It's just one game, but the Stars have to be feeling like a million bucks. You sure do, right? Their last test against a top team in the Central did not go so well, and that's putting a 3-0 asphyxiation courtesy of Ken Hitchock in a mild light. Tonight, the circumstances were no easier, having once again played the night before. It was the last game before the Christmas break, and with the Stars atop the NHL standings, you could kind of see them coasting a bit into the break, right?
Well, they either did or did not do that, depending on how much weight you give to the third period. Things were extremely tight through two periods, and the Blackhawks had certainly had the edge when it came to sending pucks towards the net. That's great if the pucks get there, but a fair amount of them did not do that. Thus, through two periods, the better team was down 1-0 thanks to the Spezza goal. The Hawks would not remain the better team, as the Stars more or less went blitzkrieg for all 20 minutes of the third period.
That final frame felt almost like a victory lap, or maybe the Opening Ceremonies entrance around the Olympic track. The Stars had spent 40 minutes dueling with the reigning champs, and the team that should have been tired cranked everything up to the tune of three more goals. It was joyful and satisfying in all the right ways; it was the Stars playing a tight, defensive game only to ignite their offense and capitalize when their opponent was weary. Everything you want to see from a team with Cup aspirations was on display in Dallas's game, and that is not an exaggeration. This whole season feels like a real-life fishing tale so far, but those 54 points are there to stay.
A great way to let the viewer know that this hockey game is going to be a different kind of game is to have Jordie Benn and Jyrki Jokipakka lead the offensive efforts from the get-go. Jokipakka in particular was all over this game in a very good way, and even the lately conservative Klingberg made a deep forechecking foray as well. That was both notable and good since the chances were at a premium early on for both teams, even with two Chicago power plays mixed in there.
The PK certainly was huge early, with lots of good pressure on the puck and well-positioned blocking. Both teams have lethal power plays, so squandering chances while up a man were sure to be costly one way or another. The Hawks probably felt like they deserved another call or two. The Hawks feel like they deserve a lot of things.
The Stars' power play wasn't exactly sterling in its own right, come to that. Despite the Spezza goal, the Stars' 2nd unit (Now Featuring: Vernon Fiddler!) really looked better than their big brothers throughout the night. Hemsky and Goligoski made no fuss about getting the puck to the net, and while the straightforward approach isn't as pretty as we're used to seeing, it certainly looked like a power play tonight. I'm still nervous about Curt Fraser's 5v4 team even with a couple of worry-alleviating tallies as of late; the Hawks really seemed to figure out how to pin them down in the zone as the game wore on. (And please let's don't whine about the drop pass to Spezza. It usually works, and that's why so many teams--including Chicago--utilize a form of it to gain the blue line.) Tonight's power play ineptitudes, such as they were, had everything to do with hesitant puck movement and inadequate support along the walls when Chicago overloaded the strong side of the ice. I am probably nitpicking.
When the Stars did get looks earlier in the game, they tended to come after Chicago errors. Hemsky was the only one to really test Crawford through 20, with a high wrister from the slot, and any time Hemsky actually gets a scoring chance and shoots, you get a good feeling. It clearly wasn't going to be that easy, though, and Dallas dug in for the long haul. It was a boring game on the surface, but you could really sense each team probing the other's defense, looking for seams and cracks in their systems. It was tense for much of the first 40 minutes, and it was also a lot of fun to watch.
Eddie Olczyk pointed out on the CSN feed that Spezza expertly lifted Keith's stick to facilitate the touch pass with Sharp before his goal. It was a nice little play by two top-flight players, but with that said, Joel Quenneville didn't consider it a scoring chance given where the shot came from. Spezza basically tried to open Crawford up, did so just a touch, and proceeded to put the quarter in the slot. Be it resolved that Spezza should henceforth shoot from below the dots on every opportunity presented to him. Geometry is irrelevant to the probability of a goal for Jason Spezza.
For the record, the second penalty drawn by Eakin saved the Stars from what looked like a sure goal on the rebound that came right after the play was whistled down. Also it was not a penalty that should have been called in any hockey universe, even though it was Patrick Kane sent to the sin bin. (Please submit all your jokes about this sequence to Brad via e-mail. He just loves a good joke.) The Kane/Panarin duo was good tonight, but not good enough. In fact, the top three leading scorers in the NHL did not score a goal tonight. If I cared about your fantasy hockey team, that would make be feel bad for you.
Players like Antoine Roussel do not generally get premium scoring chances. Theirs is to bring energy, agitate the opposition, and take advantage of opportunities while minimizing such allowances by their own line. When he got into it with Hjalmarsson, the subsequent penalties led to some actually exciting hockey thanks to 4-on-4, with good chances popping up for both sides. Roussel looked good all night, and his speed was a weapon against the rather ponderous defense Chicago is icing these days. Klingberg's shot on a 3-on-2 hit Seguin before getting to the net, but it had all the makings of a rush goal a la his overtime winner against the Canucks that we remember so very fondly.
The Stars' defense as a whole did extremely well at getting the puck out tonight, with a couple of exceptions. One came when Jordie Benn tried a D-to-D pass at the blue line that turned the puck over for a scoring chance, and only the later heroics of Antti Niemi (and the patching of leaks by the attentive Janmark) kept the Hawks off the sheet. Niemi is such a luxury.
It occurs to me right now that I am just calmly talking about some parts of a game in which the Stars defeated the Blackhawks 4-0 in pretty dominant fashion. It was an early gift made even more appropriate by the (at first) unwelcome red and green panoply throughout the arena. I should maybe be exhibiting more emotion right now, but perhaps we're all doomed to just continue waiting for the other shoe to drop until game one of the second season rolls around for sure. It's been a rough seven years.
Trevor Van Riemsdyk is perhaps playing above his head alongside Duncan Keith, but he made two good plays in a row on Nichushkin and Hemsky as they cut to the net. The Hawks don't have much choice but to elevate TVR in hopes that he will seize the opportunity given their cap situation, but when Rob Scuderi is a player you get on purpose to improve your defense, you are repairing your leaky plumbing with old watermelon Bubblicious. Spoiler: your next purchase will be a canoe for paddling around your flooded basement.
As dominant as the Hawks were to start the second, holding the Stars off the shot sheet until practically the first Dallas power play, the Stars countered with an even better effort in the third, leaping out to a 9-0 advantage in shots on goal as the Christmas crackers got opened a few days early. Sharp tucked a puck past Crawford, and the Chicago fans began their exodus after Sceviour and Janmark's tallies. The building had been loud all night, but once victory moved from a delicious possibility to a wonderful certainty, smiles and roars were cropping up all over the place--even behind Antti Niemi's mask.
I will mention that Sharp's goal started with a very nice Demers breakup of a Toews pass. During the break, I'm just going to hope for a reasonable Demers extension to show up underneath our collective trees. I will also mention that "collective trees" sounds like a really great and underappreciated indie band from 2003 or something. Well, no, I guess it doesn't at that.
Janmark's goal was well-deserved, but it's worth noting that he actually made a pretty poor pass to Eaves, and that's why it caught Roszival in the skates and went in. When you have as good a game as Janmark had tonight, you just nod knowingly at the wise workings of the hockey deities when a break goes your way. Treat the game right, it'll pay you back, and all that piffle.
Yeah, I'm okay with saying that this was the most enjoyable game of the season, if for no other reason (and there were many other reasons) than the fact that none of the Stars' flaws really showed up more than a couple times here and there. Goligoski muffed a catch on a looping line drive that squirted by him, but Niemi cleaned it up. All told, the Hawks only managed five shots from the high-danger areas of the ice all night long, and the Stars collapsed really well to clean things up in the scramble that followed the omnipresent Niemi save opposite those chances.
This was the sort of game you weren't sure Dallas could play until they went out there and totally did play that tight-checking, chance-limiting, opponent-frustrating game so many fans have been clamoring for. Then they tacked on another few goals just because they can. What a bunch of rapscallions.
The measured reaction to a game like this is probably to be thankful that Hossa was out and that the Stars got some bounces. The less-measured response is to host an all-night rager in honor of Colton Sceviour and Ales Hemsky's combining for 11 shots on goal. Add Demers and Jokipakka's efforts to the mix, and half of the Stars' pucks on net came from folks that don't usually "do" much of that shooting thing. I don't know what that means, and neither do you, but it seems like a party is warranted. I'll bring the ginger beer, you bring the moderate amounts of reduced-fat Ritz.
Every line scored a goal for Dallas tonight. With this victory against Chicago, they proved something to everyone, even if they didn't prove everything, yet. Tonight's win means no more and no less than exactly what it is: a solid and sound 4-0 victory against the reigning champions. Your Dallas Stars are the best team in the NHL. That makes for a very happy holiday indeed.