The Dallas Stars might have temporarily saved their season on Thursday night, but the next five games will go much further in deciding the ultimate fate of this team. Also -- some thoughts on Jaromir Jagr.
So now what?
24 hours ago we were all convinced the sky was falling and that we were just waiting for the final death knell on a season many were already convinced was unsalvageable. Two periods into last night's game against the Los Angeles Kings it seems as if the season's fate was now an inevitability and that the team was showing an inability to even hope to respond from the demoralizing loss of the night before.
Then Kari Lehtonen came through with perhaps the biggest and most spectacular game of his career. It was certainly the best performance he's had since coming to Dallas and he might have saved the season all by himself with his 40-save shutout. The Stars were absolutely and completely dominated through two periods on Thursday night and while much of that momentum was due to embellished calls leading to power play time for Los Angeles -- it was incredibly tough to find anything hopeful or positive about the game outside of the Stars' crease.
The team rallied, led by a pair of wily and skillful veteran wingers. Jaromir Jagr, who has been this team's best player the past two weeks, finally found some luck when his backhand pass deflected off a skate and into the net. Suddenly, despite being outshot by a 2-to-1 margin, the Stars were in control of the game and the season was more than alive.
Is it all a ruse, however? Is this just more of the same, false hope building after a big victory that masks the issues that plague this team game in and game out?
What if the Stars had won on Wednesday in Colorado and then lost a close on in Los Angeles. That would have been expected and a win on Saturday night would mean six-of-eight points on the week. Instead, the wins are reversed and we're all left feeling confused as just what to think of this inconsistent team.
Now the Stars head back home for a crucial five-game homestand that concludes with the final game before the NHL Trade Deadline on April 3. This five-game stretch is also, perhaps, the roughest the Stars will face this season with two games against the dominating Minnesota Wild, a rematch against the Kings and the first of a three-game series against the incredibly-lucky-yet-still-successful-first-place Anaheim Ducks.
Last season, some big performances by the team leading up the trade deadline seemed to alter the plans the front office might have otherwise had for the team. These next ten days or so will could have the same effect: win three of the next five games and the Stars are still right in the thick of the playoff race.
Despite many of our reservations about the Stars finishing once again in no-man's land at No. 9 or No. 10 in the standings, can Joe Nieuwendyk make the difficult decision of trading Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow when the Stars still have a shot at the first postseason appearance for the team since 2008? Will they be more aggressive and seek to actually improve the team?
These next five games will go a long way to determining the ultimate fate of the season.
Some other random thoughts on this maddening hockey team:
*Jaromir Jagr was expected to be a leader and mentor for this team this season and it's a big reason why Dallas felt paying him $4.5 million was a good idea. He continues to lead the team in goals (12) and points (22) while the rest of the roster still attempts to figure out just what it means to play meaningful hockey down the stretch. Jagr knows and Ray Whitney knows and Eric Cole knows -- that's a big part of why they were brought in, and all three players have been some of the strongest on the ice for this team the past three games.
Jagr is brutally honest, though, and it's clear he's more than aware of just what sort of situation he's in. Quotes like these are something we haven't seen much lately:
"It wasn't fun," said Jagr, of the disastrous second period against the Kings. "I don't think I touched the puck once. We played the champions. We didn't play very well lately, so I sorta knew it would happen. Kari was just fantastic and gave us a chance there in the third period. We kinda settled down and started playing a little bit better. It was a little bit of concern out there."
*There's a lot of discussion out there right now about whether or not Jagr is "having fun" or "enjoying" his time here in Dallas, on a team that is struggling to find their way through a tough season. These thoughts have some wondering if he's just biding his time until he can leave, to perhaps be traded at the deadline to a contender or even leave this summer for the easier waters of the Eastern Conference.
While those sentiments might be true, I can't help but feel they're a bit misguided.
One reason Jagr chose Dallas (aside from the contract offer) was that he wanted to go somewhere he was needed and wanted, where he would get big minutes in big situations and be counted on by the team he was on. He's certainly found that in Dallas and I have a feeling he had to at least have a feeling he knew what he was walking into; Jagr is too smart to have been naive enough to think that the Dallas Stars could have been the Philadelphia Flyers of last season.
He wants to win a Cup, there's no doubt about that. But I also see a veteran player who is the absolute key leader in this locker right now, coaching the younger players on the bench and setting the example on the ice. This might not be the most enjoyable time of his career but he also has to acknowledge just how important he's become to this franchise both short-term and long-term.
*All hail Kari Lehtonen, that is all.