Stars out of playoff contention a year after leading NHL Western Conference

Stars say playoff elimination was inevitable

MONTREAL — They knew it was coming, so being officially eliminated from NHL playoff contention was of no shock to the Dallas Stars.

“We’ve kind of known where we’re at,” veteran forward Jason Spezza said Tuesday. “There was no sudden blow or anything like that.

“It’s been a disappointing and frustrating year. It’s a year we’re definitely not proud of.”

The final blow came Monday night when the St. Louis Blues defeated the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 to move 15 points ahead of Dallas, who had seven games remaining heading into a Tuesday night visit to the Montreal Canadiens. A 3-0-1 run last week only delayed the inevitable.

It was a mighty fall for the Stars, who finished first in the Western Conference with 109 points (50-23-9) last season but never got on track amid a rash of injuries this time around.

Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Cody Eakin, Patrick Sharp and off-season signing Jiri Hudler were among those who missed time early in the season. Additional players were sidelined as the year went on.

After digging a hole with a 4-6-3 start, it was tough to put wins together while re-integrating injured players in a compressed schedule.

“We battled inconsistency all year,” said Spezza. “We couldn’t find a way to get momentum.”

Fingers were pointed at goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, mainly because of the team’s feeble .895 save percentage. But there were other areas of concern. The Stars ranked last overall in penalty killing and had an 11-21-5 road record.

“We’ve been chasing games a lot,” said Spezza. “We gave up a lot of short-handed goals, a lot of empty-net goals-against.

“Playing from behind, it becomes a hard league, especially if you’re playing every other night. We had a lot of things that didn’t go right and we all take equal blame for it.”

Coach Lindy Ruff pointed to the weak plus-minus figures of some of his top players.

Sharp, who battled concussion symptoms early on and then went out for the season with a hip injury, was minus-22. Spezza was minus-16 while Tyler Seguin was minus-13.

“We made progress in cutting goals-against last year but this year we went in the wrong direction,” said Ruff. “The best way to improve is with your play away from the puck.

“Your best players have to be the leaders in that category and some of them were on the wrong side of that, which hurts us.”

And the Stars “weren’t able to score our way out of trouble the way we did the year before,” Ruff added.

“There was a lot that went wrong, a lot of attention-to-detail stuff,” said Eakin. “A lot of mental errors.

“It makes it tough when you constantly make those mistakes. Everyone had their part in it.”

Still, the Stars hope to play hard in the final games of the season and start laying a foundation of strong hockey for the 2017-18 campaign.

They have a solid core of talent in Benn, Seguin, defenceman John Klingberg and others and can contend again next season.

“We still feel we have a good group of guys,” said Spezza. “We’re hoping this is one-off season where things didn’t go as planned.

“We definitely have to evaluate where we’re at in the summer. It’ll take a lot of responsibility for us to come back and be ready because years like this are unacceptable.”

Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press