A year ago the Dallas Stars were an elite team, finishing atop the Western Conference with 109 points. Only the Washington Capitals, with 120 points, were better than Dallas, which would lose out in Round 2 as the Stars’ goaltending imploded against St. Louis.
On Tuesday night in Edmonton, these same Stars arrived a full 13 points out of a playoff spot. They were dead on arrival, then quit long before the final siren was sounded.
The game ended in a 7-1 embarrassment, with Dallas’ fourth line accounting for its only goal. It was avert-your-eyes uncomfortable, a once powerful team on its knees, simply unwilling to compete.
“That might be the worst game I have coached as a Dallas Star,” said head coach Lindy Ruff. “We need a lot more from the leaders of our team. They are the guys who can make the difference at this time. We have had some tough breaks, but they are the guys the responsibility lies on.”
The moment Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse sifted an unobstructed, bad-angle wrist shot past Antti Niemi to give Edmonton a 3-0 lead early in Period 2, it was as if every Dallas skater thought to themselves, “I’ve seen this movie before,” and simply called it a night with 38 minutes left in the game.
“As soon as the third one went in, our team went dead,” Ruff admitted.
If you know anything about hockey players, you know that this Dallas team came to training camp simply waiting for the project to fail. It was in Round 2 last year when the Stars could have beaten the Blues with even average goaltending, but the tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Niemi was far below average, with Lehtonen coming apart at the seams in losing Game 7 at home.
When general manager Jim Nill and Stars ownership refused to buy out one of the goalies and bring in some help, it was a clear signal to the Stars roster that this season didn’t matter. That they were unwilling to spend the money necessary to fix a glaring issue.
It provided an excuse for failure that the Stars have latched on to. Meanwhile, poor Ruff replaced his starter for the 13th time in 69 games Tuesday night. He’ll likely be fired at season’s end.
“It seems like every time we turn around right now the puck is in our net or going towards it,” said veteran winger Patrick Sharp.
You won’t find many NHLers who will publicly blame their goalies, including Sharp, but in this case it’s a tragic waste of a season in Dallas.
Niemi entered the game with an .895 save percentage, then proceeded to allow five goals on 20 Oilers shots. Lehtonen, who in 13 NHL seasons has seldom figured out how to string together seven solid periods of hockey, entered the game with a .902. The Oilers put two of nine shots behind the leaky Finn.
“I thought we left our goalies out to dry,” said Dallas centre Tyler Seguin, nobly. “It’s unacceptable. We are proud to put on that jersey, but we are not acting like it right now. It starts with the leadership. We need to step up, especially early in games.”
Ruff would agree, and made that point clearly in a caustic post-game address.
“We need more out of the leaders of this team. They are the guys who have to set the direction and go out and make the difference. That didn’t happen tonight.”
This was another classic case of role reversal, in a town that’s nervously watched its club lose three straight home games while the rival Flames have won 10 straight to pass Edmonton in the standings.
The Stars, a team that has beaten Edmonton like a drum for most of the past 20 years, is now the club that is winding out a failed season, 13 points removed from the playoffs on March 14. The Oilers toyed with Dallas, the way those old Stars of Mike Modano had done to the Oilers of yore, holding intermission leads of 2-0 and 5-1.
The Oilers had six goals before Connor McDavid even had a point, getting goals from seven different players for the first time since Nov. 19, 2011 (a 9-2 win over Chicago). McDavid potted the final goal to hold on to a tie in the scoring lead with Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who had three points in a 4-2 win over Montreal Tuesday.
Edmonton pulled to within a point of both Anaheim and Calgary. All three clubs have 13 games left in their regular season.
The stretch will be as fun in Edmonton as it will be painful in Dallas.
Now, isn’t that a change?