Kari Lehtonen has had some very good games for Dallas this year. He had a solid stretch in early November against teams like Boston and Detroit, and he's certainly given Dallas a chance to win the vast majority of the time--a chance they have taken advantage of, as his record indicates. But if you've wondered when the goalie competition will finally settle itself, tonight may be a line of demarcation in that process.
Goals are rarely 100% on the netminder, but the fact tonight was that those are two goals you can't allow on the road against a division rival. Make no mistake, both were scored on the rush by a shooter who was not tightly checked. That increases the shooter's odds of scoring, but this team's play requires its goalies to make those saves. It's not a constricting system of play, but it does try to limit the premium chances. To let in one less-than-premium chance is tough, but the Stars can overcome an early deficit better than any team in the league, whether it be one, two or even three goals. Nonetheless, two such goals, especially early on, is flat-out unacceptable, and Ruff's decision to yank Kari said that as clearly as anything could.
So now that I've opened by bagging on Kari when he's down, let's dive a bit further. Lost in the goaltender change was the fact that just about everyone on the Dallas side chipped in to make the Coyle goal possible. Team efforts are great, except when they are not.
Here we have Jamie Benn picking himself up after being tripped into Dubnyk's net. You may also notice Seguin and Sharp turning after trying some sort of Combo Forecheck below the red line, which did not prevent the puck's being rimmed around. John Klingberg then decided to pinch, a move that also failed in accomplishing its goal, as we shall see in
It's never good when all three forwards are on the wrong side of the puck. It's even worse when one of your defenseman is so much father on the wrong side of the puck that he's out of the frame completely. This is the type of play that ages Alex Goligoski, whose stick you can see on the left. That's Seguin turning on the jets in the bottom right, but he's not catching the puck at this point.
To their credit, some of the Stars did catch up, and Seguin did at least hit the nitro enough to turn the rush into a 3-on-2. Sharp isn't far behind, but that was irrelevant a while ago, because Coyle sees that Goligoski is taking the pass (as he should), and so Charlie is going to shoot. It's relatively dangerous, what with the righty being on the left side, but you'd still take the goalie on this one, right?
That was the end of Kari's night, understandably. It was a good shot, but it wasn't exactly bar down or anything. Lehtonen obviously wouldn't end up getting the decision, but his underlying numbers have been a lot more mediocre than his record shows. If Niemi gets 60-70% of the starts from here on out, that wouldn't shock me.
The Stars finally got a power play in the second, and, after a three-goal explosion against the Habs, proceeded to again look like a team with loved ones being held hostage by the goal net. Thankfully, offensive dynamo Jordie Benn didn't take kindly to Rankin Bass comparisons shortly after the advantage expired, and I'm again forced to consider the fact that the Wild just aren't all that good at being a hockey organization. The Stars troll teams all the time, but they're pretty savvy about when or how they mention specific players (to my memory). Here, we have the Wild's gameday crew essentially just reappropriating a Tweet from weeks ago and telling fans to point and laugh and the silly man's beard. We witnessed much karmic justice tonight when Benn scored.
The Wild were frustrating the Stars early, but even so, Dallas seemed to be getting somewhat better chances. The times Minnesota did get in tight, Antti Niemi was there, and boy of boy is ever a comfort level with Niemi of a Jokipakkian sort. Niemi also doesn't have world-beating stats underneath his record, but he's been very good at keeping the Stars alive long enough for their offense to win the game. He was the number two star tonight, and the only one from Dallas. I don't have a problem with the Wild seeing him as the Stars' most valuable player, because in a lot of ways, he was. (Goligoski might have been up there tonight, too.)
Anyway, the Stars other power play opportunity looked worse than the first, which is Patrick Eaves's cue. He and Sharp are the designated "try to get that soft tip in the slot" guys on the power play, but even with his nice tip, Fiddler stole the show with two seconds remaining on the rather soft penalty to Spurgeon. If you missed the bullet-time replay of Fiddler's incredible volleyball dig on the already-deflected puck, please give it another look. It was beautiful.
The reason Dallas yanked Kari Lehtonen was pretty apparent when the game got tied up. This Wild team is extremely comfortable shutting things down, but they are not a good team at generating scoring chances. Below average, in fact. So when they started trying to counter the Stars' momentum, Tyler Seguin and his friends were able to take advantage. Just as with Anders Nilsson, going five-hole on big goalies is very much a good idea. Everybody has a five hole.
The bits of chippiness in this game really didn't pique my interest. It felt more like teams that had been told they hated each other by coaches periodically throughout the game than anything truly visceral. The Demers knee sprain (or whatever they want to call it) was terrifying, but by now it's safe to say that Demers's presence is so valuable to Dallas that the Stars will pump him full of actual helium and tether him to the crossbar if need be. He returned quickly after checking out the knee, so hopefully any swelling can be controlled and he can make it through tomorrow. I fully expect Erin to correct everything I just said with actual medical knowledge.
If you were looking for your team to play a tight defensive game, the Stars kind of did that after Roussel's goal, for a little while! They did a great job of shutting down the Wild's scoring chances right until Nino Niederreiter got inside Jordie Benn and picked up his own rebound. That Coyle/Fontaine/Niederreiter line was dominant for the Wild all night, and Jordie Benn sold out a bit too much going for the shot block, allowing Coyle to drop it back to his mate as he skated behind the net. Third-pairing defensemen are not perfect, comparisons to noble polar mountaineers notwithstanding.
Cody Eakin's empty net goal was slightly less of a Mystery Spot thing than the Erik Cole Devilry against Boston last year, but it was no less enjoyable for that. Indeed, the goal was perhaps even sweeter to the taste because of the shenanigans the Wild have been up to lately with their special little shiny outdoor game nonsense that no one is even going to care about when it happens. (Quick, do you remember who won the Sharks' outdoor game last year?)
But maybe I'm out of line. This is Minnesota, after all: the State of Hockey. Their fans are passionate, they love the sport, and they just might keep going to games this time around so the team doesn't have to fold and move elsewhere. I hear Quebec is interested in getting back into the good old hockey game, and they actually have pretty cool sweaters. (Or, rather, the Avalanche do.)
The Stars are the best team in the NHL, and it is almost Christmas. The red and green jerseys tomorrow will be rather appropriately timed.