The Dallas Stars pulled out a 4-3 shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday night at the American Airlines Center, a game where the Stars blew a 3-1 lead after two periods, coughing up two unanswered in the third, allowing Phoenix to force overtime and a shootout.
And were it not for top goaltender Kari Lehtonen, Dave Tippett's Coyotes likely would have left town with the full two points.
So, as the Stars sit with nine games remaining, is this a playoff team or not?
Here's a look at several arguments on both sides of the ledger.
They Remain in the Driver's Seat in the Division
Even though the Stars currently lead the Pacific Division standings by just a single point over now second-place Los Angeles, they do still control their own destiny heading into the final stretch of games. If they can keep getting points, preferably the full two more often than not, then their chances of getting in and in the process ending a playoff dry spell that has reached three straight years could be coming to an end in just a few weeks time.
They won't face either the Kings or Coyotes, the two teams right behind them in the division standings, again this regular season, which is definitely huge. However, they will face the Sharks two more times, once at HP Pavilion on March 31 and again at the AAC on April 3.
Penalty Killing Remains a Huge Strength, Power Play Seems to be Coming On
Sure, the Stars did allow a power play goal to the Coyotes in Tuesday's shootout win, but even allowing that game-tying tally late in the third can't detract from what the Dallas penalty kill has been doing over the last 18 games, a stretch where they have killed off 53 of their last 57 opposing power plays. Of course, the logical solution would be to not take a bunch of penalties in the first place, resulting in a much fresher PK unit, and the Stars have been better in stretches of this season at playing more disciplined hockey.
However, over the last eight games, the Stars have put the opposition on the power play a total of 28 times or an average of 3.5 times per game. Time and time again, this unit has shown it can rise to the occasion, but not putting them behind the eight ball so much would definitely be a nice change for this hard-working group. And after being an issue for much of the season, the Stars' power play now looks to be finding a groove when the club needs it the most. Over the last 10 games, Dallas is 6-for-26 on the power play, converting at a rate of around 23 percent, including a 1-for-4 showing against the Coyotes on Tuesday. However, those numbers might be skewed a bit as there are two games in this stretch where the Stars didn't draw a single penalty, an issue that can't continue in the final nine games if this unit is to continue its recent uptick.
Dallas Still Has Kari Lehtonen in Goal
Glen Gulutzan has said it time and time again, that he and his staff regard Lehtonen as an elite-level goaltender in the National Hockey League. The veteran Finn has definitely played like it for much of this season and as the Stars expect to ride him down the stretch as he should start every game from here on out save for a March 31 contest in San Jose, which rookie backup Richard Bachman should get the nod in since it's the second game of a back-to-back, the performance of Lehtonen could very well determine whether or not the Stars get into the postseason. And that's a good thing.
After beating Phoenix in the shootout, Gully credited Kari's strong performance as he made several big saves late in regulation as well in overtime and even said his No. 1 man between the pipes deserved all the credit for the two points. At times this season, he's had to stand on his head just to keep the Stars in games. Hopefully he doesn't have to do a ton of that in his final eight starts of the year but if so, it's good to know he can handle such a considerable amount of responsibility.
Their Remaining Schedule is Pretty Brutal
Looking at the Stars' remaining nine games and there is just one game, a March 28 visit to Edmonton, against a team currently not vying for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Besides that game with the Oilers, Dallas still has to face reigning Western Conference champion Vancouver twice, Calgary twice, San Jose twice along with Nashville and St. Louis one time apiece.
That's a pretty daunting slate of games as the regular season winds down but if the Stars can do well, especially against teams like the Flames and Sharks, then they could create some much-needed distance between themselves and the very teams they're battling with for those final few playoff spots in the West. Should the Stars stumble, it looks like the Kings could very well be the ones to overtake them in the division. LA has finally discovered its scoring touch and is 8-2-0 over their last 10 games, looking like a team that is playing its best hockey of the year at the best possible point in the season.
Mental Lapses Continue to Plague This Team
Even with his club getting the two points thanks to a shootout win over the Coyotes on Tuesday, Gulutzan was clearly less than pleased with the turn of events and that was apparent in his demeanor during his postgame presser. The bench minor late in the third for too many men on the ice led to Phoenix's game-tying goal and allowed the Coyotes to leave town with a much-needed point. Gulutzan was definitely surprised that at this point of the season, 73 games in, that he still had to instill in his team something basic like turning pucks over at the blue line often has disastrous consequences.
Ray Whitney's game-tying goal came after the Stars allowed a shorthanded goal by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a rare shorty allowed by the Dallas PK. But it seems like on a fairly consistent basis this season that when things were going well for the Stars, a mental gaffe here and there always seemed to surface to make things tougher than it had to be for them. Hopefully that's a trend that doesn't continue in the final nine games, but by this point in the season, a team is what it is and a lack of mental focus for the entire 60 minutes has been an issue for the Stars at crucial points this season.
Scoring Goals Has Suddenly Become an Issue
Sure, five games is a small sample size but over that stretch, the Stars have scored a grand total of nine goals, an average of 1.8 goals per game. Sure, that's not a long stretch of games, but it could show how tough it could be for this group to put the biscuit in the basket down the stretch. Dallas did net three goals against the Coyotes on Tuesday but every one of those tallies came from their top line of Loui Eriksson, Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder. While it's great to get such production from your top line, the other lines clearly need to chip in.
Of the nine goals in their last five games, all but three of those, two from Jamie Benn and one from captain Brenden Morrow, have come from the first line. The last player not from the top two lines to score was Tomas Vincour, who had a goal on March 2 and again on March 8. Dallas' last goal from their third line came on March 2 when Radek Dvorak ended a long pointless streak in a win at Edmonton. Balanced scoring is truly an asset for any team, especially this time of year and right now, it's something the Stars don't appear to have.