The Neutral Zone: More on James Neal and Marc Crawford

Before we get into some more official breakdowns from last night's game against the Blue Jackets, I wanted to share some of my thoughts that didn't make it into the game recap. I found that I had a lot to say, but was so frustrated and angry that I found I really couldn't put them together in a coherent manner. After a somewhat restless night of sleep, here are my further thoughts on the Dallas Stars and that debacle at American Airlines Center last night.

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Sometime this morning we're going to get word on whether the NHL will punish James Neal for his hit on Derek Dorsett. Initially my thoughts were that he may just get fined since this is his first transgression of this nature. Yet I fear that Neal may have made this hit at the exact wrong time and will be punished because of it.

The NHL has had a number of issues the past month or so regarding head injuries and cheap hits; the inconsistent punishments and a lack of true reasoning why one hit is punished and not another has led to an outcry that league is directionless and does not care about the health of it's players. "The NHL needs to send a message that hits that lead to head injuries will be severely dealt with" seems to be the rallying cry among media members. Last night on TSN the panel discussed what would be a suitable punishment for Neal, and the consensus was between two and five games, to "send a message to other players".

Now just because the media calls for it does not mean the NHL will follow suit. However, you have to think that at some point the NHL will want to stem this tide of bad PR and show that they do indeed care about head injuries and cheap hits, and use James Neal as an example of their stance on the matter.

The unfortunate nature of this is that while this was a hit from behind that resulted in a head injury, in no way was this a maliciously dirty hit. It wasn't a violent, elbow up open ice hit that sends a player to the hospital. Nope, this was James Neal racing to make a play on the puck along the boards, playing just like he always does with a focused intensity and physicality, and in the process he threw his shoulder into the back of the shoulder of Dorsett. He didn't lay him out with a hit right between the numbers; it was just an unfortunate hit that led to Dorsett smacking his forehead on the glass.

The other aspect of this that will be against Neal is the way Dorsett reacted after the hit. I'm certain that he hit that glass hard, and took that hit directly on the temple. While that's not as dangerous as smacking your back of your head on the ice, it's certainly a good way to get a nasty concussion. The way the replays show Dorsett falling, attempting to stand up and then collapsing to the ice like that is sure to strike a nerve with fans and media alike. They won't see the cross checks the Stars players had been taking in the back all game, or how Dorsett took a run at Neal in the first period. They'll see a player taking five or six strides towards the boards and putting a shoulder into another player who was facing the glass, followed by the hit player losing all sense of himself and falling in a heap on the ice.

If the NHL does do what Mike Keenan suggests and suspends Neal for four or five games, then I'm really not sure how I'll react. Somehow, I must have faith that the NHL keeps with the level of punishment they have already established and do not fall prey to the wishes of a few. If you want to send a message, then suspend Mike Richards for his hit. Suspend Rob Scuderi for his low hit. Fine James Neal and give him a stern warning for not using proper discretion on a bad hit along the boards.

More after the jump.

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At what point does Marc Crawford start feeling the heat?

This team feels directionless at times, as if they don't understand their exact approach from game to game. Crawford has shown that he can get this team ready for a tough opponent with 3-4 days of preparation, but when the Stars have back to back games or three in four days, they have issues playing with a consistent approach to the game.

Last night the Stars looked like a team that was trying to be something they weren't. For some reason, they abandoned the methodical approach from the night before in the win against Detroit and decided to go for a physical game that does not play to their strengths as a team. What's ironic is that we've called for the Stars to be more physical and establish a strong forecheck and show some attitude for a change; but not in the way the showed it last night.

I understand that the Blue Jackets were making some questionable hits and the players wanted to stick up for each other. I completely respect that. But when you can't take advantage of the number of power plays you received in the process and in fact give up a backbreaking shorthanded goal in the final seconds of the period, all of that energy that was spent fighting and 'sending a message' was completely wasted.

Perhaps the Stars had a specific gameplan in mind, but the early goal by Columbus combined with the physical nature of the game sent the Stars away from what they wanted to do. Is that Marc Crawford's fault, or was last night just a matter of a game getting out of hand and the Stars never able to recover?

While the outcome of the game was incredibly disappointing, it's not as if the Stars played an overall bad game. In fact, I thought that the Stars played one of their more determined efforts at home and especially showed some good energy after playing the night before. If Steve Mason doesn't make some of the brilliant saves he did in the first and second periods, then we would be having a completely different conversation today. That's just the way the game of hockey works; you run into a goaltender who is completely in the zone and it feels impossible to get anything past him.

The Stars were working hard to get back in the game in the second period, but the James Neal major rattled the entire team. They lost their positional discipline, lost any momentum they might have had and allowed two extremely frustrating goals at the tail end of the second period. All of a sudden the Stars were scrambling, just like the penalty kill from the start of the season and the wheels completely came off and the game was essentially lost during that five-minute power play. Is that one Marc Crawford? Is the onus on the head coach to ensure his team does not lose their composure in the midst of a game like that? It's not like Neal went kamikaze into the boards and drew the penalty because of a viciously dirty hit. It was called a major, it was unfortunate but it's still the Stars' job to kill it off.

I don't believe that last night's loss was a result of bad coaching by Marc Crawford, at least not directly. There are games where a team loses their cool a bit and things go horribly wrong and before you know it you're down four goals. The Stars for the first time all season showed a desire to stick up for their teammates who were getting abused along the boards. They drew penalties and had the chance to make Columbus pay for getting as rough as they did. Unfortunately, the bad guys got the break and the game was lost.

Yet with the Stars in the midst of a season long battle for consistency from game to game, and showing what seems to be a Jekyll and Hyde approach from night to night, at some point Marc Crawford is going to have to shoulder the blame. The Stars have this potential to be a good team; they've beaten Chicago, Calgary, San Jose and Detroit. Yet they've lost to Florida, Nashville and Minnesota.

It's frustration and it's not something that Stars fans have ever had to deal with before.

Hockey in North Texas is fickle. If the Stars aren't winning and if they aren't competitive, then the team will not keep those fringe fans that are the staple of Dallas sports. You can sense it; these fans are just itching for a reason to get on their feet and go crazy at a hockey game but each time the Stars lay an egg at home that's less fans that decide to come back. There will always be the die hard Stars fans that are there every game, that watch the game each night on television. But for a team that is competing for attention with the Dallas Cowboys, winning is the only solution for keeping fans.

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