An interesting twist to the season occurred for the Dallas Stars duringTuesday's win over the Phoenix Coyotes, as outstanding team defense and goaltending has led to just nine goals allowed while going 5-1-1 to climb right back into the playoff race. Not bad progress for the defensive disaster of a team that took the ice to start off October.
There have been stumbles, of course, and the second period of the Coyotes game was no exception. Despite dominating and controlling play through the latter portion of the first and throughout the second, the Stars remained scoreless thanks to strong play by Mike Smith. Their offensive frustration begat leaks defensively, and the Coyotes were afforded several clean breakaway opportunities and even a 4-on-2 situation that somehow miraculously fizzled without a clean shot on goal.
On one such opportunity, however, the Stars were not as lucky. Antoine Vermette took advantage of a Jamie Benn turnover and sped into the zone; despite being caught by Jordie Benn, Vermette slides the puck underneath a sprawling Kari Lehtonen.
Let's quickly break this down, shall we?
The play comes at the end of a shift for the Stars top line of Benn, Seguin and Nichushkin. A sharp defensive play by Brenden Dillon moves the puck out of the zone and Nichushkin passes it over to Benn. It's clear that the Stars are preparing for a line change, with Dillon shooting up into the offensive zone and Benn attempting to just get the puck deep before changing himself.
The major breakdown here, aside from the turnover by Benn, is obviously centered around Jordie Benn and Nichushkin. I'm not quite certain what Jordie was looking at, but he had ventured much too far up the ice before Benn had actually got the puck deep into the zone -- especially since his partner Dillon had charged ahead of him to join the rush. Jordie, like Nichushkin, did not see the turnover and reacted much too late to cut off Vermette and thus a breakaway was born.
Kudos to Jordie Benn, though, on catching Vermette from behind and lifting the stick. Usually, that's a play that works but this time I think it actually hurt the Stars; Vermette appeared ready to fire the puck but when his stick was lifted, it created the perfect deke to open up Lehtonen and slide the puck in on the backhand.
The major focus, though, is on Nichushkin.
Now, let's set this straight right away: Nothing whatsoever has happened this season to even suggest that Nichushkin has an attitude or work ethic problem. In fact, he's probably too hard on himself and overworks himself too much as he adjusts and learns on the fly -- especially when it comes to defensive coverage.
Nichushkin has improved dramatically on defense as the season has gone and incidents such as these -- with Val just sort of gliding around the neutral zone while a goal is scored in the opposite direction -- are far and few between.
On first viewing, it looks as though Nichushkin just gives up on the play and chooses to ignore everything that follows. On further review, however, it becomes a bit clearer as to what might have happened on the play.
As stated before, the Stars were preparing for a line change as the puck moved up ice. The play was for Benn to dump the puck deep, Dillon to chase, and the top line to get off the ice. Benn gets held up at the line and Nichushkin circles toward him -- as Benn apparently shoots the puck deep, Nichushkin immediately circles away and skates in the direction of the bench.
Of course, Benn's shot was blocked and Vermette was off to the races. While not so much an exceptionally "lazy" play from the young rookie, it was certainly not very good awareness of the play -- and that goes for almost the entire line. It was a sloppy change altogether with too much gliding around and not enough skating, and the Stars paid the price for it.
What was interesting about that goal, however, is that it seemed to have a very positive effect overall. It woke the Stars up, and after that the defensive breakdowns were nowhere near as frequent or severe, and the team finished the game with some of the best defensive play in the third period they've shown all season.