If the Dallas Stars end up returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season (and they are in a good position to do so) they have a massive swing in their overtime fortunes to thank for it.
During the 2020-21 season they fell four points short of the playoffs in the NHL’s reconfigured Central Division, and there were two main reasons for it. And they were somewhat related.
The first is that they played almost the entire season without Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, two players they were counting on to be among their top offensive players. That is a lot of skill to take out of the lineup, especially in overtime and shootout games where skill ultimately takes over.
The second is that they were one of the worst teams in the league in games decided beyond regulation, going 6-14 in overtime and shootouts. That includes an 0-5 record against the Nashville Predators, the team that finished just four points ahead of them for that fourth playoff spot in the division.
It has been the complete opposite story for the Stars this season, as they enter Tuesday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks with a 13-3 record in games decided beyond regulation. That is a massive swing, going from one of the league’s worst teams in those games to one of the best.
The Stars are one point behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the second Wild Card spot as of Tuesday, but still have four games in hand. Their current pace has them on track for 96 points this season. Vegas is on a 91-point pace while the two teams only have one head-to-head meeting remaining. You have to like Dallas’ chances right now.
So what has changed for the Stars in overtime this season to dramatically swing their season to the other side of the playoff bubble?
Aside from the fact that there is an element of luck to 3-on-3 situations and shootout, there are a couple of things that do stand out.
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The first is improved goaltending in both the overtime period and shootouts. The Stars goalies this season (a quartet of Jake Oettinger, Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin, and the recently acquired Scott Wedgewood) have been dramatically better than Oettinger and Khudobin were in both situations a year ago. Holtby is obviously a new addition to the roster versus a year ago. Goaltending is always a pretty significant game-changer in any situation.
So far this season Stars goalies have the second-best 3-on-3 save percentage in the NHL at .971.
A year ago they were 14th at .861.
But there is another noticeable change in their overtime situations that is playing a major role in their success. It is the ability to actually use their best players in overtime. And, perhaps just as importantly, actually taking advantage of the opportunity to use them.
First, take a look at the eight Stars players with the most overtime ice-time a year ago (in order of highest to lowest): Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Jamie Benn, Esa Lindell, Jason Dickinson, Joe Pavelski, Radek Faska, Jason Robertson.
Now compare that list to the eight players with the most overtime ice-time this season (again in order of highest to lowest): Roope Hintz, John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, Esa Lindell.
Pay extra special attention to the first five or six players in each group. That is a pretty dramatic swing. Three of the Stars’ top-five players in overtime ice-time a year ago were defenseman, including one (Lindell) that is not really known for offense. The top-two forwards a year ago were Jamie Benn, whose offense has rapidly declined, and Jason Dickinson, a player that has never topped 10 goals in a season.
Hintz and Seguin both had their availability last year limited by injury (Seguin played in just two games; Hintz missed 15 games), while Robertson simply was not a player the Stars leaned on, playing just 58 seconds per overtime game. This season he is seeing an extra 30 seconds of ice time per overtime. Better goaltending extending games plays a factor in that, sure, but there is also a clear usage change and getting an opportunity to use players like Hintz, Seguin, and Robertson more in those situations is also going to extend games.
So far this season Seguin has already contributed to two overtime goals, scoring one and assisting on another, while Hintz has contributed to four (scoring one and assisting on three).
Remember, those two guys did not even crack the top-eight in terms of Stars’ overtime ice-time a year ago because of injuries. Hintz was sidelined for eight of the Stars’ 20 overtime games a year ago, with the Stars winning just one of those games. Seguin missed 19 of them. That does not even get into Robertson’s usage as he was behind Jason Dickinson on the Stars’ overtime ice-time listing. Robertson has two overtime goals this season and an overtime assist.
The Stars are right on the playoff bubble for the second year in a row, and every possible point is going to make a difference. A year ago they did not get those extra points in overtime.
This year they are. It might be enough to get them that Wild Card spot.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.