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Game 38 Afterwords: Caught Off Guard by the Worst Team in the League

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The Stars were not ready for the Blue Jackets, who were fighting for their collective lives, pride, and probably team bathroom privileges Tuesday night.

This photo is probably not going to adorn Niemi's basement wall in retirement.
This photo is probably not going to adorn Niemi's basement wall in retirement.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Note: Boy, am I ever excited to write about this game some more.  Nothing like penning a too-long recap of a fairly embarrassing game just to turn around, put some gloves on, and dig into the steaming pile o' whatsit in detail.  Saddle up.

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It takes so much to score goals in the NHL.  Just the act of hitting the net at all takes some measure of talent, and hitting a specific spot requires much more ability.  To do so at high speeds under duress from NHL defensemen, and to beat the unreasonably large goalie with the resulting shot?  It's almost otherworldly.  Really, we should be having a week-long feast every time any NHL team scores a goal.  It's amazing.  Tonight, nine goals were scored.  Nine!  That's just something else, really it is.  Great job and a hearty congratulations to every hockey player who scored a goal in Columbus last night: you are among the rarest group of hockey players in the whole entire world, and you are amazing.

However, if you were on the Stars, we are upset with you.  We somehow, impossibly and undeservedly, demand more.  You "only" scored thrice last night, and we are here to say that this was not good enough for us, no siree bob.  Not good enough at all.

In retrospect, it was kind of the Stars to let us know what sort of game this was going to be right off the bat.  Defensive ineptitude and insufficient goaltending combined with making a "meh" goaltender look amazing?  We got your order right here, boss.  Only thirty seconds old--have a seat and dig in, this one's gonna be a doozy.

Oh, it's not like Dallas didn't try.  They created chances, they forced the issue, and Lindy Ruff even pulled the goalie at even strength (4v4) with over five minutes left.  Their final 43 shots on goal amount to a rather large number.  Yes indeed, the Stars turned their sights on Columbus and let loose with both barrels.  They just failed to hit the target enough to outscore their blunders.  There were a few blunders.

Really, if you're Dallas, you want to force a struggling team to play from behind.  Get them out of sorts and shortening their bench early.  If you think Dallas has trouble playing with structure while holding a lead, then you should check out the soapbox derbymobile Columbus trots out when they're parking the bus. That's a cozy situation for the aggressor, that is.

Instead, the Stars found themselves in the unenviable position of pushing from behind for the vast majority of the game.  It's a consequence of not executing on your plan; or perhaps last night , it was a consequence of forgetting the plan entirely.

Yes, you want Kari to save your bacon at some point in the first period, but he actually did come up with a couple of very nice stops.  That first goal was scored on I believe the sixteenth (rough estimate) rebound.  The Stars Live crew broke down that breakdown, and it was exactly what you'd expect: Dallas players getting overly puck-focused while the disc in question squirts to an uncovered opponent.  Even more than that, the Jackets entered the zone in a herd, threw a prayer at the net, and won the ensuing scrum.  It's ugly hockey, but you can't let it happen in the first place.  Tonight's defensive issues were as much due to overly passive play as anything.

Kevin Connauton also deserves a medal or something for his Hart-worthy performances against his old club.  There's elevating your game, and then there's becoming a goal-per-game defenseman.  If you're trying to make us miss you, Kevin, then fine.  We get it.  We'll send you a Christmas card next year, just lay off.

Columbus was doing a very good job of keeping Dallas from turning the puck around with the speed they've become accustomed to this year.  Columbus was getting deep into the zone and pressuring Dallas, and the third goal was a direct result of that.  Dallas's power play wasn't able to generate anything, then Klingberg was left out for all two minutes in hopes of tying up the game, and suddenly Dallas is hemmed in their zone asking Klingberg to save the day at the end of a shift that lasted 3:05.  That is not ideal.

The fourth goal for the Jackets was as ugly as they come.  A blocked fadeaway wrister bounces in on goal, and the "who's got the puck" school recess activity was ended quickly by Brandon Saad.  Again, it's not like Columbus diced them up or anything; the Stars just gave them enough room to try their luck, and the Blue Jackets won battles a few times.  You live with it, but then you need to answer, and that is what Dallas couldn't do.

Spezza could've done it early, but it wasn't to be.  Sceviour finally would score on a "at least it's got a great personality" goal of his own, but the Stars were not the Stars against Columbus outside of the Seguin and Sharp tallies.  When you're hemorrhaging goals, you need to overcome it with your Elite Goal-Scoring Machine.  Three goals against Columbus does not quality as elite these days.

I don't want to talk about the power play.  It didn't score on the worst team in hockey tonight, and I still get this eerie sensation that it's resting on the laurels of early-season success.  The Stars, quick as they are, need the power play to instill fear into opponents by making them pay when they incur its wrath, just as it did against St. Louis.  Teams are going to get physical (physical) with Dallas, and if they can't take advantage of the ensuing opportunities, they will become frustrated.  There was a lot of frustrated play tonight, and it showed.

And my goodness, what a game in which to suffer an injury.  Ales Hemsky is going through a bit of a rough patch scoring-wise these days, yet he's been shooting and skating and backchecking and shot-blocking with all his heart.  His reward?  Probably a fractured ankle (I'm guessing).  Aren't Tortorella's skill guys the ones who are supposed to offer wry smiles after painfully fulfilling their duties in shooting lanes?  Outside of the no-holds-barred late third period bonanza, this game was not fun.

After Lehtonen took over for Turco a while back, his puck-handling skills gradually matured as he got more confident (while the Stars as a whole stayed pretty tepid).  Since Ruff's arrival, however, I've wondered if he hasn't asked Kari (and this year, Antti) to keep things simple back there.  Because for the past couple of years, Stars goalies handling the puck outside the crease was about as appealing a proposition as any team's goalie handling the puck outside the crease, which is to say terrifying.

This time, Niemi tried to keep things too simple by just flinging the puck back from whence it came.  Which he did, sort of: he put it right back onto the stick of a Columbus Blue Jacket.  No overtime heroics to stave off humiliation this time.  Scott Hartnell made sure of that.  You'd prefer to see Niemi turn and whip the puck back over to his defenseman (Jokipakka) there, but clearly he was trying to elevate it and bank it off the boards on its way back down the ice, but that is not what ended up happening.  Just as Sharp failed to elevate the puck on his breakaway; or just as Spezza failed to hit his spot on his breakaway; or, really, just as this team failed to elevate its play in general.  How's that for symmetry?

It's boring and overtly prosaic, but the Stars just didn't play well tonight.  They weren't run out of the building or anything, but they were a high school wrestler out of their weight class: occasionally on top of their opponent, but never able to pin them for any meaningful length of time.

No one's panicking, and no one should.  It's just another Toronto game, another odd stumble against an unintimidating opponent.  If elephants are afraid of mice, and if X-wings blow up Death Stars, then I guess we can allow the Stars their odd vulnerability to the dregs of this year's NHL.  If you can only choose to dominate 15 teams, the Stars appear to have chosen the right ones so far.