Note: If you taped the Rangers game last night, you are about to have it spoiled for you. Also, if you taped the Rangers game last night, you own the last VCR. Congratulations!
Last night, the Texas Rangers played the first of their 162 scheduled games this year. It's a number of games so large that one feels compelled to just rejoice in Opening Day itself, because actually trying to prepare for the vast amount of gameplay that will be taking place through October is a pretty daunting and impossible task.
It's about two hockey seasons' worth of gamedays, and when you realize that baseball games last about half an hour longer than their icy brethren, it becomes difficult to stomach that large a swath of time potentially being spent in front of a television/computer or sitting at the ballpark.
On the day the Rangers began the long march toward what most critics say will be a largely pointless game 162, the Stars finally saw their own season end, or at least the last possible path to their season's end goal. While Ondrej Pavelec outdueled Devan Dubnyk in Minnesota, the Jets and the Wild found themselves both in good position to call their seasons a success. That sentence is real, and it seems so unfair. Of Minnesota, Winnipeg and Dallas, why were the Stars the only team sunk by subpar goaltending when most people can't name more than two Minnesota Wild defensemen and Winnipeg is giving Adam Pardy regular minutes?
The Stars were a sexy preseason pick to make noise into at least the first or second round this year, and instead they find themselves pummeling a Sharks team in the season's final week that is astride Dallas in the standings but falling apart in all the ways that count. Why don't the young, fast, deep and potent Stars deserve markedly better than a team from San Jose that seemed determined to self-destruct from September onwards?
What happened last night was a bit eerie. It felt at one point like I was watching one of my old videotapes from 2008, when I was in college and my brother would bring me over the most recent Stars game that I had missed because of class, work or college things. I would plug the tape into the tiny garage TV/VCR combo usually late at night while the other guys in my house observed my almost religious ritual from a distance. If they spoke to me I would pause it, but it was like I was talking to a girlfriend on the phone--they could tell I would prefer to wait until later to answer their question. I couldn't share my excitement at a solid Stars victory with them, ignorant about hockey as they were; and my conversely foul mood was even more difficult to carry back into the house than the silent elation that came from a sweet Niklas Hagman game-winner. Last night felt like I was watching one of those tapes today. A game both interesting yet devoid of the potential for joy.
Colton Sceviour's goal was like the opening monologue of a play. It was the entertaining first number, upbeat and catchy, but you knew better than to buy everything it was selling. Besides, you had read the critical reviews. This show had problems, and it wasn't going to be running for much longer. Sceviour has been pretty all right this year, but his clock is ticking. Maybe he should be given more time, but Lindy Ruff would surely say that Sceviour's play will decide what happens to him. It would be nice to see him find a niche with this team and score 15-20 goals, but ice time is not something the Stars can afford to give away without reason right now. Sceviour has next season, maybe, to prove himself worthy of more trust and commitment by Dallas.
Last night had the Jhonas Enroth that the Stars needed, as the agile and aggressive goalie rebuffed all but a slipshod powerplay attempt from Joe Thornton. It's so tough to decide which saves were the saves last night, but we know this year that they could have been almost any of them. Really, there were as many solid defensive efforts to cover Enroth's scrambling when traffic got heavy as there were remarkable stops on good scoring chances. Jhonas Enroth did what he needed to do, and the Stars won.
That should have happened so much more this year. This league is making goaltending almost difficult not to have by virtue of the league-wide offensive atrophy, yet the Stars have found a way to buck that trend and then some. The Stars have found a way to do a lot of things this year.
Jamie Benn stepped up when Seguin got hit, and Jamie Benn scored two goals, and Jamie Benn played like one of the best players in the NHL. Jamie Benn is one of the best players in the NHL, and you might forget about that sometimes. Last night was a reminder to you and San Jose and probably not many others, since a meaningless 80th hockey game doesn't usually attract much interest beyond its own fan bases. If a battered and bruised Jamie Benn finds his way to the Art Ross, it will be remarkable. Benn has only scored 21 of his 80 points on the power play, by the way. The Stars are a 5v5 beast, really. They outplay teams and lose, but they are an elite team, all things being equal.
The Texas Rangers got slaughtered last night by Oakland. They had one hit, and they gave up eight runs. Do you know who their starting outfielders are? This team has 161 more games left to play, and the pessimist in me fears that this team will not crack .500. This is a club that, from a certain point of view, has only a chore to do this season: get better, give the kids some time, and figure out how you are going to build the team that can hang with the elites down the road. Watching this sort of team is a wholly different experience than, say, anticipating playoff hockey, but of course everything is different than that. Preparing for a long baseball season does make me appreciate the hockey season we've had.
Antoine Roussel is only a goal off his career high from last year. Jamie Benn is setting a new high in points this season. John Klingberg is doing things that we love, and the Stars look to have too many NHL-grade defensemen for next season. There is some talk of trading Ales Hemsky, which would see the Stars selling a player at his low point (unless you think there is some residual value there to be cashed in) for another crack at a top-six winger.
Is Brett Ritchie ready to be that player? Sure doesn't seem like it, despite the brief Horcoff magic that we got to enjoy a while back. That was actually quite a while back, wasn't it? This is starting to ramble, but I'm just looking over what Dallas has, and it is really very good. Jason Spezza's "tough" season meant that the Stars were only second in goals per game instead of first. I don't know if Spezza and Hemsky will be a bit better next season, but I do know that their being a bit less than hoped for this year was not actually that much of a problem for this team. That is what depth scoring and an effective offensive system can do for you.
The Sharks game seemed to reaffirm what we all desperately hope: this team's issues are fixable. How can they not be? San Jose was missing Vlasic and some other good pieces, but the Stars are good enough to beat this San Jose team handily right now, and they are good enough to beat any team in this league if their goaltending hangs in there, which it mostly has not. Good hockey teams are not constructed like some poor Settlers of Catan strategy that hinges upon building twenty roads so long as a three gets rolled every other turn.
The best teams are built to be as impervious to disaster and able to mitigate underperformance in a given area in a myriad of ways. Dallas could outscore the harder-working gremlins in their own zone, but when goaltending decided to drop the ball as well, the hill became just a bit too steep for the club still fresh out of a rebuild. They now have an offseason in which they can rest confidently in their goal-scoring and use some fresh cap space to take a whack at shoring up the defense and goaltending and special teams. These are all things that can be done, though free agency may not be the first place Dallas looks.
Last night, the Sharks pushed, and the Stars pushed back harder and better. Dallas decided to strangle the third period, and they scored some more while doing so. This game was, like games tend to be, just one single game, but it was evidence as well: evidence that this team can push itself even when the carrot isn't dangling, and evidence that their pure skill and decision-making is right up there with one of the usually premier clubs in hockey.
I want to weigh that evidence against what happened this year and decide whether there isn't some similar disaster awaiting the team next season, but how can I? We know things will change this summer, but the good news is, the Stars are already pretty good as it is. They are in the best division in hockey, and their goaltending mojo got stolen and collectively dispersed among Devan Dubnyk, Andrew Hammond and Ondrej Pavelec. Tyler Seguin missed a chunk of games, and Nichushkin and Nemeth and Klingberg are still young and, well, you know all these things already, but the Stars still had a shot. It's not really looking at the bright side, because missing the playoffs precludes that ability for a team as good as Dallas, but it is pointing out the context. That is still important to do, or at least as important as anything else I write here.
I didn't actually feel incredibly positive after the Sharks game last night. Hockey has, for the past week or so, become more of an academic exercise than I would like; but the encouragement I can draw from these remaining tilts is that even the most detached observation of this team suggests that Jamie Benn and his mates winning a game 5-1 is much less an aberration than it is a distinctly repeatable possibility. This team is some tweaking and safety-valving away from barging into the playoffs with force; if empty wins are good for nothing else, they at least validate this working hypothesis a little bit, and I call that a win for science.
If we also get to enjoy two more games of the flashy Stars flaunting their stuff, I will also be okay with that. I am not a scientist all the time.