Bill Meltzer: Star Gazing: Stars Fall Again on Home Ice, Drop 6-4 Decision to Canes

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Over the course of last season, the Dallas Stars established a pretty significant home ice advantage right up until the late collapse in Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference Quarterfinals. Including the postseason, the Stars went 25-12-7 (23-11-7 in the regular season) on American Airline Center ice in 2013-14.

Entering the 2014-15 season, the Stars still appeared to some vulnerabilities in terms of team defense and overall depth and physicality on the blueline.

The club seemed to be upgraded in terms of offensive firepower but it was likely the Stars would still only go as far as Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, new acquisition Jason Spezza and goaltender Kari Lehtonen led them. The club hoped that the addition of Anders Lindbäck as backup goaltender would be sufficient to avoid having to overwork Lehtonen.

One thing that no one could have predicted: Home ice would suddenly turn into a curse rather than an advantage for the Stars. With last night’s 6-4 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Stars fell to 1-5-4 through 10 games at the American Airlines Center this season. The club is 0-5-2 at home in their last seven games.

Right now, Dallas is a very fragile team. Lately, things have started out fine early in games but mistakes snowball in a hurry. Overall, the Stars are just 2-7-1 in their last 10 games and have lost three in a row after seeming to have turned a corner in a positive direction following back-to-back wins that included a shutout road victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

The home-ice issues in particular may have gotten in Lindy Ruff’s team’s head. Even the one win at ACC — a deceptively lopsided 6-3 final against the Vancouver Canucks in which the Stars had a 5-0 lead before the game was 22 minutes old and then played poorly the rest of the night — felt somehow unsettling.

Last night, things got off solidly in the first period. Team captain Benn ended an 11-game goal scoring drought by going to the net and slamming home a point-blank shot off a perfect feed from checking forward Vernon Fiddler. Seguin (14 goals, 24 points through 19 games this season) later scored the first of his two goals on the night to forge a 2-0 lead.

Unfortunately for Dallas, the bottom dropped out in the second period as Carolina exploded for four unanswered goals to grab a 4-2 lead. Defensive breakdowns were once again part of the equation but the goaltending was also subpar on this night.

Over the course of his career in Dallas, Lehtonen has often been the Stars’ most consistent and most valuable player when he’s been healthy. This season, however, the big Finn has been noticeably inconsistent. Some nights, he has been stellar. However, there have been too many games where Lehtonen has allowed one or more stoppable goals.

There have been multiple games this season in which Lehtonen’s positioning, especially in trying to seal off the post or to cut off the shooting angles from the top of the circle to outside the faceoff dot, has been suspect. That was absolutely the case on a couple of Carolina goals last night. Moreover, the momentum saves the Stars needed the last couple games just didn’t happen when there have been turnovers or coverage miscues.

Right now, it seems like most every Dallas mistake ends up in the back of the net. That’s not solely a defensive shortcoming nor is primarily on Lehtonen. Collectively, the Stars need to get a lot better if they are going to stop hemorrhaging so many goals.

Entering today’s NHL games, the Stars’ collective 3.47 goals against average is the second worst in the league. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets — who have been missing as many as seven to nine projected regulars in their lineup and were missing former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for a couple weeks — have a worse team GAA at 3.56 goals against per game.

Columbus, in fact, has been so understaffed that they claimed defenseman Kevin Connauton off waivers from the Stars yesterday. While skilled with the puck on his stick, Connauton was not part of defensive solution in Dallas. He was bound for an assignment to the AHL’s Texas Stars had the Blue Jackets not claimed him for their NHL squad.

Returning to the goaltending issue, Ruff has a problem right now. Lindbäck played poorly — he was not even average, he was downright bad — in three stars for Dallas this season. Ruff understandably does not a lot of confidence in the hulking Swede. That forced the team into the exact scenario general manger Jim Nill tried to avoid this summer: the need to overwork Lehtonen.

With an unforgiving schedule of three games in four nights and four in six — in a road-home-road-home sequence no less, necessitating travel — Ruff started Lehtonen in each and every game. This is rather unusual handling of goaltending chores in November, but it speaks volumes about the unreliability of Lindbäck (both as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning and now as a Star) and the team’s dire straights to win.

Unfortunately, the decision backfired. Lehtonen was clearly tired by the third period of Sunday’s 6-2 loss in Chicago. Actually, the team as a whole was out of gas and many Dallas skaters became spectators as the Blackhawks piled up four unanswered goals and a 23-5 shot differential in the third period. Nevertheless, Ruff clearly felt he had no choice but to go back to Lehtonen again to try to stop the bleeding of a two-game skid and a six-game winless streak at home.

With Dallas trailing 4-2 at the second intermission last night, Lehtonen was rested for the remainder of the game. Lindbäck, who had not played in a game since Nov. 8, promptly yielded a goal to Eric Staal just nine seconds into the third period. On the play, the Stars were guilty of some atrocious coverage of the Carolina rush.

To their credit, the Stars showed enough resiliency to battle back for two goals and cut their deficit to 5-4. The team got a potential spark from a Cody Eakin shorthanded goal off a partially broken rush (Jamie Benn got pokechecked but the puck went directly to trailing defenseman Alex Goligoski and Eakin cashed in the rebound from the doorstep). Seguin then finished off a gorgeous feed from rookie defenseman John Klingberg to bring the Stars back within one goal with 7:05 still remaining in regulation.

Unfortunately for Dallas, the equalizer never came. At the 16:03 mark, the Stars absorbed another crushing goal by Staal and the game ended 6-4.

Last night’s match was the start of a five-game homestand for the Stars. It is critical that Ruff’s team turn things around over the remainder of the homestand. The Stars will host the Coyotes tomorrow night, the Kings on Saturday, the Edmonton Oilers next Tuesday and the Minnesota Wild on Black Friday. Following the game against Minnesota, the Stars head directly to Denver to play the Colorado Avalanche the following night.

While there is still a lot of hockey yet to be played this season and it is way too early to talk about the Stars being out of the Western Conference playoff race, it is fair to say the team cannot afford to dig itself too deep of a whole. It is also fair to say that the Stars had better get back on track at home because, without re-establishing some sort of edge at the AAC, it is going to be exceptionally difficult to build momentum.

In short, while there really is no such thing as a must-win game in November, the Stars need to get their home woes out of the way as soon as possible and the game against former Dallas coach Dave Tippett’s Coyotes looms big in that regard.