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Tampa Bay Lightning at Dallas Stars preview: Dance with the one you brought

Two of the most underperforming teams of the season meet for the first time in Dallas.

IIHF World Juniors Gold Medal Game - Canada v Sweden Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Tampa Bay Lightning (25-24-7) at Dallas Stars (22-27-10): GAME 57

Time: 8:00 pm Eastern Time

Location: American Airlines Center

Broadcast/Streaming: FS-SW, SUN

Opponent SBNation Site: Defending Big D

Matty reminded me to tell you that teams are 3-8-1 when returning from Bye Week. Luckily the Bolts are playing the Dallas Stars, which means they have a chance.

What happens when your captain works hard to play for his national team, but gets injured in the process and has to recover instead? I’m not talking about Steven Stamkos for a change, I’m talking about Jamie Benn. Benn injured a muscle in his core while training for the World Cup of Hockey, and spent training camp recovering from surgery. Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff went on record to say that missing training camp gave Benn a “slow start” to the season, but unlike Tampa’s captain, Benn has since had a chance to make up for it.

After the 2015 season, in which Benn won the Art Ross with 87 points, he exceeded it in 2016 by earning 89 points, although not winning the award. In both of those seasons, he played all 82 games, earning 39 and 41 goals, respectively. This season he’s at 53 points (19G, 34A) in 55 games played, good for 12th in the league, but not quite at the pace he’s been, or that Stars fans have been used to.

Tyler Seguin has been performing at around his expected pace, leading the team in points and assists, and sharing the lead in goals. After Seguin and Benn, the forwards drop off in production dramatically however, with Patrick Eaves at 36 points on the season, and defender John Klingberg at 32. The Stars’ current goal differential is -29, meaning that this season, they really haven’t outscored their mistakes.

The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning have had similar seasons, and both sit at third-from-last in their conference. Much like the Bolts, the Stars projected high and disappointed everyone, for reasons pinned on underperforming forwards and traditionally weak defense. Fan Rag Sports outlined their difficulties thus:

[T]he Stars’ roster has been decimated by injury. For the early part of the season, Ruff was mixing and matching a top-six group that wasn’t really a top six group. There have been some bright spots because of this – Antoine Roussel is having a career year, Radek Faska has been dominant, and rookie Devin Shore’s game continues to improve – but it does mean they were unable to get off to a hot start like in 2015-16.

Although it might sound familiar, it really isn’t. Tampa Bay has a solid set of forwards who can roll out the scoring — Tampa’s problem lies in reliable defenders that can carry out the Lightning system to break out the puck to the forwards. Once the defense gets them the puck, they can take it the rest of the way. The Stars, on the other hand, have never really worried about playing defense before, but worrying about it now has messed up the team’s one strength. In the words of a Stars fan over at Fan Rag Sports:

The entire team is being tasked with focusing more on defensive play by the coaching staff. What that has served to do is handicap the Stars’ biggest strength – flying down the ice and generating offense.

Several people have tried to chalk it up to loss of footspeed, and yes, Janmark and Hemsky are fast, but the bigger issue is the loss of the transition game in the neutral zone due to the “defense first” mentality.

Does this mean the coach gets fired? Hmm.

The Stars have to win 18 of the 23 games left in order to be in the last wildcard slot. (It’s interesting to say this about some other team, for a change.) They’ve lost the last three, and most recently got completely out-classed by the best-in-Central Minnesota Wild. They only have two “four-point games” against other Central Division teams left, meaning that they have no margin for error.

The team’s record has inspired some writers to talk about selling off assets at the trade deadline, with Patrick Eaves, Jiri Hudler, Patrick Sharp, and Johnny Oduya in the discussion for trades. Will Tampa Bay have scouts in the pressbox in Dallas? With the Stars’ current defense situation, probably not.

When I asked Twitter to summarize the Dallas Stars’ season for me, I got this response. Make of it what you will.

Lines are, as always, subject to change at the whim of the coaches.

Comparison Chart

Tampa Bay Lightning

Forward Lines

Vlad Namestnikov - Tyler Johnson - Nikita Kucherov

Brian Boyle - Valtteri Filppula - Ondrej Palat

Alex Killorn - Brayden Point - Jonathan Drouin

Gabriel Dumont - Cedric Paquette - JT Brown

Defense Pairings

Jason Garrison - Anton Stralman

Victor Hedman - Andrej Sustr

Braydon Coburn - Jake Dotchin

Goaltenders

Ben Bishop

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Dallas Stars

Forward Lines

Jamie Benn - Cody Eakin - Patrick Eaves

Devin Shore - Jason Spezza - Tyler Seguin

Antoine Roussel - Radek Faksa - Patrick Sharp

Curtis McKenzie - Adam Cracknell - Brett Ritchie

Defense Pairings

Esa Lindell - John Klingberg

Dan Hamhuis - Jordie Benn

Patrik Nemeth - Jamie Oleksiak

Goalies

Kari Lehtonen

Antti Niemi