GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 11:  Head coach Lindy Ruff of the Dallas Stars watches from the bench during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on November 11, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. The Stars defeated the Coyotes 4-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Stars coach Lindy Ruff is not happy with the job he has done this season

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After being one of the NHL’s most exciting teams and winning the Central Division title a year ago, the Dallas Stars have to be considered one of the bigger disappointments through the first half of the 2016-17 season.

With 50 points in 50 games entering the All-Star break this weekend, the Stars find themselves three points out of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and are on pace to finish with only 82 points on the season, a mark that would be a 27-point drop from a year ago.

Obviously, that is not good for a team that came into the season with what should have been Stanley Cup aspirations.

Following their 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night coach Lindy Ruff, who does not have a contract beyond this season, was asked if the team’s current record and their current big picture outlook makes him think about his job and the job he has done behind the bench this season.

Ruff admitted that he not only thinks about it every day, but that he is also not happy with the job he has done this season.

“I think about my job everyday,” said Ruff, via the Dallas Morning News.

“I think of ways to improve. I look at the special teams. That’s on me. Improving special teams. I don’t like where our penalty killing is at. we’ve worked on trying to change that. I am not happy with the job I’ve done. I understand we’ve gone through a lot of injuries, a lot of players shuffling around, but I assess my job everyday.”

He continued: “I think we’ve worked as hard as we could have possibly worked the past few days to win games. We finally got some breaks to go our way. We’ve talked about missed opportunities. We’ve talked  about the power plays opportunities we missed to win the previous game. We talked about the power play opportunity we missed on the Island to tie a hockey game with five minutes left. You have to set up those opportunities, but at the same time you have to win games. You have to produce. We can’t just talk about chances. This is a league you have to win. You have to win. There is only one thing, and you have to win. We’re sitting there close enough, but we’re coming out of the break we have to win. I don’t like our overtime, but again that is something I am responsible for.”

When it comes to the latter point, the Stars are only 2-10 this season in games that have been decided in overtime or a shootout after going 8-9 in such games a year ago. A similar winning percentage this season would give them an additional three or four wins in the standings and probably have them in a playoff position right now. It would still be a regression from where they were a season ago, but it would also probably change the perception of their season heading into the break a little bit as well.

Big picture though the problems for the Stars are easy to identify at this point. Injuries have played a significant role this season as several key players, including Jamie Benn (four games), Jason Spezza (seven games), Patrick Sharp (26 games), Ales Hemsky (49 games), Cody Eakin (32 games), Jiri Hudler (28 games) and Johnny Oduya (24 games) all missing significant time this season. They also have the same issues they’ve had for much of the past two seasons when it comes to goal prevention with a defense that has some holes and a goaltending situation that remains unsettled with big money going to both Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, while continuing to get below league average play from both of them. The issues on defense have only been made worse by a bit of a regression from John Klingberg. Put all of that together with the aforementioned injuries that have at times completely decimated their forwards and it should not be a surprise the team has fallen short of expectations.

 

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.