Admit it: you felt this one coming, didn't you?
Sure, you breathed a sigh of relief when the Stars got to four goals in the first, and you exhaled even more when Nichushkin got the fifth tally to restore the original lead. "Four-goal leads are safe," you foolishly thought. "Even the Stars can't blow a lead like this when they're rested, at home and playing one of the bottom-five teams in the NHL."
I don't blame you for thinking that. I mean, I do blame you, because obviously all of that was your fault, but I don't blame you, because all of us were thinking the same thing. At least, most of us had some combination of Okay, five goals is pretty much a guarantee, yessir and Oh no, Carolina is within three goals now...Dallas needs at least eight to win this thing in regulation. Once bitten, twice shy--or perhaps with Dallas the saying would be something like, "Fifteen times gnawed upon by a rabid ferret, sixteen times jumpy at the slightest scuffling of any living organism."
After the first period, I had all sorts of pithy phrases ready to toss out. Klingberg and Seguin were humming, Nichushkin was setting up Benn with slick passing and physicality, and Oduya even got a fortunate bounce that I still can't believe didn't go off Seguin based on all the angles the broadcast showed.
I checked the standings to see if the Hurricanes had slipped down to 30th place by the end of the first so I could say something like, "We just watched the best team in the NHL play the worst team in the NHL, and it went exactly how that is supposed to go." (Carolina is now tied for last with 24 points, for what it's worth.) It was so easy to say that the Stars had figured things out based on the score, but even a glance at the scoring chances hinted that things weren't exactly aces in Dallas.
And when the second period began, things did not get better. No, they did not at all do that. The Stars kept pace with the Hurricanes initially, but their inability to hold the blue line finally killed them after a neutral zone flub led to a three-on-two, and the rebound of course popped right to Slavin for the easy biscuit. The Hurricanes kept coming at the Stars with gale force through two periods, and yet Dallas managed to get through the second with, again, a four-goal lead. The Stars were in position to give up three free goals and still win the game, and they went ahead and played their best period in terms of chances allowed. Which, of course, resulted in four goals against.
I'll shoehorn this here: what is goaltender interference? According to the terse and unhelpful explanation from the league, I'm forced to conclude that they believed this criterion to be true about the 'Canes reviewed goal: "The attacking Player's positioning within the goal crease did not impair the goalkeeper's ability to defend his goal and, in fact, had no discernible impact on the play." Staal was obviously not pushed, and there was clearly contact with Lehtonen's left leg, so the officials must have determined that the contact was not sufficient to prevent Lehtonen from making the save. Sure seemed like the puck went by awfully close to Lehtonen's skate to say that, but I'll let you be the judge here:
The game's progression doesn't really make sense when you look at it. Sure, maybe Carolina was "due" after taking out a 30-year mortgage on the puck over the first 40 minutes, but the fact is that the Stars converted on most of their chances early despite getting outshot, and the Hurricanes didn't. When the game finally slowed down, suddenly everything started going in for Carolina. If you believed in Hockey Fate as a just deity, tonight revealed her to be much more of an indolent force of fickleness. She got around to evening things out eventually, but then she stepped out early for dinner, and Patrick Sharp broke into the control room.
Did the Stars "deserve" to win this game? Well, they went two-for-three on the power play (as did the Hurricanes) and put away all the chances they failed to convert in Edmonton. Lehtonen came up with some timely stops to ward off the opponent when they were flying in the first couple of periods. They got a "must do something here" power play at the end of the game, and they did something there. They didn't sit on the four goals they got early, and Nichushkin's tally to smack the 'Canes back down after they scored their first goal proved to be far more important than any of us had hoped it would be.
However, the prosecution would like to submit as evidence Practically Getting Run Out of Your Building by Carolina. The Stars were miserable at getting puck possession in the offensive zone (save for the top line on occasion), and they had no answer for the Carolina transition game at all. Kari Lehtonen gave up five goals, and four of them came in what sure looked like our once-traditional third-period meltdown capped by the worst goal of them all to finally surrender the lead. The Oduya/Benn pairing was incapable of shutting down so much as an iPod, and the Stars' vaunted depth scoring ended up looking like this: Of 18 total points, only two were scored by the bottom-nine forwards, and that's including the Sharp power play goal that came with all the first-liners on the ice anyway.
Obviously there's no reason we need to pick one or the other; this game was the mixture of success and failure that most games are, but with a strong dose of the unsettling increase of the latter over the past few games. The Stars got points out of a game in which they didn't do a lot of things right, again. You feel like we need to be wise about what is happening rather than just blindly accepting victory, and that seems correct. But you'll forgive me if I look at the scheduled back-to-backs against St. Louis, if I look at the division this team is in, and just choose to be happy about the points this team gets now. There are going to be some tough regulation losses coming at some point.
The Stars can win the Central without always looking like the best team in the Central. The Blackhawks earn the obligatory nod of respect from every playoff predictor, but they're also ten full points behind Dallas. We're no longer in the infancy of the season, so that margin means something. Yes, you'll get a lot of guffaws if you try to explain how Dallas's offensive capability is actually crucial in the playoffs, but that doesn't make it any less true. All any team needs to do is get to the playoffs, and if you have home ice and top seeding when you arrive there, so much the better. Besides, the Stars have played exceedingly well against just about every likely playoff team they've faced this year. That might mean something, too.
Finally, I wonder if we can just extricate the Stars' six goals from this contest and ignore the five they surrendered. Scoring goals is terribly difficult to do, and the Stars have succeeded at both scoring the most of any team in the league and maintaining the best goal differential in their conference. Take away their ten empty-netters, and they would still lead the West with a +14 differential (tied with Los Angeles). That's remarkable. This game was remarkable. This team is remarkable. The Dallas Stars remind me more and more of a certain fictional lion: they are not safe, but they are good.