There was buzz surrounding the Stars. And why not, given the firepower up front? Sure, there remained questions about the team’s defense, but the sense was the Stars were trending up in the tough Western Conference.
Few would have predicted only four wins in their opening 14 games this season, with the Stars currently on a seven-game winless streak (0-5-2) that has them searching for answers.
"Pretty much we just have to man up and get the job done," star captain Jamie Benn told ESPN.com Monday. "Obviously we’re in a tough stretch here, we’ve got to find a way out of it and string some wins together."
It’s not like the Stars are being completely blown out of the rink. But they’re finding ways to lose a number of close games.
"We’ve been tied or had the lead in every game except for one this season," Stars general manager Jim Nill told ESPN.com Monday. "We either take a penalty at the wrong time or make a mistake, which ends up in our net. We’ve had chances to go up two or three goals on teams and haven’t. Miss an empty net here and there. And it’s always come back to haunt us.
"Now guys start squeezing their sticks, they’re a little nervous. But we’ll get out of it, we’ll get out of it."
There’s just too much talent on this team not to figure things out. During the seven-game stretch, they’ve been outshot only twice. They outshot San Jose 40-29 Saturday night, but blew a game in which they led 3-1 after 40 minutes, giving up a four-goal third period.
"You look at the last game, we have a chance to put them away, we just can’t find a way to get that extra goal or two," Benn said. "Then we have some breakdown in the third and don’t play the right way in the defensive zone. Just kind of throwing games away. We got to stick together as a group here and grind out a win."
It starts Tuesday night in Glendale against the Arizona Coyotes. Who knew this game would carry so much weight?
Thing is, deep down Nill was concerned before the puck was even dropped that people were elevating the Stars to lofty places before they had proven themselves.
And that’s not revisionist history. During a preseason chat with us, he talked about the added pressure of expectations and measuring up to them.
"[Coach] Lindy [Ruff] and I talked, I didn't think we had a great training camp because of that," Nill said Monday. "We pushed Anaheim in the playoffs but we didn’t finish. Everybody thought we were there now but we hadn’t done anything yet. We added some good pieces, and we’re a better team, but you still have to go out and do it."
One member of a rival Western Conference coaching staff said the Stars need to find a better balance between wanting to score all those goals and being responsible defensively.
"The focus every year for every team starts out on creating offense but the teams who figure out checking are the ones who have success; that’s why Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago have won, they strike a balance," said the coach via text message.
The Stars thought they could score themselves out of trouble, but it doesn’t always work that way. As a result, they are 29th in goals-against per game (3.50), so there’s lots of work to be done there. But it’s not just the beleaguered defensive corps. It’s about five-man units doing a better job in their zone, both in coverage and in transition.
"Yeah, no, it’s everybody," Benn said. "We have to work well as a five-man unit out there. We have to have go out there and have the determination and the desperation to win that shift. The whole team has to be accountable for what they do on the ice."
Perhaps looking for a spark, the Stars called up 22-year-old Swedish rookie defenseman John Klingberg, who was second on their AHL team in scoring with 12 points (4-8) in 10 games.
"He had hip surgery in the summer so we didn’t want to rush him," Nill said. "I think it was important for him to go to the American League (AHL) where he got his game going and got used to the North American game. We wanted to get him up here and see, does he address some of the issues as far as moving the puck well? He’s a good puck-mover."
Nill will no doubt try to bolster his defense before the March trade deadline, but that’s easier said than done. So many teams are on the lookout for defensive help. For now, the answers have to come from within.
The Stars have to show character and get their season back on track.
"You go through ups and downs throughout the year," Benn said. "Obviously we’re going through a little adversity here. I think it’s about sticking together. It’s going to be frustrating at times but we just have to dig deep here and find a way to get two points."
To nobody’s surprise, forward Rene Bourque cleared waivers Monday. Given that he has another year at a $3.33 million cap hit ($2.5 million salary), teams weren’t lining up to pick him up.
The Canadiens were open to moving him during the summer, but couldn’t find an interested team.
Bourque actually had some good moments last spring during Montreals’ playoff run to the Eastern Conference finals, but was back to his inconsistent self once the puck dropped this season. The Canadiens finally lost patience and sent him down their AHL affiliate in Hamilton.
Also, rookie Jiri Sekac has replaced Bourque in Montreal’s lineup on the third line, another reason Bourque was sent down.
With Bourque down in the minors, the Habs shave about $925,000 off their salary-cap number.