Alex Ovechkin is a hockey archetype who deserves your praise, but it was still generous of the Dallas Stars to give him his goal without disrupting the torrent of victory that has been as much a part of their team's season as its colors. Even if you don't want to concede that the Russian's record goal was all part of a ploy by the Stars to inspire Nichushkin (whose success will in turn drive Guryanov to new heights), you can't be too upset at nothing more than two chancy goals conceded to one of the only teams in the league scoring more than three goals per game.
The Stars, of course, are scoring over three-and-a-half goals per game. Remove all of their (many) empty-netters, and they are still over three, the only team in the West other than Nashville what can make such a claim. And as long as Mike Babcock doesn't Snapchat the ancient tome he found in his office this fall (so ancient that it's written by Lou Lamoriello), the Stars don't look to slow down any time soon. Add your Central Division Caveat here.
Last night, the Stars did not score 3.5 goals. They barely managed three, and it took the forbearance of the endearingly assertive mophead Wes McCauley to get there. That would have been a problem for Dallas if not for the anti-problem for Dallas, Kari Lehtonen. His prescient save off a low tip before the unfortunate first goal was as fine a piece of anticipatory and positional goaltending as you'll see, and it set the tone for him the rest of the night. Even the Ovechkin goal was a United Nations effort as convoluted as [political humor that you disagree with]. American Hero T.J. Oshie tossed the puck into a crowd from which the Swedish Backstrom extracted it, perfectly nudging it back to the open side for Ovie, who (finally) put away the chance like a shot of vodka left on Putin's desk. Please don't ruin the comments by talking about politics; I am a bad example.
That said, Kari had to be good because the Stars, more than a few different times, were not. Yes, we all get a good laugh out of giving up a Jay Beagle "chance," but when you have a defenseman who shoots pucks at mirrors under ladders for fun you probably don't want to trust fortune's whimsy too much.
What they did do well was push back after getting pushed around. Some of the smaller defensemen broke up a couple of cycles, and even Cody Eakin got himself a couple chances in the offensive zone that almost turned into something (before one of them did). The Stars earned the Caps' respect in this game, and the high-quality chances on both sides reflected how even this contest ended up being. We'll still be nervous until the Stars are able to knock down some of the giants sharing their time zone, but beating some of the great teams in other divisions doesn't mean nothing.
Despite being characterized as a smaller team, Dallas can hang onto the puck very, very well. Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Patrick Sharp, Valeri Nichushkin and Mattias Janmark make up two full lines of wonderful hockey players, and it's no surprise that they rack up the shots on opposing teams even if it can be a bit tougher for them to play shutdown defense. Last night was a very enjoyable game for seeing the different facets of the Stars' puck possession game: Spezza's reach, Seguin's speed, Benn's everything, and Nichushkin's powerful frame and strong legs all work differently to the same end. When those players can shoot really well, you're going to score goals. Move the Puck, Keep the Puck, Shoot the Puck—it's that simple for this team. They make it simple.
Patrick Sharp's screen looked like a child lining up for free ice cream after a school assembly. He busted to the net, and instead of trying to get open for a pass or something silly like that, he went ten-hut right at the top of the crease. Sharp is good, and he knows what to do even on a fast break with tons of moving parts like that play had. It's great to have that sort of skill/sense combination aside two of the best players in the NHL. No offense to Patrick Eaves or Eakin, but that play required Benn, Klingberg, Seguin and Sharp to all make the right play in that nifty little sequence. They all did exactly that, and it's just a real pleasure to watch. It was nice to see Tyler Seguin get a real goal.
If you thought it was goalie interference, you may have been right. Certainly I have no idea, because neither does anyone this season. Sharp was on the edge of the paint, which sort of matters but also sort of doesn't, depending on the type of contact. Selfishly I want that goal to count because everyone did everything right, and it was pretty. On the other hand, it did feel a lot like the sort of goal the Red Wings used to score on Dallas all the dang time back in the day, so probably the Capitals loathed the call a lot. Can't really blame ‘em.
I'll say it once more because he deserves it: Alex Ovechkin has been the best thing about hockey since the lost season. Even past his apex, you can see why. He's huge and fast, and he has the hardest, heaviest wrist shot I have ever seen in person. He tries fancy-pants moves, and usually executes them. Credit to the Stars' defense (Alex Goligoski and Klingberg actually played him quite well last night) for shutting him and his teammates down as much as they could last night, even if one or two of them got roasted here and there (sorry, Johnny Oduya). Weather the storm and such.
Well, the Stars won the special teams battle in the sense that they did not lose it, but if memory serves, the Caps actually got more chances shorthanded than the Stars got up a man. As Washington never actually drew a call against Dallas—second time this year already, which is eerie but I guess great—that meant the Stars played with house money. They seemed to agree with than analogy, because they spent their four minutes about as prudently as one usually does a free chip in a casino.
Part of that seemed to be the Caps' readiness to jump the drop pass for the entry, but even when the Stars did get in, they couldn't quite take advantage of the aggressive penalty kill fast enough to generate anything. It would have been unfortunate, but this team's power play only scores once every three chances, so obviously they'll score on their next one, and everything will be fine. I don't think I am going out on too much of a limb there.
The Spezza/Janmark pair (free Patrick Eaves with purchase!) is something, isn't it? Maybe it just feels extra good because we got him (and the still-promising Mattias Backman) from Detroit of all places, but it's a joy to watch someone about whom we had fairly minimal expectations this summer come into the lineup and hold top-six minutes with a vice grip. Here's hoping he continues to turn into one of those annoying Detroit-like players that make fans of other teams grimace and mutter, "Where do they get these guys?" (Same place as Detroit did, folks.)
Nichushkin is percolating, and we've seen him bubble over a couple times recently. If you've watched the other team's broadcast on Center Ice the last couple of games, there's been a note of veiled dread in their voice when talking about Nuke after he makes a strong play towards the net. Dallas is a fearsome team this season, but they have plenty of evidence for why they'll be just as scary in years to come. It's almost too bad for other clubs who see their best players inching towards a decline while Dallas incessantly gathers steam, but two playoff wins in over seven years means I really don't care.
Some guy on Twitter mentioned that Klingberg is now leading the NHL in assists, and you can see why after tonight. Helpers, especially secondary ones, are always subject to some of the party-favor merit when you have fantastic finishers, but Klingberg has earned more than a few of his apples with goal-oriented work. If there's a downside to this, it's his being spoken of as a "scoring defenseman" a la Jack Johnson or somesuch rubbish. We all see just how next-level he's been, but just give the rest of the disgruntled world time to accept that. We all like to categorize people right after we meet them, especially when we're jealous of their success, the hockey world included.
Two other things: First, I am now certain that Jordie Benn is playing the longest con in history. Shoulders, skates, pants, it doesn't matter: he's playing with us, and he knows he can get away with it since the rest of this team will just twist the "Goals" spigot when needed. You're just a barrel o' laughs, Jordie, but even the smartest blackmailers eventually squeeze too hard. Please stop it.
And finally, Matt Niskanen. The player making more than every defenseman on the Dallas blue line was traded in 2011. The only players left on the team when that trade went down? Jamie Benn and Kari Lehtonen. It's a short amount of time, but it's also an eon in the life of this franchise. People talk about how quickly Chicago changed after getting Toews and Kane, but Dallas's (still early) transformation is almost more remarkable for its unconventionality. Strike gold on two fifth-round draft picks, trade for three second-overall picks (add up what the Stars gave up in those trades, and marvel), fill in the blanks with shrewd trades and patient free-agent acquisitions, and throw ten million dollars of spare duct tape at the crease.
No one's saying the Stars are the Blackhawks, or even close to becoming so, but it's fascinating to realize just how quickly things have changed. It's felt like a lifetime since this team was really good, but all it takes to change a life is making more good decisions than bad ones.