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Game 31 Afterwords: From Five-on-Three to Five in the Third

Dallas finally found a way to respond, and Antti Niemi set the example.

Anaheim Ducks v Dallas Stars
“I found it! I found the offense! It was here the whole time!”
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I thought this game was going to end badly a couple of times. The first was John Gibon’s blocker save on Jamie Benn in the second to keep it scoreless. Coming after Niemi’s heroic game to that point (I counted at least five high-caliber stops up ‘til then), it really felt like that would be the Stars’ best chance, and Ducks’ netminder, as so many others have done recently, found a way to come up big against Dallas.

The other moment was Jamie Benn’s penalty to give the Ducks their second minute-long stretch of five-on-three time in the game. What on earth Benn was thinking by using his glove to try to win a faceoff, I can’t even begin to tell you. After all, the Stars were in the offensive zone—even if it were four seasons ago, it still would have likely been whistled down as a hand pass.

And sure enough, Corey Perry capitalized on a failed Cody Eakin clear at the end of the 5v3 stretch to put the Ducks up 2-1. (As an aside, it’s tough to blame Eakin for just trying to fire the puck out once he found space at that point, but had he realized just how much time and space he had, it would have been nice to have him actually take a glance to see where he could clear the puck instead of blindly firing. But again, I’m not really going to harp on a forward trying to desperately clear a puck when he’s gassed at the end of a 5-on-3.)

So the Stars had squandered a magnificent performance by the netminder with another stretch of bad penalties and scoring impotence, and the game seemed almost a lock. The Ducks had outshot them 26-16 at that point, and it was hard to see much changing in the final stretch.

But Jamie Benn would get some redemption on the power play, finding Dan Hamhuis on a Goligoski-like rush to the net with a patient pass to the tape. Suddenly things didn’t seem so bleak. I mean, if Stephen Johns and Dan Hamhuis could score, surely the Stars’ top line could come through, right?

Well, some might argue that the top line did indeed come through when Adam Cracknell and Devin Shore put Dallas up 3-2. Cracknell used his size perfectly, leaning on Sami Vatanen with the ease of superior size, and firing a really nice high backhand shot that glanced off Gibson before Corey Perry finished the job while trying to tie up Shore. It was a bad break for Perry, but that’s sort of what happens when you spend most of your hockey career making unspeakable bargains with the evil ghost of the California Golden Seals.

That goal was sparked by a nice breakup by Johnny Oduya (who had a bit of redemption for his earlier bad break to set Getzlaf’s table for the Ducks’ first goal), and the next goal would also come off a turnover, this one forced by Jiri Hudler (whose name I should probably add to my computer dictionary now that he appears to be somewhat not-dysenteric anymore). Patrick Eaves used his wonderful shot to capitalize on a bewildered Gibson, and suddenly the Ducks looked a lot like those in Games 3 and 4 of a certain playoff series a couple years ago. (Let’s not continue with that analogy, though.)

Jordie Benn was taken off the second power play unit tonight in favor of Esa Lindell (“finally,” said the smug author), but it didn’t stop him from finding his brother for a nice tip play to put the game out of reach. Incidentally, I really did think Lindell looked poised on the man-advantage, with a couple of nice keeps to smooth over a hiccup-prone power play. I am selfishly going to hope this continues, if only so I can see my inexpert bias in favor of Lindell on the power play prove me to be much more of an expert than I have any right to claim. I watch most games on the television.

Speaking of the blue line, Stephen Johns scored a goal, but he otherwise did not have a great game, with a couple of bad turnovers that sparked good and/or great (read: breakaway) chances on Niemi. I don’t want Johns scratched or anything, but it’s important to recognize the legitimacy of Erin and others’ criticism of him when it’s that costly. The young players (Lindell included) are still learning.

John Klingberg, meanwhile, shut down Ryan Kesler on a two-on-one, which is pretty respectable if I do say so myself. Klingberg’s game has really started to annoy some fans this season, but his game intelligence has never been a weakness. If his confidence and quickness can match his vision, then I’m optimistic about Klingberg returning to form. Also, he kind of has to if the Stars want to do anything.

I don’t blame Randy Carlyle for pulling his goalie during a 4-on-4 stretch with a good few minutes remaining. In theory, that’s your last chance to get back into the game. In practice, however, Dallas has looked miserable at 4v4 and 3v3 this year, and that was the case for the first 30 seconds of that stretch, too. Why the refs actually decided to make it 4v4 when the Ducks clearly instigated the garbage around the net after the whistle is anyone’s guess—Ruff certainly wasn’t pleased about it either—but Dallas looked suddenly vulnerable during the reduced manpower until Faksa decided to drive a stake through the undead heart of Anaheim.

This game wasn’t pretty, for most of it. However, this wasn’t a sequence of absurdly lucky goals, either. Dallas found another gear when they needed to after Antti Niemi kept them in the game more times than I can count. The team did not all play well together for most of the game, but they sequenced their good play as satisfactorily as you could ask of whatever the Stars are right now.

This homestand needed something, anything. Maybe this was it. No, you can’t look at getting doubled up in shots by the Ducks for much of the game as a good recipe for success, but you can look at most of their goals for perhaps a new recipe: tight defense that creates counterattacking opportunities, patient plays with unexpected activation from the defense, and smart choices like Jordie Benn’s shot to Jamie instead of just “get pucks to the net” ad infinitum.

Dallas capitalized, no doubt. But they actually had a goaltending performance to capitalize on, and that’s worth remembering. Dallas has dead-average (15th) goaltending at 5v5 this year, and if they can stop taking forfty-twelvelen penalties a game, they might be able to do something about their odious penalty kill, too.

Finally, I’ll point this out: Antoine Roussel was third-overall in ice-time tonight, behind (of course) Lindell and Oduya (wait what). Spezza and Seguin were largely saved for special teams, but the top line still drove play the right way. You know who else drove play the right way? Adam Cracknell, because he always does. And much like a game in which a bad start was somewhat weathered before a wonderful discovery of offense, this season might also have revealed to Dallas that their 14th or 15th forward on the depth chart is actually one of the most solid role players they’ve had all season. I still miss Ales Hemsky a lot.