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Game 37 Afterwords: Right Back Atcha, Hitch

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Is this what a playoff series feels like when your team is good?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In a sense, the Stars have nothing left to prove.  They've beaten Washington and Montreal, they've torched the Pacific and the East, and they've now beaten everyone in the Central except for Nashville, whom they've yet to face. (And Colorado, whom I mentally relegated to Toronto Status when I first typed that sentence. Every "hockey team" in the Central.)

Sure, the season isn't quite at the halfway point; and sure, this team isn't foolproof.  But they almost looked like it last night against St. Louis, and we know all too well what a feat it is to make that team look that inferior.

The Stars racked up a 38-22 SOG advantage.  What's more, Dallas had 33(!) high-quality scoring chances in this game, per WOI.  St. Louis had 6.  Brian Elliott did his best Antti Niemi impression to keep this game from getting laughable, but even that wasn't enough for the Blues to scratch a point out of the contest.

David mentioned the matchups in his recap, and you have to give Lindy Ruff credit: he made home ice advantage look like just that against Hitch.  As much as the Blues had outplayed the Stars through two contests this season, tonight's game suggests that at least part of the Blues' dominance was based on their home-ice-given ability to pit Tarasenko, etc. against whomever the Blues pleased.  When the Stars could dictate the matchups, suddenly things didn't look quite so wonderful for the team sitting nine points back of the Stars in the standings.  Dallas also has a game in hand, by the way.

But you already know that Dallas had their way with last night's tilt, of course.  The Stars are one point behind the Blues in the season series, but this is a potential playoff matchup that suddenly looks at least equal parts thrilling and terrifying instead of just terrifying.  Nice of Dallas to keep things thematically consistent with our experience for much of the year.

To watch that Patrick Sharp goal, oh dear me, what fun.  Jamie Benn was angry tonight, and he focused that anger with laser-like precision, from his dance to enter the zone on the power play (not even close to his only juke of the night) to his goal later on.  Anyhow, after a brilliant feed by Goligoski to set up Sharp, the birthday boy did what veteran scorers know to do, stopping at the post long enough to whack the crossbar-denting puck across the line.  This was no drive-by, for Patrick Sharp is here to get things done.  That goal was filled with players getting things done.

I wonder if part of the gameplan for tonight entailed a few more "try them on" moments for the top players in one-on-one situations.  Certainly the skill guys seemed worlds better tonight, Klingberg as much as anyone.  The Stars have elite talent all over the lineup, and we are already getting used to it.  This is our sad fate, to become accustomed to the riches that permeate this lineup, but when the firelight is allowed to dance on the gold in Dallas's vast treasury, everyone turns their heads.  Tonight featured a lot of dancing.

Spezza and Hemsky both got robbed by Elliott on the doorstep, earning them a tie for Most Ales Hemsky Moment of the Game.  It's funny how Benn's goal didn't get elevated, yet of those three glorious chances, it was the one that went in. Again, it's great to see the Stars getting better goaltending than their opponents on a regular basis.

With that said, Brian Elliott is certainly not a bad secondary option for the Blues' net, no siree Bob.  Why, tonight, he held the Stars to a mere two goals; that used to be ample goal-prevention to allow a Stars' opponent to claim victory just one short season ago.

Used to be, that is.  Because the Stars are all of a sudden a Good Defensive Team, barring the occasional game when they have been not that.  Their goals-against rate is in the top ten, and their goal differential leads the NHL.  At +38, said differential also leads the West by an unfathomable 29 goals.  You can remove every empty net goal the Stars have this season, and they're still miles ahead of the next best club.  The West is a dogfight, and the Stars are hurling a million tennis balls all over the place.  It's just chaos below them right now.

On Saturday, St. Louis scored one goal with their special teams, and that was the margin of victory.  Dallas scored two tonight, and until Cody Eakin's AIM-9 Sidewinder crossed the threshold of Elliott's abandoned crease, that was the difference this time as well.  The Stars' first power play opportunity created nothing, but their special teams really bumped it up a notch from there. The two PPG were of the "we're trying to score very much" variety, and the penalty kill was equally effective in its play.  Maybe St. Louis was just "off" tonight, but the Stars capitalized on their opponent despite Elliott's desperately doomed heroics.

Hitchcock mentioned afterwards that each team has looked dominant in their own buildings so far in the DAL/STL season series, and he's right.  But the Stars managed to steal a point (and void a ROW) against the Blues last night despite getting outplayed by a lot, which is bound to happen to teams without the scoring firepower of the top guns in the league.  St. Louis is solidly average (at best) in the goals-per-game department, and that can bite you when you're trying to make up ground.

Alex Goligoski and Johnny Oduya were also tremendous tonight, I don't mind saying.  They led the blue line in TOI by a healthy margin, and they looked good doing it.  I still don't think Oduya was the one and only missing piece on the Stars' back end or anything, but he has finally acclimated to this team, and it's a joy to behold.  Demers tends to make anyone playing beside him look good, but Oduya is really playing quite well in tough minutes, and that's given the Stars a wonderful luxury on the third pairing when it comes to bringing along the kids.  There aren't enough roster spots, but if you're just concerned about bringing the lads along slowly, you finally have a top four that allow you to do that all year long.

Kari Lehtonen was fully deserving of his shutout tonight (as all goalies always are, they would tell us).  The Stars surely set him up for success, but there were chances in tight (and from distance), and Lehtonen shut things down without much leakage to speak of.  Even if Niemi is the de facto "guy" these days, the Stars found the perfect backup for Kari Lehtonen, and it turns out his name is Kari Lehtonen.  You know what I mean.

Everyone has already written much better than I about the wonderful vigor, tenacity and fire displayed from Seguin to Roussel to Moen tonight.  I happen to think that Jamie Benn was doing his best to display the painful nature of the butt-ending he endured, but there's no doubt about how a team ought to respond to a cheap shot on their captain, and they did that.  Travis Moen's Sagacity even bypassed Ryan Reaves in order to square things up with Bortuzzo and we can surely guess how difficult that must have been after Reaves's antics over the past couple days. Hooray for punching the other team's player while wearing skates!

Antics are a good jumping-off point for talking about Seguin's "kneeing" penalty.  You could read Seguin's lips after the call, or at least I fancied I could, and it looked like he was saying, "He kneed me!"  Certainly the call seemed sketchy at best, but this was closer to the "even out the penalties if possible" refereeing we're used to, so maybe it's just regression to the mean or some other statistics piffle.  It was a bad call, but things are okay.  Everyone is okay, now.

I'm not going to write another 500 words about the Stars' defensive play tonight, but they turned their blue line into a French press screen, and most of the Blues were far too coarse to make it to the top (which is the idea).  The defense was stepping up perfectly, and the forwards were funneling the Blues' zone entries right into it.  It was silly how many times Dallas just forced a bad dump-in by St. Louis and turned the puck right back around.  Players were jumping tonight when it came to turning the neutral zone the right direction, and Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky looked almost as good as anyone in doing so.  Janmark's shooting could certainly use a bit more decisiveness at times, but perhaps he just needs to ask team-leading (tonight) shot-compiler Ales Hemsky about that.   I mainly just wanted to write "team-leading shot-compiler Ales Hemsky."

The Stars only have yet to face Nashville among teams in their division, and that will happen this very week.  It may not go as well as last night did; likely very few nights will go as well as last night did.  But Dallas has put up two dominant performances against Chicago and St. Louis in very recent memory, and that is significant data.  The Stars won't win all of their games from here on out, but they've won so very many more than anyone else in the Central. They don't have to figure things out right away on Saturday.

It's getting to the point where all the regular season Statement Games have happened.  It's hard work, winning in the NHL, and the Stars have done a lot of it.  They might do less of it, or (improbably) even more of it as winter unfolds.  We just watched them as they found a way to decode Ken Hitchcock's team and stifle them with amazing defense, and that's about as encouraging a sign as you could ever have hoped to see back in October, when winning was a promise we were rightfully wary of. Now, winning is just more of the same.  That's terrifying, but in ever such a good way.