These Dallas Stars are a very special team. Off to their best start in living memory, the Stars were putting up wonderful numbers all over the place in the first half of the season. Even the goals-against were in the top-ten range for a while there, and the overpowering offense and lethal power play were instilling the fear of all things verdant into the rest of the NHL.
These Dallas Stars, the ones we saw tonight, are still a very special team. After Antti Niemi came down with a case of the goaltendings in the final minutes of the first, Dallas buckled down, turned both barrels on the Jets, and managed to get back to level in 23 minutes against a team with five solid defensemen and a good young goalie. It was a remarkable comeback, but one we had seen before this season, multiple times. Think about how absolutely fruitcake-with-nuts that is, that we've just sort of accepted the Stars' ability to come back from that kind of hole Teams don't do that. Teams don't score three goals in an entire game, usually.
It's always neato burrito to read postgame quotes and morning skate interviews and hear the team talk about what they need to do. Be better, be consistent more consistently, and stop making mistakes. Those are the things they usually say, and boy, have the Stars been forced to be saying them a lot lately. You know how porous they've been, and you saw just how mind-numbingly numbskulled their defensive play was tonight. As vicarious participants, we want answers. We want explanations for why the team that was doing so well is now doing so many things so, well, not well. If you're looking for anything more than the usual aphorisms from the team, though, you aren't going to hear them. They talk about the specifics, but not to us. They break down each breakdown, but to us, quotes are general. That's how it's supposed to work, and so we're left to solve the specific problems ourselves, if only for our own satisfaction. If we can solve the problems hypothetically, then the problems are truly solvable, we hope.
Mike Heika mentioned the Stars' penalty kill yesterday. Well, yes, the penalty kill was actually 100% tonight. The power play was 50%! Those are fabulous numbers. But when you give up six goals all at even strength, it's actually much worse than a bad penalty kill. Thursday night was an across-the-board collapse in front of a packed house (from what I could tell on a screen, anyway). It hurt. It raised more questions, and it amplified the voices of doubt that were already trying to be heard amongst those celebrating the top-of-the-conference team. Cynicism is bad and harmful, but doubting this team's je ne sais quoi is looking pretty justified these days. They are a very special team, but mostly in the way Aquaman is a very special superhero. You're not quite sure he's ready to save the world if the conditions are rough. But man, put him in the water, and you better look out.
Go watch the goals, or don't. Everyone was overtrying. When the "defensive defenseman" Johnny Oduya is getting danced for a goal, you know this team stayed in Hotel Kryptonite. That is too many comic book metaphors already.
You can mix up the defense pairings like Ruff did at times tonight. I don't see it helping all that much, really. There's no way Oduya can handle top-pair minutes at this point, and double that for sentiment for the young defenders. If the Stars grab Hamhuis or a similar middle-pairing guy, then your best-case scenario is the ability to slot Oduya down to the third pair with Jordie Benn or the kid du jour. That isn't going to have an enormous impact on what's been ailing this team.
I think it's the potential that makes it hurt so much. The Stars are a rare breed of hockey folks, a group that can crank up the offense and defy conventional wisdom, but then they can also fall apart at the touch of a feather. Throwing around terms like "mental lightweights" or "game six PTSD" is as valid as anything else, but if you're Jim Nill, you have to be asking some fairly fundamental questions about this team's complexion over the weekend. Your $10 million goalie experiment can brag that it hasn't been awful enough to sink this team, and the nuclear-powered forward corps still seems lost in their own zone unless they're breaking out with the puck. The defense, of course, is ineffably interesting. I never thought sound positioning and offensive dynamism were mutually exclusive, but Dallas has certainly been making a case for such an argument.
This was the only game Dallas lost to Winnipeg this year, so perhaps the universe was simply putting all its regression into one contest. If so, that has to be poor consolation for Winnipeg. "Hey guys, now that you're being gutted and the playoffs are not an option, you can finally beat the best team in the West. Enjoy."
With 20 games left, what can you really do? Personnel exchanges are the hot topic right now, but man, you'd have to be shocked if Patient Jim suddenly made sweeping changes in the home stretch to the team atop the West. Of course, Dallas haven't felt like the Best team in the West for a while now, and that's where all of the unrest stems from. As fans, we won't feel good until this team is dominating teams repeatedly. In short, we will be unhappy until we have no more reason to be. (And even then, a few of us will be happy to find reasons to grouse. It's what we do.)
Against the Jets, Dallas failed to do the Key Hockey Things. I don't know if they can possibly hack into the player tracking hivemind to start brainwashing some of the Stars' players into sticking to their proper coverage, but I wouldn't be against trying it out. Ruff mentioned "shot lanes" the other day, but it's tough to be in the shot lane when you aren't even sure which guy is supposed to be near the shooter to begin with. Surprise, it's you. You were supposed to be there, and you were not. Way to go, dude.
Moaning and groaning after ugly losses can be cathartic, although I'm not sure it helps much in the long run. A couple of wins and everything will be roses again, right? We poke holes in this club because it seems almost unbelievable that they are where they are; but there is always the possibility that they have just chosen a particularly erratic way of achieving success, though. Goaltenders can carry a mediocre team to greatness, but that's, ah, not what's been happening. They've simply been good at the right times, and really good back in the early times. Great! That was great, I mean, but now that it is the later times, things are less great. Those early times may have been an anomaly, and the booing (or Stu-ing?) you heard on Thursday suggests that some fans are starting to think it was. That's a scary thought, isn't it? That the phantasm of fall won't return again?
Patrick Sharp had three points, and Spezza had two goals. Those are two recent acquisitions who are helping this team. The temptation is to repeat that "trade for improvement" formula ad infinitum, or at least it is tempting for us spectators. We can't tell the players to play better to their faces, but we can fantasize about rearranging or even replacing them, and so we do. The arrangment is, of course, that the players force the fans to accept them by winning. For a good bit of the year, this happened. Now, ticket prices are going up because demand is doing likewise. People are literally buying what this team is selling. For now, it is ours only to hope that we didn't just buy four new houses in the winter of 2007 when we started getting excited about the Stars.
The extreme games can feel really validating for the skeptics or the optimists. This was sort of that for both groups when the Stars caught up again. But a lot of other things happened in the 20 minutes of the third period, and now everyone feels cheated. How much do you think that game will resemble the whole season is, of course, yours to decide right now, because you must. It is all of ours to discover, over the next two months. Because we can't help ourselves. I'm not sure anyone can help us at this point.