discussing the team’s recent slide on Sports Sunday with Mike Doocy