Crucial stretch for Stars and Pens
Underachieving Stars and Penguins now have little room for error in stretch
Stars must take advantage of games in hand and abundance of home games
Penguins must weigh trades now as their best home stretch is post-deadline
With the All-Star break behind us, the next segment of the season is of vital importance for most teams. That is especially true in the case of two teams that have underachieved thus far: the 2008 Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Dallas Stars, who lost in the Western Conference Final to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
Both teams have struggled to overcome key injuries. The Penguins still don't have Sergei Gonchar on the blueline and the Stars miss veteran Sergei Zubov on the point. Also marring the Stars' first half was the loss of captain Brendan Morrow to injury and the well-chronicled Sean Avery debacle. As it stands, these two teams are on the outside of the top eight in their respective conferences. Neither can afford to ease back into action.
In the case of the Stars, their ability to scrap and claw into playoff contention will depend on how successful they are before the March 4 trade deadline. They currently trail Edmonton, Vancouver and Anaheim by four points, with one game in hand on the Oilers, three on the Canucks and four on the Ducks. The Stars must take advantage of that scheduling cushion.
The other side of that equation, of course, is that the Stars will have a more rigorous sprint to the end of the regular schedule. But beginning next week, their sprint to the deadline will include playing 11 of 14 games at home. For all of their ups and downs to this point, the Stars have been much stronger on home ice (11-6-4) than away (9-12-3). So the importance of the upcoming home sequence is obvious.
Less obvious -- and the danger in thinking that the Stars are a lock to ascend due to those home games -- is the manner in which those 11 wins in Dallas came about. Of the 11 victories, five were in shootouts. The Stars struck three times in the overtime period as well. That leaves just three home wins in regulation. Are the Stars' skinny margins a sign of fortitude or fortune? Time will tell and the time is now.
Meanwhile, the Penguins find themselves having already played 48 games -- tied for most in the east with several teams -- and with an alarmingly pedestrian home ice mark of 11-11-2. Granted, one of those "home" losses came in Stockholm, Sweden, where they opened the NHL campaign with a split against the Ottawa Senators. Still, their success last season was due largely to their ability to stockpile points at home, with their 26 home wins leading the conference.
The Pens return to action at home on Wednesday night with the New York Rangers coming to town. It is the last of five straight in Pittsburgh and they are, you guessed it, 2-2 thus far on this homestand. The good news, though, is that the Pens got back to defending well in the three games preceding the break, allowing just three goals-against. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp and will need to carry that form the rest of the way -- something he and his teammates have done the previous two seasons in the second half.
The telltale portion of the remaining games for the Pens begins March 10 and runs through April 1. It is a span of 10 tilts -- nine of which are in Pittsburgh -- that fall after the trade deadline, meaning GM Ray Shero will have to assess and tweak accordingly before the team gets to that crucial stretch, seemingly making him a buyer by default. Meanwhile in Dallas, co-GM Les Jackson gets to judge his team during the Stars' pivotal home ice push prior to the deadline, which could make him a buyer or seller, depending on the Stars' win rate through February.
Wouldn't it be interesting if the two teams became trade partners and ended up helping each other's cause? Either way, the Penguins and the Stars bear watching and considering. Now.
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