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Games 1-35 Afterwords: Rare Overtime Win Must Spark Change for Dallas in Second Half of Season

It’s not the actual halfway point, but it might as well be.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

These Stars are not supposed to beat the Kings in overtime. In fact, given both of these teams’ struggles, the Stars aren’t supposed to beat the Kings at all. The Kings are a big, relentless team that dumps pucks, recovers them, and forces their way to scoring areas out of volume more than elite-level playmaking. Even with Anze Kopitar performing a goal-scoring disappearing act this year worse than Jamie Benn’s, these Kings should still be good. And even without Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles can still make goaltenders look great. Peter Budaj is playing amazingly for them, and it is definitively no longer 2008. With all due credit to Budaj, that tells you what this Kings team can do.

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The Stars, as we’ve come to know them this year, aren’t really “supposed” to beat a lot of teams. Their quickly earned reputation for scoring a lot and overcoming their goaltending has been flipped this year, but don’t tell anyone else. To most fans (and a fair amount of writers), the Stars need a new goalie and some better defensemen. And here we are, wondering about obliterated right-wing depth, the disappearance of the four elite scorers for too much of the season, and overtime struggles that had become more of a Feature than a Bug, to date.

Then Lindy Ruff started doing things. Lines were jumbled, overtime strategies were adapted, and defensive aptitude has become something this team really actually possesses, for now. In the last game before the Christmas break, the Stars proved something. They proved they can win after giving up the first goal, which is good. They proved that they can win in overtime after surrendering a lead, which is also good. They proved that they have 11 forwards good enough to make seven defensemen doable, even when that quickly becomes six—Nemeth did not play in the third period.

What is this team, so far? 14-14-7 is, ah, not a good record in this NHL. The Maple Leafs also have 35 points (in fewer games played), and they are nine points out of a wild card spot in the East. (Or five points back of third in their division, as if five points are somehow not a big deal.) Dallas has an awful goal-differential of -17 that is only better than three other Western Conference teams that you can guess with ease, and yet, Dallas sits three points pack of the final playoff spot, tied with Nashville. We all figured Dallas would be in a race with the Predators this year, but this is not the track we bought tickets for.

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Kari Lehtonen is no longer a reliable average NHL goalie, as his three-year numbers bear out. He has talent, and he has stolen games. He will likely still do that, sometimes. Against Los Angeles, Kari surrendered two very forgivable goals on two very understandable rebounds (one from a screened wrister in-tight, and the second on an [unnecessary] 3v2 rush when the shot appeared to tick off a stick into his pad). We can argue about whether or not those goals were “on” Kari—I don’t think they were—but we know he is overpaid. We have assumed he would be overpaid at this point in his career for many years now. This season, Kari has more or less continued being post-Haula Kari: unreliable for providing good goaltending for extended stretches, but capable of looking like he can bring it on any given night.

Last night, Kari was that. He wasn’t performing Niemi-like robbery, but he stopped the chances he had to stop when the Stars were giving them up with some measure of liberality. He gave them that most hallowed of goaltending gifts: a chance to win. And that was great. Or at least, it would be great if there were any reasonable assurance that Jim Nill is looking to move on at the first opportunity.

My assumption after the Stars didn’t buy Kari out this summer was that surely they would the following summer, were options to become available. Antti Niemi once again looks like a goalie who can prop up a team for a while like he did last year, and if you’re trying to get this Dallas machine playoff-ready, that’s your fallback as you call your local talent agents looking for a Cam Talbot lookalike. So, given Lehtonen’s newly established ceiling, Dallas can’t just keep pretending like this is something they’re cool rolling with as they prepare to rent another Kris Russell, right?

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Esa Lindell did redeem himself, as Craig Ludwig mentioned. He stepped up in overtime and (after his 3-man unit almost botched things again in their own zone) busted to the net in time to stash a Jamie Benn pass. Good for him. If he keeps getting better and more reliable, that progress will be one of the “wins” from these first few months of the year. Lindell was on the ice for pretty much every goal in every direction against Los Angeles, but you’d hope that the top line and the penalty kill will maybe start to play not so confusingly bad in front of him as the season wears on. I mean, 14-90-91 really should be good most of the time just by accident.

Jamie Benn was all over this game, too, but in too many of the ways he’s been all over this season. Yes, he has his points—he had two great passes that led to goals in that game—but he’s on pace for like 23 goals this year. He may have played 25 minutes the other night, but he also failed to score when he had ample opportunity to do so. Even his shorthanded shot that turned into a 4-on-2 against somehow what happened at the bench with Spezza seriously watch that replay, was no one ready to come on or something how do you botch a change that badly?—ahem, even that shot was a weird slapper, which may not indicate injury so much as a lack of confidence in that blistering wrister that we remember Benn scoring with from the blue line against Anaheim in 2014. In any case, some line of JamieBenn.exe code is missing, but I’m not sure whether I’m hoping for it to be a mental one or a physical one at this point. (It’s probably physical.)

John Klingberg was good, except for a couple of yikes moments. Zatkoff made a slick blocker save on a good Klingberg shot that goes in last season, and Klingberg also started the Seguin goal sequence on the rush. If Klingberg is creating chances, you’re okay with a couple of the “gaah” moments, and lately, Klingberg has been creating. It’s the same thing folks have said about Julius Honka’s high-event propensity, and whether or not you think Honka should be up right now probably indicates how confident you are in Klingberg’s game for the final 47 contests.

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The defense was always slated to become bigger (except for Honka), and they’ve done that. The only little issue with that simple plan is that it’s been the smaller defensemen who have been the best ones for Dallas this season, while two of the biggest blueliners have ridden the pine much too much for the second straight season. The Stars wanted to have a younger blueline with size and skill that feeds their team speed, but the ven diagram with those attributes has been missing its Reuleaux triangle for what feels like most of the season so far.

You could attribute their defense’s struggles to the loss of Goligoski (who has been similarly woeful in AZ), Demers (whose Panthers are even more lost than the Stars despite his solid second-pairing play), the injuries of the forwards, the hodgepodge defense pairings for the first chunk of games, or just general incompetence among team employees from Nill on down; I don’t see a need to pin it on any of those yet, though. The nine defensemen thing certainly should have been sorted out, but how much of Oleksiak or Nemeth’s value has really been lost? Neither of these players is going to fetch a huge return no matter how well they play, so you’re really talking more about 6th-rounders vs. 3rd-rounders at the end of the day. And besides—we’ve gotten to watch Jamie Oleksiak score the goal of his life. That’s something, right?

Really, we’re all just annoyed with the struggling team, and we’re sympathetic to the plight of young defensemen who can’t crack the lineup. So we get upset at Dallas for not doing something. And whenever I catch myself getting upset at a GM for not “doing something,” it’s a safe bet I’m oversimplifying the circumstances driving the inaction itself. Nill could have sent either defenseman out of town by now—I do think Nemeth or Oleksiak would have passed through waivers—but Nill apparently feels he would be doing his employer—the Dallas Stars—a disservice by employing the means available to reduce the blueline headcount. So he waits, and so do we. It’s a lot easier to be patient when the team is winning, turns out.

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Jason Spezza had two great setups the other night, one of which went in. Tyler Seguin scored, and that needed to happen. Spezza has, for all of his own goal-scoring struggles this season, been largely consistent in controlling play most nights, and that needs to start benefiting Dallas more. That Lauri Korpikoski has amassed more minutes with Spezza than any other forward surely explains part of Spezza’s relative lack of productivity, but only part. No one on the Stars has been scoring consistently, and Spezza has, at least, suffered an injury we’re certain of. These are all factors that we can understand, but it’s kind of the worst that they have coincided with Jamie Benn’s own struggles.

Point of order though: Jason Spezza has more even-strength goals than either Seguin or Benn (as do Ritchie, Faksa, Shore, Roussel and Eaves as well), but Spezza has far fewer even-strength assists. Benn and Seguin, meanwhile, both have four goals at evens, a number that matches the totals of Korpikoski and Adam Cracknell. You need Seguin and Benn to outscore Lauri Korpikoski and Adam Cracknell through 35 games when it comes to goals. I don’t think I’m being outrageous here.

So, yeah. Jason Spezza isn’t getting assists this season partly because of playing with people who aren’t Seguin and Benn, but also because of people who are. Dallas can live with Spezza not spinning his suboptimal linemate straw into gold—he only had 15 EV assists last year, after all—but he needs to be able to score if Benn and Seguin aren’t. And, at even-strength, they definitely aren’t.

Memory Lane: Spezza only scored 13 even-strength goals back in 2014-15, but Benn and Seguin each scored 20+, and that’s why the Stars easily made the playoffs except for oh right, the goalies. Sorry about that. (Incidentally, can we all agree that having Niemi/Lehtonen, whatever the cost, is at least way better than having Lehtonen/Lindback/Rynnas? Like, a lot better? How easily we forget.)

***

I listened to the Kings broadcast the other night and was treated to hearing Ralph Strangis call 65 minutes of hockey. After the tumult happening with so much of this team this season, you could almost cry at hearing a fresh Tyler Seguin goal call from the pipes that came with Dallas down from Minnesota.

Ralph’s skill shone in that broadcast, by the way. His commentary oiled the game action well, and Jim Fox is the king of neatly tied color analyst interjections. Hearing Ralph just tell you what’s going on in the game, using the timbre of his voice to flesh out certain moments and punctuate others, was a joy. We were so spoiled, and then we got spoiled again with Dave Strader. We’re still spoiled with Razor, but it’s sort of like when your mom would leave for a couple of days and suddenly you ate pizza for five nights in a row. It’s nice and fun, but you do need the casserole and veggies periodically to let pizza be everything it’s supposed to be.

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We should probably mention that Dan Hamhuis has found his way somethin’ fierce. From looking slow and lost at first to displacing Oduya on the second pairing, Hamhuis has become what we hoped he could be (unless you thought he would be the ideal linemate for Klingberg). Stephen Johns is coming along alongside him, and that’s good for everyone.

Quibble about Jordie Benn if you must, but he’s not been the problem this season. It helped that Lindy Ruff finally stopped trying him on the power play (and quickly realized that he was not going to fix Klingberg early on), but the fanbase’s usual punching bag has gone about his business with a minimum of “aw, Jordie” moments this year, and that’s plenty good enough. He’ll be scaled back down to third-pairing minutes as soon as Honka and Johns are healthy and the logjam is cleared out, and we’ll go back to kind of being happy that an undrafted dude and his elite brother can both contribute to a hockey team together.

***

Radek Faksa played a ton against LA, and he has been great. He might be the least controversial player on the Stars’ roster right now. Think about it: How often have you heard someone mention Faksa in the same breath as the following words: underrated, hard-working, gritty, defensive, smart, safe, right play, critical faceoff, and “rewarded for his hard work”? There is probably a Bingo card in there somewhere. Also, it is a good thing the Stars’ first-round draft pick success doesn’t comprise a Bingo card layout. You would take a long time to get Bingo, but Faksa would certainly be a free square.

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The kids have been important to this season, but not in the way our greedy little fan hearts want. Lindell has become a valuable if not yet invaluable piece, and Honka has given us a taste of what he can bring that others cannot. Devin Shore and Brett Ritchie have supplemented the scoring nicely; it’s just unfortunate that supplemental goal-scoring is all the Stars have really been able to muster thus far. Gemel Smith had a lot of games in which to display his wares, and they turned out to be pretty nice, actually. Why he had those games in the first place is part of the Stars’ struggle—injuries, I mean—but hey, you take any bit of beauty when your toilsome path brings some along.

Jason Dickinson lurks, awaiting a chance to force his way into the lineup for good. Mattias Backman is perhaps defenseman #10, but on this Stars roster, that could mean NHL ice time with barely a week’s notice. You really don’t know. He will need to be healthy, though.

Also, Curtis McKenzie has kind of been playing really well lately. I wanted to mention that, because he’s starting to feel like a bigger Colton Sceviour in that he is just around a lot, and you take him for granted if you’re not careful.

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Special teams are a thing that you could talk about. The penalty kill has been bad! The power play has been mediocre! These things have hurt Dallas, but it’s hard to say that they have been the most harmful things. Like everything else about this team, the real problem is that there has been no single area performing at an elite enough level to pick up the slack of all the other areas. And when you don’t really have many super areas of your team, your team stops looking all that super. I stole that from The Incredibles, which really doesn’t need a sequel, but of course it is getting a sequel because hey, Disney made Fox and the Hound 2 for goodness’ sake, so there really isn’t anything they won’t find a way to cash in on. The power play could learn a thing or two from Disney.

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We’re 35 games and only 35 points in, and Dallas hasn’t found their stride yet. Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky and Mattias Janmark haven’t been able to give them much at all, and the top players have been scoring like second-liners at even-strength. That is enough to derail any plan a bit, but we’re past that because we have to be. Dallas has struggled to score, to find consistent lines, and to put together even one miserable winning streak. They have 47 games left, and they probably need 60 points out of them to be reasonably playoff-confident. So far, Dallas has used up just about all of their margin for error. Slumps, excuses, logjams and funks are indulgences this team can no longer afford, but we’ll see if their spending habits have changed after opening their most recent overtime gift.