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Game 7 Afterwords: Turns Out You Need Good Players to Be Good

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Either way you read that title, it’s true.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Winnipeg Jets
This is Adam Cracknell. He has played a lot of hockey for Dallas.
Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Look at that picture up there. That is Adam. Adam is a great guy, and he was signed to be the Stars’ “We have one of these if we need them” guy. It’s a nice role, and who knows, maybe he gets a few weeks of NHL pay out of it when all is said and done, continuing his own story of playing professional hockey for a living. Good for Adam!

Well, the Stars ended up needing like five more of those guys, and here we are in October, getting all angry at each other over I don’t even know what while Gemel Smith, Lauri Korpikoski, Justin Dowling and Curtis McKenzie continue playing game after game because the Stars have no one else left. The Stars are holding up Wile E. Coyote “HELP” signs as the anvil careens towards them. Sometimes, like Tuesday, they are momentarily saved by Antti Niemi holding an umbrella. Other times, like Thursday, the anvil lands where an anvil plummeting towards your head will generally land, and the corresponding consequences result.

I sometimes take notes in pen or pencil while watching the game, just to remember what I saw. Tonight’s notes, and I am being serious, include these gems:

JAMIE BENN IS BROKEN

POWER PLAY: WHO SHOOTS?

ODUYA UNSPORTSMANLIKE, FRUSTRATION SHOWING

You could write 800 words just on those prompts alone, but that’s my job, so don’t bother.

Jamie Benn gave the puck away six different times tonight (perhaps more, but I counted six for sure). I’m not talking about stretch passes that got jumped. I’m talking about getting puck-jacked, or having a short stickhandling move with the puck get subverted. Jamie Benn is clearly hurt, and he played like a hurt but determined man tonight. Against some teams, in some situations, that might be enough. But when two of the lines below him consist entirely of folks who were in the AHL last year, it’s not going to work.

Last year, the Stars occasionally had Ales “ALES HEMSKY” Hemsky on the 4th line. This year, Korpikoski has been on Seguin’s wing more than once, and intentionally. I mean, good gravy. Who are the Stars’ no-doubt NHL forwards right now? Faksa, Eaves, Benn, Seguin, and Roussel? That’s it. Everyone else up front tonight was slated to be on the bubble coming into camp, and suddenly Devin Shore is the team’s extra attacker. I love Devin Shore, and he’s been great, that’s not the point. The point is that someone could have literally poisoned the team’s Gatorade in September and had a less destructive effect on this squad. Literally.

The power play is indecisive, but it’s worse than that. My confidence in it has waned each game this year, and tonight had to be a low point (Seguin’s “screw this, I’m shooting as soon as I get the puck” goal notwithstanding). A wasted 5v3 (though Seguin almost scored then, too, had he been able to elevate the one-timer) saw the Stars’ only great chance to get back into the game evaporate. Their subsequent power plays were not much better, although the 6v4s were exciting. It’s nice to know even Lindy Ruff gets mad at the power play sometimes. Is Jordie Benn maybe more of a punishment to the floundering power play than an expected cure? That is one theory.

Speaking of which, it was notable that Dan Hamhuis supplanted Jordie Benn on the power play later on in the game. It is also notable that Jordie Benn was the coaching staff’s preference for the top power play in the first place, but please, let’s not get all hot and bothered about Jordie Benn, for once in our entire lives. The Stars lost because they couldn’t generate squat against the Jets and they gave up plenty of chances and oh yeah, Patrik Laine is really good, and he ripped two power play goals with Niemi screened. The Stars would have lost this game even if Niemi saved everything at even strength, hypothetically.

Esa Lindell had another very solid game, although he didn’t play the Kyle Connor goal well, going down too poorly to block the 2-on-1 pass. I don’t usually get annoyed at those plays since the defenseman is kind of screwed to begin with, but you’d like to see him make that play there.

Also: Hey, that Kyle Connor isn’t bad. I wonder if the Stars will ever have a chance to draft a player like that. They sure could use a young scoring winger like him right now, eh? Well, maybe next year they’ll finally get the good fortune to draft someone like him. Oh well. Say, if you need me, I’ll just be staring at the Dowling/Smith/Cracknell line the Stars were forced to ice tonight. I wrote that line down in my notes to illustrate something. I forget what.

Esa Lindell had multiple great keeps in the offensive zone. Esa Lindell had multiple great pinches in the offensive zone. Esa Lindell had a flashy little move at the blue line to clear up a shooting lane before letting a puck go. Esa Lindell, in other words, looked great in the offensive zone, so far. Here’s my point: Lindell seems like a prime choice to replace Goligoski on the power play, and indeed, he got some token 2PP time tonight. I can’t imagine he hasn’t turned some heads given the moribund state of the man advantage right now and his natural skill set. Yes, he’s a rookie, and yes, there is the danger of shorthanded chances with inexperienced players at the blue line. There also appears to be the danger of shorthanded chances with literally every other player at the blue line for this team, so yeah. Let’s get him up there already, said Robert, who has never coached a power play in his human existence.

Lindell also looked good on the PK, for my money. (I promise I do not know him personally. I mean, I feel like I do, but that’s just because we know all the defensemen so well at this point, right? Did you know Stephen Johns is from the USA, there’s a fun fact.)

Speaking of the PK, the Stars actually weathered the most dangerous-looking two minutes a while before Laine started taking matters into his own deadly hands. Antoine Roussel and Gemel Smith spent pretty much two full minutes killing off a Jets power play that featured 8 (eight) shots on goal (EIGHT). An open net was missed on a tip-in chance, but still, it was a pretty crazy kill. Patrik Nemeth and Johnny Oduya were also there for the whole thing, and it was impressive (and also maddening) to watch them somehow survive that stretch. It didn’t end up meaning anything for the game, but it was a fun moment in the game. Games are all about fun moments. Enjoy them when you can have them.

Jamie Benn, such as he is, did look more comfortable after being reunited with Tyler Seguin later in the game. Notice that I said more comfortable, not comfortable altogether. Again, we know Benn isn’t 100%, but Seguin and Eaves (incongruously one of the healthy ones right now) formed at least one high-quality NHL line for the night, which was fun to see. Remember what that was like, back when the Stars could do that?

It’s weird. Coming into the season, we were mostly worried about the defense and goaltending. The goaltending has been good, and the defense has been more shuffled than bad. But the forwards just aren’t creating chances lately, and that’s not Dallas Stars hockey at all. Yes, I think the defense pairing changes factor into the transition game’s struggles quite a bit, but this team suddenly can’t manufacture chances to save their lives. In years past, Ruff could always throws his eggs in one basket and at least crank things up for a little while, even if only one line could do it. This season, recently, he just hasn’t been able to make that happen, no matter who’s on the ice. And really, we all know that it’s because of who is (and isn’t) on the ice that the Stars are struggling. Teams can shut down the Stars’ one good line and one great defenseman and feel pretty good about their odds of winning. When the other team gets the last change, they have an even easier time doing that.

They played Winnipeg at home, and the Jets outplayed them. Home teams often do that in hockey. The Stars could have made this game interesting with another power play goal, but they just couldn’t get it clicking, even when they pulled Niemi, twice. Do you find it funny that the Stars had an empty net for like 3:30 of power play time in the third but somehow didn’t surrender any decent shorthanded chances? Maybe I have a warped sense of humor. It’s a survival mechanism.

These are the ways in which the Stars fell short, and it doesn’t even begin to talk about how Winnipeg executed their game plan effectively. They pressured the Stars’ defense (especially Klingberg) quite a bit, and it hampered the Stars’ ability to get numbers going into the zone. Winnipeg responded to Dallas aggressiveness with their own aggressive strategy, and it largely neutered Dallas’s offense, jumping neutral zone passes and preventing shots from the low slot, usually. Hellebuyck was, as you saw, good when he had to be. Niemi wasn’t awful, but he wasn’t as good tonight, even if you want to blame traffic and bad defensive gaps on three of the Winnipeg goals.

Road games against good teams usually require help from special teams and goaltending, or at least that’s what everyone says. Tonight, the Stars’ PK allowed two goals from a wonderful sniper, and their power play only countered with a single tally that wasn’t exactly a gorgeously designed goal to begin with. The Jets’ goaltending was good enough, but then, it didn’t really need to be anything more than that.

Hey, uh, Jason Spezza is skating. Hudler is skating. Dan Hamhuis and Esa Lindell seem to be looking better each game. Stephen Johns should draw in again, and he’s generally been a very positive force for Dallas. I don’t think anyone else has noticed, but he hasn’t been in the lineup recently. (Don’t feel bad for not noticing, it’s my job to keep track of this stuff.)

There is help coming, and tonight showed us all just how very badly the Stars need it. I mean, they need other things too, but getting healthy NHL players back seems like a nice, reasonable goal to start with. Any goals would be nice, right now. Did you know the Stars are only 21st in the NHL in goals scored so far this season? That seems bad, for them. I wonder if the Stars will ever be able to improve that total. Do you think the Stars’ lineup will be able to score more goals? I think so, but the trick is to get most of the Dallas Stars back in the lineup in the first place.