"That guy is phenomenal!"
Of course, Daryl Reaugh was talking about the always-dangerous Tyler Ennis. A guy with 18 goals and 40 points on the season. A 5-foot-9, 169-pound dynamo with 209 points spread across parts of six NHL seasons. The thing is, Ennis was worth talking about. The score was 2-2, with a plucky Buffalo Sabres squad taking a one-night hiatus from their 2015 tankfest to challenge the Dallas Stars. The same Stars, Ralph Strangis insisted, that were hanging by a thread to the Western Conference’s playoff field. In other words, the worst team in the league was giving what should have been a highly motivated Stars squad everything they could handle.
The point here is not to poke fun at Ralphie’s optimism, nor to counter Razor’s evaluation of Ennis (or even to blast Ennis himself). My target is the performance itself. For much of last night’s game, the Stars were a disjointed, chaotic mess. Brian Gionta (5-7!) had twice showcased his power game to put the Sabres ahead. Add both goals together and he’s maybe a size 10 skate away from the blue paint. Unless we’re talking about Gionta strapped to Matt Moulson Master Blaster-style, that’s the sort of sentence that simply does not get associated with playoff-worthy teams.
If I wanted to be a real jerk about things, I could furthermore point to the role Anders Lindback’s shaky footwork played in both of Jamie Benn’s tallies. There is also the fact that, for all of their control of the balance of play, the Stars spent the first two periods being pushed around in their own zone with frustrating regularity. Things would get worse (Matt freaking Moulson!) before a wild, closing charge made them look a whole lot better.
The heart the Stars showed closing the gap was admirable. Benn-to-Seguin-to-Eaves was a fun goal (I loved seeing Tyler Seguin chase down Patrick Eaves to celebrate), and Klingberg-to-Eakin looked like something I still can’t get to work right in NHL15. Other sub-plots include another 18-plus minute effort from Patrik Nemeth (his sixth in ten games since his return), fifteen solid, PK-heavy minutes from Jordie Benn, and a new career high in goals for Cody Eakin (17). All are good things. Even better is the fact Seguin shifted back to center for the first time since his injury, and seemed more dynamic on his skates.
Ultimately, we wound up with a Stars win, and something that felt an awful lot like a metaphor for the entire season. The very basic numbers are staggering: 82 Stars shots set against 38 from the Sabres. Those totals notably exclude prime chances from Ales Hemsky (missed wide) and Colton Sceviour (still waiting to shoot). Only during the tire-fire second period did Buffalo approach parity (14-10), and yet they held a lead with half a period yet to play.
At times, the Stars play with the swagger of a contender. This season they’ve dismantled the Hawks, crushed the Blues, and run the Rangers. Other times, they coast like a team that’s already secured a post-season berth, and is just waiting for the real show to begin. An almost palpable sense of entitlement can creep into the Stars’ game.
It’s fine to show just enough to beat Buffalo if you haven’t already lost to those same Sabres and Carolina and Colorado, or if you’re not 0-2 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. This Stars team can be so good, so dangerous, it’s almost like they expect to be. Last night, at least, it worked out, but it’s been a weird thing to watch this season, and has to be one of the more interesting challenges to address moving forward.