If you had to pick a cartoon to emblemize the Dallas Stars season so far, it would probably be Peanuts with the Stars as Charlie Brown and the hockey gods as Lucy. Just when it seems like they're getting things together to kick that football through the uprights, something happens to yank it away from them at the last moment.
That's what happened tonight in Dallas as the Stars overcame a bad start but kept finding the wrong end of the stick in other ways, losing a first period lead and falling to the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2. Not only did they lose the game, but the Stars also lost Jason Spezza (at least for the evening) to a lower-body injury just before a five-game road trip through Canada.
In the realm of Stars starts this season, this game inserted itself fully on the "wrong foot" end of the spectrum as the Richard Panik scored just 11 seconds in off a rebound from Antti Niemi. From a reffing nerd perspective, this goal was an interesting one as the referee pretty clearly had the intent to blow the whistle (he, in fact, sounded his whistle after the puck was over the line) but reversed his intention once the puck went through Niemi. That's allowed by the letter of the law, but you can debate whether or not it fits the spirit of "the moment the ref intends to blow the whistle is when the play is dead."
But unlike other bad starts early this season, the Stars stayed with this game and didn't let the momentum run away from them. The third line took advantage of a strong face off win to tie the game after Antoine Roussel set up a Brett Ritchie shot through a Radek Faksa screen. And a very strong net-crash play from Curtis McKenzie earned some luck with a bounce off the skate to make it 2-1.
But then the special teams got started, especially late in the first and carrying over into the second. The Stars killed of the penalty to start the second, but a few minutes later the Devin Shore-Jason Spezza-Lauri Korpikoski forward group was run ragged by the Hawks and caught out on a long shift, which allowed winger Ryan Hartman to rotate back to the point and shake Shore’s coverage. That gave him an open look that snuck past Niemi near post to tie the game.
And the Blackhawks started to win the special teams game a few minutes later as Jonathan Toews "drew" a penalty on off-puck cross check from Stephen Johns by stumbling into the post. The Hawks had a bit of accidental brilliance on the ensuing power play when the puck handcuffed the net-front player, who, instead of continuing his initial shot, got it over to a wide-open Patrick Kane for a weak-side tap in.
The third was a rather uneventful frame overall until the last five minutes. The Stars had a few chances early but none of the "astounding save" variety. The Hawks earned an incredibly dubious power play with four minutes left (Jamie Benn was called for a "hooking" that was him stick checking a stationary player in front with no stick on body). They didn't score, but the two minutes of possession helped wind the clock down.
Then Jamie Benn was high sticked and bled off a faceoff with 1:49 left, which meant the Stars power play (though sans Jason Spezza at this point) had a chance to force overtime; the fact that he was high sticked on a face off immediately thereafter didn't seem to catch the eye of the refs. And with the puck loose in the crease in the final 34 seconds, the Blackhawks were given an early whistle while the Stars had the puck, ending what would be the final good scoring chance of the game.
- Let's hit the elephant in the room really quick. The officiating tonight was not good, as you may have caught in the recap, and the Stars caught the short end of that stick in almost every circumstance. Those games will happen - more often, it seems to Dallas fans, they happen against the Blackhawks. You may remember several instances where the Stars received no power play opportunities at all against them in the past. These are extremely frustrating nights for players and coaches alike, but they have the responsibility to play through it. The defense on the PK that led to the Hawks winning goal was preventable, as was the forward defense on the tying goal. Clean up those things and they talk about winning the game in spite of bad officiating breaks.
- Shore had a little bit of a rough game, from being a big part of the Hawks tying goal with his linemates to taking a four-minute high sticking minor late in the second. It's a large jump to the NHL and a very long season, but you'd like to think if the Stars had enough healthy forwards they could rotate him to some slightly easier minutes to help with his confidence.
- On the flip side, the Curtis McKenzie-Gemel Smith-Adam Cracknell fourth line had a very strong night even outside of their goal. They faded a bit late as the Stars tried to deploy more skilled players to get the tying goal, but they brought nice energy and possession early.
- Spezza's injury was a little bit of a mystery. He completed a shift late in the second period without any apparent contact that would cause concern but went right down the tunnel to the locker room. Reports from earlier this season were that he was struggling with something more nagging, so it could be a flare up of whatever that was, but your guess is as good as ours at this point.
- So if Spezza is out more than one game and Justin Dowling was probably already going to come up for this road trip since they only have 12 healthy bodies to begin with, does that mean Jamie Oleksiak will actually get a shot to play forward since the hockey gods have clearly cursed the Stars top six this year?
- In all, this game does continue the recent trend of improved play, even without the results. Still, the Stars need to start piling up some results soon, even, with six top nine forwards on the shelf, to put themselves in a better points position.