A week into last December, the Dallas Stars stood atop the Pacific Division, and in third spot in the Western Conference. With the NHL playoffs less than two weeks away, the team is in the exact same position – and has the same problem, too.
In December, the Stars led a pack of teams bunched within three points. Dallas was in third due to its division lead, but also only two points out of ninth and out of the postseason.
Prior to Thursday's games, the situation is precisely the same.
The club, once a titan of the NHL, has missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons, a time during which the Stars hit a financial wall as well. The club ended up in bankruptcy court, the previous owner cracked by the financial crisis of 2008-09.
Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi bought the team and 50-per-cent of its home arena for $267-million (U.S.) last year.
In the mid-2000s, Gaglardi tried to buy his hometown Canucks but lost out to the Aquilini family. A lengthy court battle ensued, which Gaglardi also lost.
With those spectacles now years behind, Gaglardi has the full reins of a team in a city not far away from where his mother grew up in Texas. Outside expectations for the Stars this year were nominal, at best. Attendance had guttered at 6,306 on Oct. 10, 2011, the second home game of the season – a figure now revived last Saturday to 17,238.
On the ice, prognosticators figured the Stars had little hope in the Pacific. Now, the their playoff future runs through Vancouver on Friday.
"Here we are with five games to play, in first place," Gaglardi said Thursday. "Our staff always thought we were a playoff team. And we've played like a playoff team for large parts of the season."
The Stars have probably the toughest remaining schedule of the Western Conference bubble teams. After Friday in Vancouver, Dallas visits chief rival San Jose the next night, and then plays the Sharks again Tuesday in Dallas. The Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues are Dallas's final opponents.
For Dallas, the playoffs have effectively been under way for weeks, if not months.
"The schedule's pretty tough but we pretty much control our own destiny," Gaglardi said.
As for the Canucks, debates in the city centre on the theme of, yeah, they're pretty good but are they great?
Evidence A: Two 1-0 wins this week, against desperate squads and possible first-round playoff opponents. Back-to-back shutouts normally would be celebrated. But the question in Vancouver is: Where are the goals?
A percolating concern may be injuries.
Two weeks ago, the Canucks were remarkably healthy. Now, forward Daniel Sedin (concussion) is out indefinitely, though the club hopes he's back for the start of the playoffs. Key defenceman Kevin Bieksa had a "maintenance" day last Tuesday, missing practice, and didn't play Wednesday. Fellow blueliner Aaron Rome (knee) is supposed to return next week.
The whole team was given Thursday off, with a previously scheduled practice cancelled at the last moment, easing an already hectic week of four games at home in six nights.
After Wednesday's win against the Colorado Avalanche, head coach Alain Vigneault seemed relatively content. A day earlier, he had half-complained, in his reserved way, about the lofty expectations among fans and media in Vancouver, that it is "tough" to find a "positive" story about the team.
On Wednesday, after his team was badly outshot but delivered the W anyway, Vigneault kept it simple: "We'll take the two points – and move on."