One of the most memorable things about the Stars’ red-hot start to last season was how they responded after a loss. Almost invariably, Dallas would bounce back and put up a great game after a loss, and they wouldn’t drop two games in a row until January. The team simply wouldn’t stay down on the mat; there is a regular season banner in the AAC rafters that testifies to their consistency.
This year’s Stars have already had four different losing streaks of two or more games. It’s not disastrous, of course. Teams had hot and cold runs; that same Stars team last year also had a 1-5-2 stretch in January to pollute the team’s Cheerios. But it’s not the fact of the team’s 7-7-5 record that makes us uneasy so much as the experience of it. The Stars, and a lot of the AHLers pressed into service while wearing their sweaters, have not been good. Even the games Dallas has won have been less than convincing victories, most of the time. This hasn’t been a team that deserves to be in the Cup conversation. Perhaps what’s worse is that they haven’t even looked liked one.
Andrew Berkshire had a piece Saturday about just how different things are this year. It’s worth a read, if only to be able to grouse about the team as a whole instead of just [your player’s/coach’s name here]. The bottom line is that Dallas isn’t generating what they were able to generate last year, and that means you’re going to be on the short end of things more often than not.
The Edmonton game was a good example of that. Yes, two of the goals were fairly rotten luck, but when the other team has the puck in your zone with players heading to it and they shoot the puck in that direction, the wheel will eventually stop on their number. Given that it’s the Oilers we’re talking about here, you can’t be too surprised the wheel found their number more than once tonight.
Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill are where any major shifts in this team have to start. Lindy Ruff has ruffled, as is his wont, and while it’s nice to know that the Stars have a coach willing to try new things, that isn’t much consolation when the new things don’t help. They’ve tried to adapt their style of play to the less-fleet bodies in the lineup at times, but with the mixed success that a 7-7-5 record implies. Ruff will keep trying new things, but there are only so many coaching changes to be made to the 20 guys on the bench each night. (I’m still ambivalent on scratching Klingberg, but I think it’s possible that happens, if hearing that makes you feel any better.)
Jim Nill, on the other hand, has an easier and more difficult job. He has many more bodies to work with (all the ones playing hockey, really!) but a higher cost. Lindy Ruff can try new things, observe them, and then put Jordie Benn back down the lineup when it turns out he isn’t the secret top-pairing catalyst. Jim Nill has no such luxury. Trades are there forever, and in a league that is finally realizing how critical it is to lock up good young players, the good trades are getting tougher to make. At least, I assume they are, because surely Nill would have gotten Dougie Hamilton by now if the cost wasn’t absurd, right?
The surprise Oduya/Klingberg pairing didn’t start well, with Klingberg scoring in his own net to break a 10-game goal drought by Connor McDavid. Don Cherry maintained that McDavid had intended to bank it in off Klingberg, and Ruff might have been watching, because Oduya would be back with Johns in the second period.
Jason Spezza had previously played right wing beside Devin Shore, but tonight, Cody Eakin centered both of them. It speaks to how much Lindy Ruff values Cody Eakin as a center that he would put him at the pivot over both Shore and Spezza. I would like to again state my deep desire to find out exactly what traits make Eakin a better center than everyone except maybe Faksa on the Stars’ roster. I don’t necessarily doubt that it’s true, but I can’t perform alchemy on phrases like “two-way play” and make an Ideal Centerman Formula. Cody Eakin and Radek Faksa do something that has more or less locked them into the center spot. My curiosity is running amok.
Early on, this game could have been fun. Tyler Seguin fed Patrick Eaves on a beautiful rush play, but Eaves’s tip just got the wrong part of the crossbar and stayed out. That was this game. That moment was this game writ small.
On the second Oilers goal, I’m not sure what Patrik Nemeth was thinking, but his pinch (after Spezza and Shore had also clearly committed deep), left the Stars with a full-blown 2-on-1, and Tyler Pitlick had no trouble burying the saucer pass past Lehtonen. Brad’s feelings on Tyler Pitlick seem fairly comprehensive, to me.
At the time, I was thinking that 2-0 against the Oilers isn’t a death sentence. The Oilers are sloppy, and the Stars had had some chances. There was no way this game would end up 2-0, I thought. I was correct!
Speaking of sloppy, Stephen Johns had a bad hop along the boards that turned into a point-blank chance for Zack Kassian, but Kari Lehtonen turned him aside to keep it 2-0 for the time being...
...because Patrik Nemeth would again follow his Swedish brethren’s lead, this time banking the puck in with the back of his skate blade as he was fronting Zack Kassian, who most certainly did not intend to do that. It was 3-0, but the Stars really hadn’t been outplayed, except in the most important category. And, oh yeah, that category was goals, and it would get worse, because 2016-17.
The fourth Oilers tally was a garbage goal, one of those “shoot puck into a crowd and hope it bounces right” shots that didn’t quite make it there, but then Dan Hamhuis got sucked in to help out with Jesse Puljujarvi in the crease, leaving McDavid open for the easy tap-in to chase Kari Lehtonen, whose main fault tonight was not playing better in the offensive zone.
I am serious. If you watched this game and you blame Kari Lehtonen, then I want to buy you a glass of orange juice and then steal your watch. Kari has had a good couple of games, and the Stars have a sort of good couple of points to show for it. It’s okay to be grateful to Kari for those two points, right now. Just let it happen.
On the goaltending front, do you still get annoyed when Cam Talbot plays well, wishing the Rangers had worked with Jim Nill more back in the day instead of demanding Julius Honka? They instead traded Talbot for three non-first round draft picks, which look definitely interesting and wait seriously that’s all it took? How different would the Stars look with Cam Talbot instead of Antti Niemi, is a question I ask myself sometimes. Remember, Niemi was one of the main reasons for the Stars’ fantastic start to last season. Yes, it’s in the past, but let’s not pretend Niemi was never useful. He has been (and still is!) a useful goalie, at times.
Patrick Eaves had a hat trick of scoring chances, but he was only able to pot the third (and least dangerous) one, scoring on the front of 2-and-2 power play with a bit of a change up. The penalties came courtesy of Zack Kassian, who too vocally opined about Faksa’s going down easily after Kassian hooked him. That second penalty (Unsportsmanlike Conduct) would prove costly for Edmonton. Relatively costly, I mean, since they won and all.
Lindy Ruff boldly called a timeout to keep the top unit on for the back half of the second power play, and a Spezza faceoff win turned into a John Klingberg wrister from the high slot that Jamie Benn perfectly tipped past Cam Talbot. If you’re looking to get back into a 4-0 game, scoring two power play goals is a nice way to do it. I also appreciate Lindy Ruff giving his vote of confidence in the officials by using his timeout. “This means you guys won’t need me to challenge anything, okay guys? Got it?”
It’s also worth noting that Dallas had four power plays before Edmonton got one. That ratio did not reflect the goal totals.
Dallas had some great chances to start the third, but Cam Talbot robbed Tyler Seguin on a nice feed from Jordie (yes) Benn that would have made it 4-3, and then Seguin later took a penalty to put Edmonton back on the job during which the Stars would get a great Jamie Benn shorthanded chance, only to see Talbot again do his thing. I miss Jamie Benn’s sniping.
The Inevitable McDavid hat trick (his first, of course, but it definitely felt inevitable after his first one went in) finally came to fruition when Oduya stepped up to make a hit, Patrick Eaves did his best impression of a defenseman on McDavid which actually succeeded in knocking the puck away, only to have Puljujarvi follow up and take a slapshot, which of course bounced perfectly over to Connor McDavid while Stephen Johns lost McDavid completely and ended up just staring at Niemi, who was trying to figure out which hockey god the Stars had angered this time. These are the moments when Stephen Johns does not look quite as good as I want him to look.
Pretty much nothing happened after that.
Minnesota is next. They and Dubnyk have been very good so far, despite a lineup that still doesn’t really look all that fabulous out of Dubnyk. Can Dallas rely on their historic dominance over Minnesota in Dallas to get back on track? I don’t know that I would count on it. As this season has proven, history has absolutely no obligation to repeat itself. Often, that is a relief. Lately, it’s just been a drag.