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Stars season all but over after loss to Canucks

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A season that was once filled with optimism looks like it’s heading toward complete and utter disappointment for the Dallas Stars.

The Stars, who entered the day five points out of a playoff spot, didn’t do themselves any favors, as they dropped a 4-1 decision to the lowly Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night.

For those of you scoring at home, they’ve now lost games to non-playoff teams like Ottawa (twice), Montreal and Vancouver in March. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Dallas has won just two of 13 games this month (they’re 0-6-2 in their last eight).

Things aren’t going to get any easier for them over the final two weeks of the season. They’ll host Philadelphia on Tuesday before playing a home-and-home series with Minnesota on Thursday and Saturday. Next week, they’ll finish the season with three game road trip through California. Good luck with that, Stars.

It’s incredible to think that a team with firepower like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and John Klingberg can’t make a trip to the postseason. But this team is clearly flawed. The good news, is that they have a solid core group of players in place. The bad news, is that the supporting cast needs a lot of work.

The Ben Bishop experiment failed in year one. The veteran simply couldn’t stay healthy and when he was between the pipes, he didn’t do a good enough job. He’ll have to be a lot better next season, or the Stars may find themselves in the same situation next year. The 31-year-old has five years left on his contract.

Martin Hanzal ended up being another free-agent flop in 2017-18. He has another three years remaining on his current deal and he’s probably not going anywhere this offseason, either.

Jason Spezza, who is the second highest-paid player on the team doesn’t have much left in the tank. He has another year remaining on his contract, so it looks like he’ll be back next season.

Whether it’s Jim Nill or somebody else, the Stars will need an infusion of talent this summer if they hope to get back to playing meaningful games in the spring. But for now, they’re done like dinner.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL Playoff Push: Stars, Panthers need wins; Jackets go for 9 in a row

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The NHL season is quickly wrapping up which means time is running out for the teams that are still trying to make up ground in the playoff races.

With 11 games on the schedule on Tuesday night there is plenty at stake, both for teams that are still scrambling to get in and teams that are trying to get the possible seed.

Let’s take a look at what is on the line for Tuesday starting with the Wester Conference.

In the Western Conference the Dallas Stars, losers of eight of their past 10 games, are desperate for a win in an effort to stop the recent bleeding. They have been fading fast in recent weeks, are without starting goalie Ben Bishop, and have to go on the road (where they have struggled all season) to play a first-place Capitals team.

They enter the day two points back of the second Wild Card spot which is currently occupied by the Anaheim Ducks. A win would bring the Stars back even for the time being, though Anaheim would still have a game in hand. It could also bring them even with the Colorado Avalanche if they fail to gain a point against the Chicago Blackhawks. And speaking of the Blackhawks, a loss on Tuesday would officially mathematically eliminate them from playoff contention this season and end their run of nine consecutive postseason appearances.

It is a significantly busier night in the Eastern Conference race, though most of that comes down to seeding and potential first-round matchups.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Blue Jackets are looking to run their current winning streak to nine consecutive games when they visit the New York Rangers, and depending on what happens with the Penguins and Flyers they could find themselves tied for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division. The Blue Jackets enter the day tied with the Flyers with 85 points (the Flyers have the tiebreaker at the moment) and just two points back of the Penguins.

The Penguins are in New York to play the Islanders, while the Flyers take on a Detroit Red Wings team that has lost 10 games in a row.

You can catch the Flyers-Red Wings game on NBCSN.

Tampa Bay can extend its lead for the top spot in the Atlantic Division (and the Eastern Conference) with a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Lightning are currently three points ahead of the Boston Bruins, but the Bruins will have two games in hand after Tuesday.

When it comes to competing for an actual playoff spot, the Florida Panthers continue their current road trip in Ottawa. The Panthers were 2-0 winners on Monday night in Montreal and have a quick turnaround for this one. A week ago the Senators handed the Panthers a tough loss on home ice, part of a stretch that saw the Panthers drop games to two teams well out of the playoff race.

The Panthers can not afford to let that happen tonight. A Panthers loss, combine with a Devils win in San Jose would put them in a five-point hole. Or, on the other hand, a Panthers win and a Devils loss could narrow that gap down to a single point. The Panthers are catching  a break in this one, too, because an already bad Senators team will be without All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Needless to say, there is plenty on the line for both teams.

If the playoffs started today

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Tuesday’s Key Games

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. New York Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
Dallas Stars vs. Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. ET
Florida Panthers vs. Ottawa Senators, 7:30 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Detroit Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Colorado Avalanche vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
New Jersey Devils vs. San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

With Bishop out, Stars’ hopes hinge on Lehtonen again

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If this is Kari Lehtonen‘s final season with the Dallas Stars, then it’s uncomfortably fitting that, like it or not, the team’s playoff hopes hinge on his performance.

With Ben Bishop‘s latest injury sidelining him for at least two weeks (more on that here), Lehtonen stands as the go-to goalie for most – if not all – of the remaining regular-season games.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

That’s unfortunate news, but the silver lining is that Lehtonen’s performance hasn’t lined up that poorly compared to the work Bishop’s been able to put in when he hasn’t been injured.

Bishop: 53 games played, 26-17-5 record, .916 save percentage
Lehtonen: 29 games played, 12-10-3 record, .913 save percentage

Lehtonen, 34, is putting together his best work since he generated a .919 save percentage over 65 games back in 2013-14. So, that’s the good news.

There are certainly plenty of reasons to worry about this setup, though. For one thing, Lehtonen hasn’t been able to eke out a win in four straight starts, getting tagged with the “L” in three of them. Back when the Finnish netminder was a starter, the knock on him was that he’s injury prone.

That was how Stars GM Jim Nill spun things when the Stars made the ill-fated decision to bring in Antti Niemi, actually.

Instead of the Stars sporting a two-headed Finnish monster in net, both goalies struggled, sometimes spectacularly. While it sure felt like Niemi was meant to replace Lehtonen as the top guy in Dallas, it didn’t really work out that way. Lehtonen played 43 games in 2015-16 and 59 in 2016-17, even though his save percentage never rose above the level of “frustrating backup.”

In handing Bishop a Bishop-sized six-year, $29.5 million contract, the Stars were hoping to finally find that stability in net. The big former Bolts goalie hasn’t been a disaster, yet this season has been a frustrating one of fits and starts.

[What’s holding back the Dallas Stars?]

And, so we have it: the Stars can’t escape living or dying by Lehtonen, or at least they’ll go through at least one more of such scenarios, as his $5.9M cap hit expires after 2017-18.

Even Stars fans might rub their eyes when they look at the numbers: the former Thrashers franchise netminder has been with Dallas since 2009-10, appearing in a whopping 437 regular-season games (with the same .912 save percentage he sported with Atlanta, strangely enough).

The grass has seemingly been victory greener with other goalies for the last three seasons, if not more, yet it always seems to come back to Kari.

That said, it’s up to his teammates – and coach Ken Hitchcock – to avoid adding what might be a frustrating final chapter to his long stay with the Stars.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ben Bishop injured after making terrific glove save (Video)

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After missing five games with a lower-body injury, Ben Bishop made his return to the Stars lineup on Friday night against Ottawa. Unfortunately for Bishop, he seems to have run into some more injury trouble tonight.

The veteran netminder was hurt after he made a fantastic glove save on Jets forward Bryan Little on Sunday night. The Stars Twitter account already confirmed that he suffered a lower-body injury and that he wouldn’t be returning to the game.

Kari Lehtonen took over between the pipes for Dallas.

UPDATE:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

What’s holding back the Dallas Stars?

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Since taking over the Dallas Stars’ front office in the spring of 2013, Jim Nill has been one of the most aggressive general managers in the NHL when it comes to swinging for the fences in trades and roster movement.

Big trades. Big free agent signings. They have become the champions of the off-season almost every summer, thanks to the additions of Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Patrick Sharp among many others. They not only seem to get the big names, they always seem to win the trades themselves. The Seguin trade with Boston has turned out to be grand larceny. Nobody given in the Spezza trade ever really amounted to anything in the NHL with Ottawa. Chicago turned its return for Sharp into nothing more than Rob Scuderi’s bad contract in just a few short months after refusing to play Trevor Daley.

They were at it again this past summer when they went big-game hunting and landed starting goalie Ben Bishop, free agent winger Alexander Radulov, center Martin Hanzal, and defenseman Marc Methot.

Those were pretty much some of the top names available on the free agent market, with Bishop acquired in a trade and signed in May. When added to a core that was already built around star players Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg there was plenty of reason for excitement and optimism that this could be a big year for the Stars. Just like there is every year when they make a big splash in free agency.

The results still have not been what you might expect given all of that.

[Related: The Stars are winning another offseason, will the results follow?]

The Stars have made the playoffs in just two of Nill’s four full seasons as GM and they’ve won just a single playoff round. This season, even though they have already exceeded their point total from 2016-17, they are a fringe playoff team, holding on to the first wild card spot as of Friday with a two-point cushion over the first non-playoff team, the Colorado Avalanche.

Given their financial investment and the talent they have, is this good enough?

More importantly, what is holding them back from being a more prominent team? It is really confounding to figure out.

They are a cap team. They have a superstar duo of forwards in Seguin and Benn and a Norris Trophy contender in Klingberg on the blue line. When it comes to the latest round of additions, Radulov has proven to be worth every penny that the Stars have paid him so far, while Bishop has helped to solidify a goaltending position that had been a complete disaster in recent years.

Hanzal’s signing has not worked out as his season has been derailed by injuries, and it officially came to an end on Friday due to back surgery that will sideline him for the next six months (at least). Not exactly a great sign for the future.

In terms of their style of play they have done a complete 180 from where they were a couple of years ago, going from a run-and-gun, all-offense, no-defense team to one that is now a middle of the pack offensive team and a top-tier defensive team. As of Friday they are fourth in the NHL in goals against, are allowing the fourth fewest total shot attempts per game, are sixth on the penalty kill, and a top-10 team in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage.

Given that they went with a Ken Hitchcock reunion behind the bench, that change in style is not all that surprising.

Just about the only two things they don’t do well on paper are a power play that probably isn’t as good as it should be given the talent that exists on the roster, and the fact they have only been a .500 team on the road.

Overall there is a lot of good here, and the team itself this season is pretty decent.

But is pretty decent good enough? In terms of actual results they are still only a slightly above average team compared to the rest of the league, are not even a guarantee to make the playoffs at this point (though the odds seem to be in their favor), and they haven’t had any postseason success to speak of in a decade.

At some point you have to wonder if Nill’s seat might start to get a little hot if more success doesn’t soon start to come, especially after a quiet trade deadline where the team did nothing to improve its roster while pretty much every team around them (at least as far as the Central Division is concerned) loaded up.

It’s not that Nill has done a bad job. Again, if you look at all of the roster moves on an individual basis many of them are clear wins. But the results still aren’t coming on the ice and eventually someone pays the price for that. Over the past five years the players have changed, the coach has changed, and the style of play has changed, but how long will an owner be content to spend to the upper limits of the salary cap for a team that is 11th or 12th place in the league and doesn’t do anything in the playoffs?

It is a question that is probably worth asking.

At some point winning the offseason won’t be enough anymore.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.