Being winless in five games has put the Dallas Stars on the precipice of missing the playoffs. That wasn’t expected from the team that reached the Stanley Cup Final last season.
As the Stars prepare for Friday’s road clash with the defending Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s with the knowledge they’re in nearly as much of a must-win as a Game 7.
The Stars (21-18-14, 56 points) sit fifth in the Central Division, four points behind the Nashville Predators and with three games remaining on the schedule. After meeting the Lightning on Friday in the second half of this two-game set, the Stars close out with a pair of road games against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Predators, who have played one more game, close out the season with two home games against the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes.
Defeating the red-hot Lightning (36-14-3, 75 points) is a necessity for the Stars to ensure those final two games are meaningful.
“We understand we need to win, and we need help,” forward Joe Pavelski said. “We have to win our next game and … see what happens. That’s the biggest thing. We have to have a narrow focus, have to win a game and go from there. We’re not going to get all three at once, so focus on the first one.”
The Lightning claimed a 6-2 victory over the Stars on Wednesday, and have won six of their seven meetings this season, including all three they’ve hosted.
It’s a tough spot for a Dallas team that went on an incredible run to put themselves within striking distance of jumping into a top-four position in the division and then watched it crumble amidst an 0-3-2 skid.
“We’re very frustrated,” coach Rick Bowness said of his team. “But you put that aside. We talked after the game: ‘Okay, we’re still in it. We’ve got a game Friday night, that’s our game in hand, we have to win it.’ “
The Lightning are second in the division, four points behind the Hurricanes. Although tied with the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay has a game in hand and five more regulation-time wins, which will be the first tiebreaker when the regular season concludes.
Thanks to Wednesday’s win, the Lightning are on a two-game winning streak and a 6-0-1 run in big part because of a strong defensive game.
“You have to be comfortable in (low-scoring, tight-checking) games,” forward Tyler Johnson said. “That’s how you win championships. We were very good at it last year and hopefully we’re learning this year and getting better at it.”
Although the Lightning have dominated the Stars, they’re expecting to see the best shot from their opposition in the final regular-season meeting. Wednesday’s game was closer than the final score indicated. Tampa’s lead was cut to 3-2 midway through the third period before the Lightning pulled away and then added a pair of empty net goals.
“They are on life support for the playoffs,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after his team withstood a desperate Dallas charge in the third period of Wednesday’s game. “They’re a proud team that came out and pushed in the third. … I liked our response after that (3-2 goal). Even just the shift after we kind of had it in their end a bit and then we ended up scoring. That was probably a frustrating one to give up for them.”
–Field Level Media