The Dallas Stars were one of the surprise stories of the 2015-16 season. After years of futility, they finished atop the Western Conference thanks to a high-flying offense and reached the second round of the postseason.
One season later, the Stars are looking like anything but a playoff contender.
Dallas will visit the New York Rangers on Tuesday night after a disheartening 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Monday afternoon. The Stars lost three of four and own just two wins in their past eight contests.
Captain Jamie Benn has been particularly dreadful of late, scoring one goal in his past 10 games and committing an egregious turnover that led to a Sabres goal Monday.
"Pretty bad -- that's taking it easy on myself too," Benn said. "I wish I could say how I really feel but it's probably not good for TV. I think it's contagious and it runs through the team so I definitely need to do a better job with body language and definitely my play on the ice."
Even coach Lindy Ruff couldn't obscure the fact that his best player is having a rough go of it lately.
"I do (have concern)," Ruff said. "He's struggled for a period of time. Obviously, his struggles out there were easy to see. ... It's been a tough year for him. It almost seemed every time he had the puck something bad happened."
Dallas comes to Madison Square Garden just four points out of a playoff spot, largely because the Western Conference is having a down year. But with the East on the rise, this three-game road trip that concludes in Brooklyn on Thursday won't be an easy path to gaining ground in the standings.
"We have to get points back on the road," Ruff said to the Dallas Morning News. "Our road record hasn't been good enough. The only way to get this thing going on a consistent basis is to be a winner on the road."
You'll have to excuse the Rangers if winning isn't the first thing on their mind Tuesday.
When these teams met in Dallas on Dec. 15, New York emerged with a 2-0 victory. Henrik Lundqvist made 27 saves but was not awarded a shutout, as he had to leave the game for nearly six minutes after the Stars' Cody Eakin plowed into him and delivered a blow to Lundqvist's head.
Eakin was suspended four games, but the Rangers sound like they're looking for their own brand of justice.
"What hit?" the Rangers' Chris Kreider said jokingly to the Daily News on Monday. "No, I mean, that's not something you forget about, obviously. I'm sure someone will have a conversation with (Eakin) about it at some point."
New York can't dedicate too much time toward exacting revenge, not as it comes into the contest on a two-game slide. The Rangers will get back center Mika Zibanejad, who has been out since Nov. 20 with a broken leg.
But even with the forward group at full strength, New York's fate is still tied to Lundqvist's play.
With backup goaltender Antti Raanta out 7-10 days with a lower-body injury, the inconsistent Lundqvist will have to return to form if the Rangers are to maintain the pace in the very competitive Metropolitan Division.
"This is a lot like my first year," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said to the Daily News, "where we're getting a real dialed-in and playing real well (Lundqvist on some nights), giving us the best chance to win. And then the other game he's looking for it a little bit more. But if history is any (indication), he'll find his groove and be the great goaltender that he is."
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