Well, it's been a tough season. The Dallas Stars are tied for the seventh playoff spot in the West five games in, but fourth place in the Central Division isn't too bad, I guess. After all, Dallas had a tough go of it early on, opening against the Pittsburgh Penguins before heading off to that ghoul-infested Pepsi Center in the mountainous wilderness only to follow that match up with games against the up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers and the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning.
To top it all off, the Stars didn't even get a break in the schedule come game five, traveling to the Florida Panthers' den in Sunrise where they were up against a team (and goalie) that just wasn't allowing goals. I have read Sports Blogs before, so I know that good defense beats good offense every time. What hope do the Stars have, really, I just don't even know.
You're fed up with this bit by now, so let's do some real talk: the Stars won again tonight to move into a four-way tie for first place in the Central. It's a tough little group of cohorts our heroes have to deal with this year, but they have only a misstep in Colorado (easy to do with the elevation and other things) to blot their record thus far.
Eight points in five games is a 131-point pace, if you don't want to bust out the old abacus. Razor actually busted out the word "abacus" earlier tonight in a friendly jab at Dave Strader, who is much better at calling games than collecting, calculating and disseminating statistics as they move from screen to screen in a foreign television booth during a live broadcast. It's okay, Dave, we'd be lousy at that, too. Keep on keepin' on.
Lots to say about this game, and yet it almost deserves to just be watched and enjoyed with minimal analysis. This was Dallas doing their thing, complete with weird goal-against, immediate follow-up goal against, Jamie Benn Beast Mode and nitrous oxide-injected offense led by Tyler Seguin. This team can beat you in a lot of ways (well, more like one way, but with a lot of different people), and after a bit of a poke-and-prod first half against Florida, they engaged all of those ways tonight.
It didn't even have to be that way, for what it's worth. Patrick Sharp had (another) great chance early, but he couldn't quite pick the top corner when he headed in on Roberto Luongo from an angle. Radek Faksa almost Janmarked(TM) the first good pass he got into the net, but one could forgive the large Czech for not immediately scoring goals. I mean, sure, it's expected that Stars rookies will all score in their first games at this point, but it's not absolutely mandatory or anything. They're a forgiving bunch.
Seguin also had a good chance early as the Stars forechecked hard, but Luongo was good, or at least better than Ben Bishop the other night. It felt like Dallas would pay for missing out on some early chance, and Reilly Smith almost went full former Star when he headed in on Kari early. The Stars just haven't been capitulating like we'd become accustomed to though, which is okay by me.
I held my breath for a while in the first after the Erik Gudbranson hit on Sharp that knocked him out for a bit. It seemed clean, shoulder to shoulder and all, but Sharp was gone (ostensibly to get checked for a conkie) for much of the first. He looked good after coming back, and at no time did he look better than when he picked off a pass in the neutral zone to feed Seguin for the breakaway. Tyler finally got the Shooter's Goal he's wanted all season, and things only got better from there, but that was a textbook example of a smart veteran play by Sharp. You need your experienced guys to make teams pay for cheating with passes like that one, and Sharp certainly did so.
Florida kept testing Lehtonen from down low, partly because that's all Dallas was allowing for much of the game. Through it, Kari held his post well, which I suspect was a point of great emphasis for Jeff Reese. We've heard a lot about the post-to-post moves Reese has been pushing, but Kari has been in good position from bad angles so far. It'd be hard to argue for him not to start in Philly at this point, but we're still getting a handle on how Ruff wants to handle that. Isn't it wonderful to have two decent goalies to choose from? It is not late in the season yet, but this seems like what Jim Nill was envisioning upon signing Antti Niemi. I am okay with feeling this way.
Jordie Benn and Jyrki Jokipakka did not have their best game tonight. Jokipakka got beaten out for an icing that resulted in a quality chance (and save), and the Panther's second goal was 10 percent bad luck on a puck that didn't settle on Jokipakka's blade. The other 90 percent was bad judgment, and Benn augmented the resulting rush by apparently starting to try to collect the missed puck, changing a 3-on-1 into a 2-on-0 which created a 2-0 lead for Florida before the Stars knew what hit them. We are not surprised by this anymore, and apparently Dallas wasn't either, because they engaged thrusters and roared back almost immediately after that point.
How did you feel about the refereeing, even though we and the Stars cannot do a thing about it? Really questionable interference call late in the first on John Klingberg, to be honest. You never see that sort of "hit & hold" called along the rear boards, so that was just bad luck for Klingberg on what was really the right play. The Stars did a good job of killing it, however, which was a good sign from a PK unit that needs to pull its weight this season.
The video review on the Panthers' first goal was a little sketchy, but I really don't have a problem with the end result. There was absolutely contact between Jonathan Huberdeau and Kari, and you could even argue for goalie interference earlier on. The official explanation was that Jaromir Jagr's positioning "did not impair the goalkeeper's ability to defend his goal." Well, yes, that's true by the time the puck actually goes in, but it possibly should have been goalie interference initially.
However, since there was no penalty, the refs de facto ruled that Lehtonen should have recovered by the time the puck went in the net. You wonder if this instance will set some sort of precedent for future reviews as to how much time is "reasonable" for a goalie to recover from incidental contact. I'm sure referees hate setting any kind of precedent, so perhaps that explains the league's rather puzzling explanation. Either way, you probably want Kari to recover a bit more quickly there, right? I'm glad we don't need to talk about this any more as some kind of deciding goal. That would really stink.
One of my favorite moments from this game happened when Jason Spezza hit the post after a long sequence of Valeri Nichushkin holding (and protecting) the puck behind the Florida net. It was great to see Nuke dominate with the puck for an extended stretch, even though he didn't get rewarded. You have to think Ruff was impressed with Nuke's play tonight.
In fact, Ruff was apparently happy with most everyone's play tonight except for Jordie and Jokipakka, as the lines stayed wholly unruffled for the entirety of play except for a healthy session of "where's the bench, oh wait we're sitting on it" by Jordie and Joki after the second Panthers' goal. If the Stars are itching to give Patrik Nemeth or Jamie Oleksiak some time, this might have been the game they can point to in making a change. Honestly though, they could keep things status quo, and it probably wouldn't be an issue. One pair had a rough game, and that happens to your third pair sometimes. That's why they're the third pair.
Last thing on Nuke: He started looking better and better as this game wore on. Late in the second, he made a nice move on the low boards that eventually resulted in a one-timer from Johnny Oduya. Unfortunately Nichushkin's rebound chance was swallowed up by Luongo, but it was good to see him using his size and skating and almost getting a goal on the same shift as a result. When things Work the Way They're Supposed To, everyone is happy, except for one team. Usually that team has not been Dallas.
Did it ever feel good when Sharp picked off a Panthers pass and fed Seguin for that breakaway, though. Tyler beat Luongo glove side with his trademark release for the Stars' first tally, and momentum finally shifted towards Dallas for the first noticeable time. It wouldn't really change for any meaningful stretch. Two good chances came soon after the first goal for Dallas, including a gorgeous Alex Goligoski opportunity in the slot. Both were without result, but the Stars would go on the power play shortly thereafter with a chance to tie things right back up. The first unit had good movement, but nothing of quality got through to Luongo, and the second unit could never really get set up in the zone. On road games against tough goalies, you really want to capitalize on your power play chances, so it hurt to go oh-fer on the first man advantage, but the Stars probably aren't going to sustain 30 percent conversion, so maybe that was just some universe-balance going on. Or maybe it wasn't.
After a scrum involving Vernon Fiddler getting into a headlock courtesy of Mr. Petrovic, the Stars played 4-on-4 in the Panthers' zone ad infinitum, or at least they would have if John Klingberg hadn't been tripped (twice) and awarded a penalty (once). Dallas couldn't quite generate a quality chance during the first chunk of 4-on-3 before the second period ended, but the game felt eminently winnable after 40 minutes despite the 2-1 deficit. I've used "felt" or "feel" a ton so far here, and I don't like doing that, but I'm just trying to express the fact that I had confidence based on how the team had been playing so far. The Stars of this year really do sell themselves quite well.
When the third began with the remainder of the 4-on-3 belonging to Dallas, things didn't pick up right away, but Tyler Seguin reminded us that the Stars' scoring is an eventuality, not a possibility, and he fed Jamie Benn beautifully after the captain beat his man to the net and tipped the Seguin pass by a helpless-yet-lovable Luongo. Scoring on Luongo will never not be a great experience for any Stars fan who watched the 2007 playoffs, though.
Ales Hemsky had another good, good game tonight, holding the puck for long stretches and making beautiful passes. I am quickly venturing into Hemsky Fanboy territory, but I'm just oh-so-okay with that. If he continues what he's done so far (with an expected dip in his point production to date), the Stars' patience will have been rewarded and then some for whatever the heck happened last year.
Mattias Janmark had trouble finding space early, which put him roughly on par with everyone else not on the Stars' top line. He demonstrated his higher-level thinking on a beautiful play in the offensive zone in the third period when he carried the puck towards the net and left it for Cody Eakin, boxing out his man (partially) in the process. Razor called it "a bright little play," but it also showed his composure. Most rookies are looking due north there, especially those who have found the back of the net recently; but Janmark knew he could protect the puck, so he looked for a better play. It's that type of thing that makes younger players look like veterans among their peers.
Speaking of the third period, the Stars spent the last half of the game utterly dominating in possession. I'd have to go back and re-watch healthy parts of each period to see what they changed, but it's tough not to chalk up their improvement to coaching and character. We know that the Stars have people (like video coach Kelly Forbes) eyeing the opponent's system in hopes of spotting tendencies or weak points, and I'd love to know just what they may have spotted that allowed them to tilt the ice so dramatically as the game went on. Part of it assuredly just has to do with the Stars' being a drastically better team in terms of roster makeup, but players usually play the way they are told to play, so I guess this is just a nebulous sort of "great job, if you did a great job" to Ruff and his staff.
Cody Eakin is not my favorite player in the defensive zone. The quick center/winger with a nice shot and good forechecking made an overly desperate clear to the boards from the low slot with about nine minutes to play in the third, but no one was there to collect it, and the resulting turnover led to Kari Lehtonen making a great save. James Neal was the same way back in the day, wonderful as an offensive-zone player in just about every way, but not exactly the first guy you'd put out there to defend a faceoff in your own zone late in the game. You wonder if the Stars are gradually becoming less committed to Eakin as a shutdown player par excellence. He's still a very good player to have for many other reasons, but there is certainly a sense that Dallas is re-evaluating a lot of roles this season, and Eakin's shutdown role could become a casualty of that.
Klingberg seemed to wake up from the nightmare he endured in Tampa Bay, as he looked much more confident and adroit in Sunrise. The Stars' third goal was 100 percent a result of Klingberg getting the puck past the high block, even falling down as he shot after dipping a shoulder to fool the Florida forward. Seguin was able to get to the rebound, and the Stars' best players continued playing like the best players on one of the (so far) best teams in the NHL. That is a thing that fans like to see, unless you are talking about the fans in Florida. There were fans in Florida, by the way, so ignore all of those Hockey News articles about cheap android replicas filling the Florida Panthers' building.
Tyler Seguin executed a shot block, puck retrieval, and pass to Jamie Benn at the end of a long sequence in the Stars' zone with Luongo pulled. Tyler Seguin did a lot of things tonight. Tyler Seguin scored two goals and had two high-quality assists tonight. Jamie Benn scored two goals and one assist tonight. Patrick Sharp picked up his first two points tonight. Kari Lehtonen stopped 24 of 26 shots tonight. The Stars' top defensive pair was very, very good, with Goligoski and Klingberg both making smart choices and executing their zone exits with alacrity.
This team fired on most cylinders tonight, and that should be enough to beat the Florida Panthers. It was enough to beat the Florida Panthers. The Dallas Stars are enough to beat most teams, so far.