The Stars are the first team in the NHL to 50 points, but last season's PTSD really hasn't worn off quite yet. Even after a solid performance against the Montreal team that got off to their best start in nearly a century, the questions we have about the Stars aren't all answered. They probably won't be answered until the spring, although the Blackhawks might be as good a litmus test as any. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though.
There have really been three games that were broadly considered "test" games so far: Opening night against Pittsburgh, in which the Stars shut out the to-be-discovered-as-hapless Penguins 3-0; the St. Louis game last week in which the Stars were on the other end of the same score; and tonight's match against the Montreal team that used to be the Eastern Conference Juggernauts, which did not end at anything resembling 3-0.
It may not have been quite as much of a top-tier matchup as it projected to be in early November, but the game was still a contest between two division-leading teams. That said, there's no denying that the Habs were missing some of their best players. The Stars faced Michael Condon rather than Carey Price, which is a circumstance that no team on earth is going to be sad about. The Canadiens were also without Brendan Gallagher, which I'm told is a big deal for them. As the team is now 2-7-1 in their last ten, everything probably seems like a big deal right now.
In the first period, the game was both tenuous and fun. The fun part came early, as Jason Spezza scored another one of his "I've seen a thing or two" goals from the angle on a young netminder. That Spezza line really has been doing exactly what we'd hoped it would do this year, as the veteran center's group has continued to drive play and rack up some points behind the top unit with regularity. Interestingly, Spezza is now at 12 goals and 11 assists on the season, meaning he is slightly behind his points pace from last year. More interestingly, last season's 62 points were largely made up of assists (17G, 45A), whereas this year he's on a 30-goal pace. I'll take it.
Montreal was the better team in the first period, but they were down 1-0 after 20 minutes. Dallas hadn't been very tidy, but Niemi had made the saves the team needed him to make, and team would figure things out from there. As the game got carved up and offered in smoke to the Penalty Overlords, the Stars honed in on their chances and put the game away as much as a 3-0 or 4-1 game can be put away by them. Most of the calls were pretty blatant--Subban and Markov shot three pucks over the glass--but the Demers "interference" call to negate the goal and the roughing on McCaron were, well, not blatant. Thankfully, neither of them ended up altering the outcome of the game in an extremely observable way.
On the Demers call, the official seemed pretty flustered even as he motioned Demers off. You get the sense that he realized about ten seconds too late that he made the call based on Condon's reaction rather than what actually caused the commotion in the first place, but you can't really pick up a flag in this league (unless you're Tim Peel). I'm sure Lindy Ruff politely informed him of his error as well, so no doubt he's adequately aware of the quality of his judgment on that play.
As for the Michael McCarron roughing call on Oduya, it might have been a "slow down, rook" move as much as anything, although it certainly didn't seem to work based on McCarron's run at Nichushkin later on. It was scary to see Nuke leave the bench for a moment, but thankfully he came right back. He didn't have his best game tonight, but when your top lines are firing on all cylinders, you really don't need him to. He was still Val Nichushkin, which is a very good thing to be.
The other scary moment was the shot Jason Spezza took off his wrist. (If you were at the game, that was the roar of extreme agony that caused you to spill your nachos all over the people sitting in front of you.) Thankfully he came right back out for a power play, but I couldn't held suspecting that his wrist was bothering him later on, especially on the stick-break during the 5-on-3. Actually, I'm sure it was bothering him because he is a human and that puck hit him really hard. The extent of the damage is the real question, but he could still play and pass and shoot, which is your primary concern as a fan because you are a heartless monster who just wants your thirst for entertainment slaked with one team's despondence and the other club's universal commitment to sacrifice their survival instincts in order to ensure victory for your momentary happiness. You might need help.
You can see why Ruff has shown the most trust with Jokipakka after tonight, even if the jury is still out on who's going to be without a chair when the music finally stops on defense. Kevin has gotten good at pinching occasionally while anticipating plays in both directions. His passing looked good on the breakout tonight as well. I've been impressed with Oleksiak's improvement as the year has gone on, but if you're putting together the hypothetical game seven lineup right now, you have to have Jokipakka penciled in there, right?
I saw a tweet from Elliotte Friedman that mentioned that P.K. Subban is going to switch back to the sticks he was using last year. Apparently he's been using a Drew Doughty model this season, but I'm guessing the two pucks he flung over the glass just might have been the last straw. Or twig, if you will. Either way, the elite defenseman didn't quite have a game worthy of his reputation tonight. We've seen Subban take over a game against Dallas before, but the Canadiens as a whole just couldn't quite sustain enough pressure after the first period to really make a dent.
When you have nearly half the game devoted to non-5v5 play, things are going to feel weird. For the Stars, it meant they got to sharpen their woebegone power play, and that is what they did. Yes, one of the goals was due to Patrick Eaves donning an invisibility cloak in front of the net at the tail end of a late-game advantage. Yes, another one of those came on a 5-on-3 shot that Spezza totally borked, only to have the puck rattle right to Benn on the back door. Nonetheless, the Stars did score a really nice PPG on what looked like a set play (the Sharp tip from Seguin), and this is the #3 penalty kill in the NHL they were facing. Goals are the point.
In a way, it was almost a shame that Seguin scored his "suck it" goal when he did, as Michael Condon had made a really brilliant diving save on Goligoski in the sequence right before it. Of course, that sequence also included the Benn hit on Petry (which was plenty clean, by the by). So, eh, never mind about the shame thing. After all of that, for Seguin to score there was one of those special moments that keeps you coming back to this team. They can lay an egg now and then, but they can also crank it up with the best of them. When they do crank things up, they rarely stop at 10.
The goals against were as ugly as their causes were easy to diagnose. On the power play goal from Daniel Carr, Niemi just couldn't quite get back to his post after the rebound, and Carr was cheeky and quick enough to put it home. Jordie Benn had actually been where the rebound ended up right before the point shot, but he smartly (we thought) stepped aside to let Niemi see the shot clearly. Unfortunately, he stepped to the side the rebound did not go to, and Niemi couldn't kick the puck far enough away. Shucks, man.
As for the shorthanded goal, Cody Eakin couldn't poke the puck back to Goligoski fast enough, and Goose's pinch (stop giggling) didn't keep the puck in. The "soft play" (as Razor called it) by Eakin really presented a no-win situation for Goligoski, who is surely familiar with those by now. Goligoski isn't going to catch up to a streaking Paul Byron from a standstill on the point there anyway, which means at best a 2-on-1 against Demers, if he can even get back. If the pinch works, the situation is instantly defused. Defensemen are often tempted by the prospect of fixing everything in one play, and trying to hold the zone on the power play means you're going to give up a shorthanded rush every now and then. Oh well.
Lastly, the HNIC crew pointed this out at the intermission, but did you notice just how quickly Jamie Benn moved the puck from backhand to forehand on his first goal?
If I remember correctly, the broadcast said he got it from backhand to shooting from his forehand in 0.4 seconds. Benn didn't have to move his hand position or anything; he just collected the puck and ripped it easy as you like. Jamie Benn is leading the entire NHL in goals this season, and this is one of the reasons why. The Stars are leading the entire NHL in goals this season, and Jamie Benn is one of the reasons why. But tonight, as on most nights, he was far from the only reason.