We are officially halfway through this season. Depending on your expectations for this team the rest of the way, that may be a good or a tough thing.
Goals have been plentiful in both directions, and Tyler Seguin is still amazing. The Texas Stars' contributions are making an impact, and it's often been a positive one, John Klingberg's last two games notwithstanding. The team has been healthy other than Patrick Eaves, Valeri Nichushkin and Patrik Nemeth, and Kari Lehtonen is still starting roughly 12 out of every 10 games. I know that's impossible, but the math just worked for me right now. He plays a lot.
It's not always helpful to offer broad categorizations when you're talking about the collection of human randomness that is a sports contest, but looking at what the Stars have been over these first 41 games, I've found myself drawing far many comparisons from one game to the next.
Even as the team seems to find myriad new ways of frustrating observers and coaches alike, I have noticed a lot of two distinct types of games when I have sat down to watch the 2014-2015 Dallas Stars. Those things are both kind of long and rambling, but it's Sunday, and you can only watch so many episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee before you need some real analogies in front of the old eyeballs, you know?
Category 1: Knife-and-Fork Burrito Game
I attended a "holiday party" at my boss's house one year that had been catered by a Mexican restaurant. My boss had told us that the party would start at 3 p.m., but he had also stressed that we didn't need to show up anywhere near that time. Being by far the youngest person in my department, I wanted to be respectful, so I scheduled my arrival for a fashionably late 4:30. After knocking and being admitted, I found out that the food had already been apportioned about an hour before my arrival, because apparently people over 50 really do eat dinner before 5 p.m. pretty regularly. (Also, all parties should really either have the door standing open or a sign on the outside welcoming the greeter so that new arrivals don't find themselves being forced to knock, then walking in to a momentary conversation freeze as everyone turns to see who the boss's wife lets into the house. It's very awkward, especially when you're entering alone.)
Anyway, the point of this: because of my late arrival, all the taco tortillas had been taken, so I was left with a choice between enormous burrito tortillas or half-cracked hard shells. Being a Growing Boy (of basically 30 years), I made myself a burrito filled with lots of tasty treats, spicy salsas and mounds of meat, although I didn't fold the burrito while standing at the counter, figuring I would do that when I sat down to eat it.
My time at the counter had enabled me to push past the initial New Person state into the Part of the Party mode, and I was beginning to relax again as I sat down at the table full of coworkers who were all basically done eating (still not even five o'clock). This meant that they all studiously watched as I began to fold my burrito.
You've been to Chipotle, right? You know how even the fullest burrito is eventually molded into submission by the diligent burrito person while yielding almost none of its contents before the foil encases your 1,000-calorie treasure? It's a pretty quick process, and I'm always impressed by it. I apparently should stop being impressed and start filming their craftsmanship though, because I am awful at folding burritos. I always manage to feel as though I'm folding my burrito the wrong direction despite the tortilla's being circular and therefore not direction-dependent.
Maybe it's the way I put the contents on the burrito or something, I don't know. Anyway, it always ends up looking like I am trying to wrap a birthday present of meat, cheese and guacamole with a piece of burnt parchment paper while wearing boxing gloves. The tortilla either rips or fails to contain the things it is designed to contain, and I usually end up just holding it together with the weakest seam facing my mouth and plunging into it with the nervous fervor of a first-time bazooka wielder. It is disgusting.
Hearing the murmuring going on around the table as I patiently folded my burrito with what must have looked like a first-grade understanding of gravity and mass, I realized that everyone there was quietly terrified at the prospect of watching me try to eat this unstable offspring of my quiet confidence and obvious incompetence. One lady across from me made a hesitant comment to the effect of, "Wow, that's one way to do it, I guess." I tried to laugh it off with a comment about how I didn't realize my dinner would be the entertainment for the evening. There were a couple of polite guffaws and a lot more nervous coughs.
So, I caved. I turned up my nose at them all and, acting like it was my plan the whole time, got up from the table and grabbed a knife and fork from the buffet, returned to my seat, and proceeded to very delicately consume my burrito with what must have been disturbingly deliberate motions. I have never eaten anything so delicious with so much bitterness in my heart. It was a delicious burrito, and my disdain for my tablemates' disdain somehow made it taste even better. My cashmere sweater remained spotless, and I made it through the evening without anyone laughing at me or anything.
In Knife-and-Fork Burrito games, the Stars came out with a game plan that quickly showed itself to be inadequate for the task at hand. Realizing that their early effort was going to get them into trouble (or had already done so), Lindy Ruff shook up lines and re-strategized. The result was something a bit less messy than it could have been as the game went on, and it was comforting to see that the team had found a way to steel themselves and bounce back after an early lack of proper hockey planning and execution.
In a few of these games, the Stars' renewed efforts seemed to make the other team's goalie look great as the match progressed (hello, Jonathan Bernier). Just as the burrito critics found themselves satisfied at their victim's failed first attempts, the second approach, while somewhat effective, only served to reinforce the fact that the underlying problem (not defending/wrapping a burrito properly) was an intrinsic part of this team's identity that needed to be addressed.
The Stars have given up 135 goals in 41 games this season, more than every other team except Arizona, Buffalo and Edmonton. (So, more than every other NHL team.) That is over three goals a game the Stars are spotting opponents from night to night, still. They have given up nine more goals as a team than Philadelphia, and the Flyers' defense consists of Steven Mason behind a rotating crew of Supermarket Sweep bonus prizes set on the Kevin McCalister electric train just circling through the defensive zone.
The Stars give up way, way too many goals to be a successful team in the Central Division right now. Even when they find a way to change their strategy and actually eat their burrito without losing (their dignity), there is not a plethora of evidence that they have found a sustainable approach.
Category 2: Sidewalk Burrito
I was visiting some of my relatives in a nice California coastal town not too long ago, and I found myself starving with a few hours to kill until dinner time. I also had an appointment back at my folks' house within the hour. Solution: a great big burrito from one of my favorite burrito joints. So I ordered myself one burrito with shredded chicken, guacamole and melted cheese all contained within its floury folds, returned twenty minutes later to pick it up, and headed off to find a quiet place to consume my late lunch before heading back to the ranch.
This town has a beautiful view of the ocean, so I found a curb on a slight incline that overlooked the bay and dug out my burrito for what promised to be a serene and satisfying chunk of time. This is the point at which I realized I had failed to get any napkins from the burrito joint. I usually keep an emergency stack of napkins in my glove compartment, so I opened it up and found only a torn half of an In-N-Out Burger napkin greeting me. (I would normally take this moment to bemoan my failure to have stored napkins on this one occasion, but I know for a fact that right now, there are zero napkins in my glove compartment. I haven't learned a thing.)
While I wasn't exactly eating a Chipotle quesarito, I knew the napkin scrap probably wasn't going to be sufficient, so I spread out the brown paper bag in which my order was given to me upon my lap and positioned the half-napkin at the ready, determined to let the bag absorb as much burrito runoff as possible before resorting to my precious little napkin acreage.
The thing about these chicken burritos is that they are amazing, but they are incomplete without the hot salsa that accompanies them on the side. This salsa comes in a little plastic container with a lid. There is about 1-2 oz worth of this delicious stuff that begs to be introduced to the meaty, cheesy delights hidden away by the tortilla, but it's a delicate operation at the best of times. This was not that, as I was on something of a tight schedule and found myself ill-furnished with cleanup paraphernalia.
I took a first delicate bite, and everything was holding together. I tried to pour a tiny bit of salsa onto the bitten portion of the burrito for a second bite, and everything became terrible. The salsa didn't pool at the top of the burrito like it was supposed to, but chose instead to run down the side of the burrito. This caused me to tilt the burrito towards me as I tried to stop the hot sauce from meeting my hands (or my lap), which of course led to more sauce spilling out a different side of the burrito. The precious half-a-napkin was called into service much sooner than planned, and it gave itself valiantly to the cause of saving my car seats and jeans from hot sauce stains.
I assessed the damage:
1 half-napkin wadded up, damp with salsa
94% of a huge burrito, uneaten
10 minutes to finish this late lunch before driving back
I debated eating the rest of the burrito without salsa. It could work, but what a waste. And there was no guarantee that the contents of the burrito wouldn't also find themselves spilling out, creating a salsa-less mess that would be equally dangerous in its way to car and driver alike. The view was nice, and the weather was calm, so I decided to abandon Plan A and go for an approach of, "I am a filthy, piggish human male." I will call that Plan A2.
Cradling the burrito disaster in my hands, I slowly exited the car, making sure no drops of burrito escaped before we made it outside the confines of my 2002 Mazda Protege LX. Finally we arrived at the curb, and I knelt down to put the bag, burrito and wrapper all on the ground for a moment while I went to get the cup of salsa that was still in the car.
Sadly, this story ends with a rather unholy picture: I am squatting on a sloped sidewalk overlooking the bay with hands drenched in salsa and burrito-goo as I repeatedly crane my neck to take huge bites. Early on, I glanced over at the nearby restaurant to see if anyone had seen me park. There were a couple of horrified senior citizens looking back at me from the other side of a window. I did not look over there again.
The one bit of foresight I give myself credit for was leaving the keys in the ignition; this meant that I was able to continue listening to the classical radio station while I wolfed down my gastronomic abomination with the maximum amount of available stateliness, that being zero at this point. By the way, if you have never humiliated yourself with a soundtrack but wish to, I would highly commend Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (I. Allegro) to you.
Finally, I was done. Both the burrito and my social credibility were no more, and I had only to wipe my hands on the cement sidewalk before using the remaining dry parts of the paper bag to dry my fingers, and I was ready to drive home with a full stomach and an inability to show my face in that part of town for ten years.
Sidewalk burrito games are characterized by a victory that probably isn't one that the team uses when corroborating their character as a regularly competitive NHL team (not-disgusting eater). Whether the opponent seems to be intimidating or not, victory can only be achieved by a proper utilization of every tool at hand. The Stars were able to employ their metaphorical bits of burger-place napkins to get a much-needed sparkling save, fortunate goal or timely whistle.
When the game ended and the objective had been accomplished, no one really walked away feeling like a model citizen. Sure, you managed not to pour guacamole all over yourself, but you subordinated your character and image in order to walk away with satisfaction. Effective for one game? Yes. Something that begs for an improved model and/or resources? Much more definitely yes always.
The Stars have scored the third-most goals in the Western Conference. They have the ability to cover up poor choices on a lot of occasion--which is good, because they have shown themselves liable to make those choices here and there, and there, and, oh look, also there, by the pay phone. [tired "remember pay phones" joke] The thing is, the Stars are also boasting the highest shooting percentage in the league (alongside Toronto). Yes, Tyler Seguin's otherworldly 15-percent isn't necessarily absurdly high (although it will be lower come season's end, of course), but Roussel and Ritchie are even higher, so you can expect them to regress even more than Seguin. Other players currently above 10 percent like Trevor Daley, Shawn Horcoff and Travis Moen are also bound to slip back towards reality as well.
In other words, you can be proud of yourself for having clean jeans after eating the burrito, but you had better re-stock your napkins for next time, because things won't always work out that well if you continue to plan this poorly. Guess what? if you can defend better, you don't have to clean up your mess all that often. It's called goal (spill) prevention, and it makes it a lot easier on your handy-wipes (or half a napkin, as Kari Lehtonen has looked this year) when you can avoid the risky situations as much as possible.
Conclusion: The Stars have been entertaining to watch for most of this season. Hey, they've only been shut out one time, and that was by Toronto which you know was a fluke. But if you want to render an early verdict about the competitive value of entertainment during a hockey game, the Stars would seem to suggest that it is closer to negative than positive.The run-and-gun offense is all well and good when you can either defend well enough to allow yourself the risk or your goalie can save your bacon, and neither has really been the case on a consistent basis so far this year.
There is time to catch up -- the fact that the Stars have crept up to within shouting distance of a playoff spot after their first two months' worth of play proves that there is definitely time -- but if Dallas wants to redeem their Game 6 performance from last year, they may need to start finding a third way to eat a burrito.