COMMENTARY | When the NHL schedules come out every summer, it's one of the first things to look at. How many back-to-back games does each team face? The reason being that the second game of those is viewed as an automatic loss. Backup goaltenders, tired skaters, often playing on the road; the reasons are myriad why these games leave a team at a disadvantage. Superficially at least. But how much of a difference do they really make? How much of a handicap is it for the New Jersey Devils say, who play more than half of their games as back-to-backs? Or conversely, how much of an advantage is it for the San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, or Winnipeg Jets, who face only 10 such series this season?
For the Dallas Stars anyway, who fall on the lower end of the spectrum with 13, they would appear to make an incredible difference. So far this season, Dallas is 0-3-0 on second legs. Early days of course, so we perhaps shouldn't read an undue amount into it… except that it's the continuation of a disturbing trend. In the last two seasons Dallas finished with records of 3-6-0 and 1-11-1 on the second night of back-to-backs. Earning nine points out of a possible 44 is one surefire way to shoot yourself in the foot. But surely every team faces this. Every team must face similar struggles in such games. Right?
Well, not exactly.
With this season only 20 percent completed, and last year's numbers being somewhat skewed by the lockout, the best data I've found is contained in this article from the mid-point of the 2011-12 season. And the Stars numbers show the difficulty of back-to-backs. A record of 0-7-1 in second legs, and a record of 24-14-1 in all other games. Man, these games are tough! Except… only one team was worse: Winnipeg with their 0-7-0 record. In fact, ten teams had better records points percentage-wise on these games compared to the remainder of their results, and 12 teams actually had winning records, with a further five being even.
In short, the Stars have no excuse. Maybe performing slightly worse in these situations is acceptable. But 4-20-1 since the beginning of the 2011-12 season does not fall within the acceptable range.
Unfortunately, the solution isn't obvious. Because the reason isn't obvious. What differentiates Dallas from the rest of the league? Why do they fare so much worse? We could point to the Stars being one of the older teams in the NHL. Except that in the above quoted study, the two teams with the oldest average age that season, New Jersey and Detroit, were two of the top performers, while the two youngest, Colorado and Toronto, were among the worst. So it's conditioning then, right? Only, how does one qualify that, and aren't these supposed to all be elite-level athletes? Travel distance seems like a feeble excuse too, as private jets aren't exactly roughing it. Backup goaltending could certainly be a reason, as the Stars haven't had a reliable backup for a few years now.
But all of these are shots in the dark. What is certain though is that this is a very different team from the one we've seen over the last couple of years. And the first three back-to-backs came early in the season, while the Stars were still struggling to find themselves. But in order for Dallas to have any hope of once more cracking the playoffs, they will have to find a way to have success, to change the pattern of the last few seasons.
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