Things can be pretty up-and-down in the NHL. Good teams can struggle, bad teams can surge, and there’s not always a lot of rhyme or reason to it.
Case in point: Two teams that have looked at least pretty good for a large chunk of the season — and often look elite — recently wrapped up three-game losing streaks but remain well-positioned within a competitive Central Division. Dallas has now won three straight after dropping games to Nashville, St. Louis, and Vegas. Meanwhile, Winnipeg waxed the Canucks on Monday to snap a road skid against Detroit (ugh), Florida (yuck), and Tampa.
There’s a lot to like about both teams, in terms of their talent levels, and while both teams had serious question marks in net entering the season, Ben Bishop and Kari Lehtonen have been more or less adequate (well, a little below league average at .910) and Connor Hellebuyck has been phenomenal (.920).
Recently, both teams have been playing really well despite the losses and are starting to look as for-real as could have been reasonably expected going into the season. Looking at the underlying numbers, there seems to have been one turning point for each team that allowed them to go from “mediocre or worse” to “very good” in a way that’s almost too clearly defined to be believed.
For Dallas, the serious struggles in late October and early November coincided pretty clearly with the end a five-game road swing through Colorado and into Western Canada, where the results were uninspiring (they gave away seven of a possible 10 points). After that, and some creative line juggling from Ken Hitchcock — who by the way is still among the elite coaches in the world after all — they righted the ship.
After starting out 7-6-0, the Stars are now 10-7-1 in their last 18 games (not including last night’s game at New Jersey). That may not sound like a great stretch, but it’s a pace for 96 points, which is probably going to be enough to put them in the playoffs. And moreover, even with that three-game losing streak, the Stars are 8-4 since Nov. 18, which is a great run, even if it does include three overtime or shootout wins.
Bishop, not coincidentally, is .932 in that run. Just as he certainly isn’t anywhere near that good anymore, not that he really he ever was, he’s also a lot better than the .899 he posted in the first month and a half of the season. Especially because, if we’ve learned anything about Hitchcock’s system over the past decade, he usually makes mediocre goalies look a lot better than they actually are.
And again, this is all supported by strong underlying numbers; the Stars have the fifth-best possession numbers in the league since Nov. 18 (and they’re sixth for the whole season) but are finally getting reliably good goaltending, and they’re wining despite the fact that their power play has just two goals on their last 41 tries. For a Dallas team with this much offensive talent, you have to assume their man advantage will improve going forward, so that only portends good things as well.
Dallas still has two road trips of four and five games left this season, but both are mostly through the Eastern Conference, and feature just one back-to-back in those nine games. Moreover, a good chunk of those Eastern Conference teams (Boston, Detroit, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa) are, y’know, quite bad.
The good news for the Stars is that, as they power up a bit here, they’ve mostly done enough to keep pace with the teams ahead of them in the standings. They’re sixth in the West right now, but trending up, and ahead of a logjam of teams with 35 points (Minnesota, Chicago, Calgary, and San Jose). Things are tight but with this personnel — as long as Bishop keeps playing at or above league average — and coaching, there’s no reason to think this team can’t climb the standings to get ahead of Vegas at the very least.
They will, of course, get that divisional competition from the rising Winnipeg Jets, whose big turning point this season came when Mathieu Perreault returned from injury. Perreault played Games 1-5 for Winnipeg, then missed more than a month, during which time the team’s possession numbers cratered because the depth players were being run over. But he returned for Game No. 18 and boy, they took off since then, didn’t they?
Not to attribute too much success to having an excellent bottom-six forward like Perreault in the lineup every night, but the splits tell a story here: 50.8 percent with, 45.9 percent without. While 51-ish percent isn’t great or anything — it would be 12th in the league right now if spread over the full season — it’s obviously pretty good. And sub-46 percent? That would be 30th in the league.
And like the Stars, the Jets are trending up in this regard, with the 10th-highest CF% in the league since Perreault came back (52.5 percent). The record is following suit, at 8-4-2 over the same stretch — a pace for 105 points — and as long as the bottom doesn’t drop out on Hellebuyck, this is looking like a very scary team for anyone who draws them in the postseason.
Also like the Stars, Winnipeg is right in the thick of things in the division, only in a slightly better position. They’re just three points back of the current leaders in St. Louis, and one behind Nashville. Obviously Nashville is going to be in a good position to improve its own pace when Ryan Ellis comes back next month, but all you can really do is put yourself in the best position to succeed in the playoffs, right?
If these teams can keep up these possession numbers — and there’s no reason to suspect they can’t if fully healthy — they’re going to rack up a lot of wins over the final 50 games and be a tough out for just about anyone they draw. One of them is almost certainly going to be a wild card team, and it’s hard not to feel bad for whichever division winner draws them while the other one gets, like, Minnesota or Calgary.
So if you’re looking for a couple dark horse teams to be bullish about in the second half of the season, these are two really good candidates.