DALLAS — Miro Heiskanen and the Dallas Stars got all too familiar with slumps last season, even while making it to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We know how to deal with it if it’s not going well,” said Heiskanen, their standout young defenseman. “It’s just little details. … But it’s not a big deal.”
Not yet anyway for the defending Western Conference champions, who have won only one of their last seven games since a 4-0 start that was a complete reversal from how they began last season.
“Listen, we’re playing better than our record, that’s all I can tell you,” coach Rick Bowness said after a 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night, the first time in their seven home games they did not earn at least a point.
Even while veteran Joe Pavelski is off to the fastest-scoring pace in his 15 NHL seasons with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists), the Stars have been undone by slow starts. Their four first-period goals are the fewest in the NHL, and they have allowed the first goal in six of their last nine games.
So impressive throughout the playoffs last season and the first three games this year, with veteran goalie Ben Bishop still rehabbing from knee surgery, Anton Khudobin has given up 15 goals while losing his last four starts. Khudobin, who faced 32 shots Thursday night, opened this season with a shutout and allowed only three goals the first three games.
When they play again Saturday night, the Stars will be halfway through their season-long, eight-game homestand — and halfway done with the season series with Carolina, one of their five new division foes in the division-only, 56-game regular season.
After the start of their season was delayed a week because of 17 positive COVID-19 tests, the Stars swept two-game home sets against Nashville and Detroit while scoring 19 goals, 10 on power plays. The run had them only one point behind Central Division-leading Columbus, even though the Blue Jackets had already played twice as many games.
But the Stars lost at Carolina on back-to-back days to end January in their first road games, and after their third loss to the Hurricanes were in sixth place. They are six points behind Tampa Bay, now a division foe after beating them in the Stanley Cup Final last September.
“A lot of these guys were in the bubble last year and they had all that success, so we all know what we’re capable of in this room,” said defenseman Mark Pysyk, a Stars newcomer this season. “I think in our eyes, we’re definitely not where we want to be.”
The Stars started last season 1-7-1, then lost six games in a row last March before the season was paused because of the pandemic. When the season resumed with the playoffs in the bubble in Edmonton, they made it to their first final in 20 years, losing in six games.
Khudobin wasn’t even dressed out last Sunday for the opener of the homestand, as discipline for being late to practice the previous day. He was back in uniform but didn’t play Tuesday, when rookie Jake Oettinger made consecutive starts for the first time and stopped 60 shots in back-to-back 2-1 overtime losses to Chicago.
The Stars again failed to score in the first period Thursday night, though Roope Hintz had a shot ricochet off and over the crossbar in the opening minutes. They had a three-goal outburst in the second period, even when having a goal disallowed for the second game in a row. But Carolina got even in the closing seconds of the period, then went ahead on a breakaway goal early in the third.
“Our record could be a whole lot better than it is right now, and that will even itself out,” Bowness said. “We’ve got 45 more games, it’ll even out. If we keep playing like this, we’ll win more than we lose.”