BAILIFF: All rise.
*Everyone stands up. Someone drops his keys, and people giggle while the bailiff glares*
BAILIFF: Feelings Court is now in session. The Honorable Judge Bill presiding.
JUDGE BILL: Thank you, Bailiff. Remind me to christen you with an actual name before the next time we do this. Okay, let's get to work. What do we have on the docket?
BAILIFF: Your honor, today we present the case of Feelings vs. Reality. Defendants Cliff and Clara Fanpeople are accused of not knowing how to feel about recent developments with Party A, the Dallas Stars.
JUDGE BILL: How do the defendants plead?
CLIFF AND CLARA (in unison): Guilty
JUDGE BILL: That's no fun. Please change your plea so we can do all the testimonies and objections and surprise witnesses and the free dollar bills for me and stuff.
CLIFF AND CLARA (in unison): Sure. Uh, "Not guilty."
JUDGE BILL: *claps hands with glee* Now that's more like it! Okay, and who is the plaintiff?
BAILIFF: Plaintiff is the dimensional plane on which we all reside, your honor: "Reality."
JUDGE BILL: Aw, I hate that guy. He doesn't get to talk. Okay, well, let's get started. Cliff and Clara...actually, I'm gonna call y'all "Clarf" to save time, okay?
REALITY: Excuse me, your honor, but as the plaint-
JUDGE BILL: WHAT DID I JUST SAY?
REALITY: *bites (tongue)*
JUDGE BILL: Proceed, Clarf.
CLARF: Thank you, your honor. I'd like to take this time to explain why we're in conflict with the plaintiff, if I may.
JUDGE BILL *Literally eating those educational cereal box tops that people make their children send in*
CLARF: Uh, all right. So, here's the deal. The Dallas Stars are in first, and we're 70 games into the season. They are on a five-game point streak, and they just took three of four points from two of the top four teams in the NHL in a back-to-back set with the entire right side of their defense and Patrick Sharp injured.
The Stars' penalty kill has climbed to 18th in the league after another banner night for the PK with a clutch power play goal thrown in on the other side of things. They officially have better special teams than Los Angeles now, and that is a Pretty Good Hockey Team. Did I mention they're 70 games into the season? We are starting to believe in this team, but the plaintiff keeps popping up to explain why we're crazy to call them a top contender, and we have a hard time not believing him once he gets going. He talks a lot.
JUDGE BILL: Okay, I rule in favor of the def-
REALITY: Not so fast, your honor. *tosses more box tops to the bench* Our turn to talk now.
JUDGE BILL: *indistinguishable crunching and smacking sounds*
REALITY: First, try this on for size: the Blues went 4-0 this week. They just scored five goals in a much more open game than they're used to playing, and their goaltending has been heads and tails above anything that's worn victory green in the defendant's crease this year. And St. Louis isn't even the team that's been fighting you for most of the season--that would be Chicago, who is slumping with a .500 record in their last 20 games, and yet they're still breathing down your neck. You haven't been able to maintain any distance over the great teams, and the Blues have clearly had your number this season, to the tune of a 4-1 record. That's a short playoff series. You will have to go through one or both of these teams come April, and you haven't proven that you can do that in a seven-game series by a long shot.
CLARF: First, let's remember that said "4-1 record" looks a bit different when inspected more closely. Each team has a 3-0 victory at home, and the other three contests went to overtime or the shootout. The 3v3 overtime and the skills competition won't be a part of any Dallas/St. Louis matchup in the postseason, so it's really been an even run so far as far as what we'd expect to see there. And as for Chicago, they've clearly benefited from some opportunistic scoring and amazing goaltending, but that same season record invoked with the Blues indicts the Hawks: 3-1 to Dallas so far, and that's without an extra-frame poppycock. Dallas has pretty well handled Chicago this season even when missing some key players. So as much as the goaltending isn't going to make people forget about Dominik Hasek, it also hasn't held this team back from the top of the conference despite seriously stinking things up at times. Imagine what this team can be if the goaltending just looks, well, average! Scary, that's what. I mean, not that it hasn't also been the other kind of scary for us, at times, but now I'm rambling.
REALITY: I'm sorry, but let's weight recent history a bit more than the epic poem that was the long-departed autumn of Eastern Conference Feasting. Saturday night, the Stars gave up an ugly odd-man rush after Johnny Oduya and friends got caught. Vladimir Tarasenko waltzed by the defense and collected his own rebound (the second pudgy such gift from Niemi) for a ghastly sharp-angle goal. Then, because that wasn't enough ugly for one night, the defense did the rest of the scoring against Dallas. Kevin Shattenkirk had a wraparound goal that somehow no one saw coming on defense or in the net, and then your own fancy-pants rookie right-hander screened your own goalie for the Honka-sized defenseman's second of the evening. And I don't think you want to talk about the overtime goal from Pietrangelo, right?
REALITY: I didn't think so. Here's what it comes down to: Both teams were worn down from games the night before, and the Blues managed to score four goals in two periods. They were two minutes from vaulting into first place after Dallas had left them in the dust just a couple months back. Dallas couldn't beat Jake Allen on breakaways by...wait, Kris Russell had a breakaway?
CLARF: Don't tell the Flames. They're still trying to figure out why Russell keeps touching the puck with his stick since arriving in Dallas. It's a confusing time for the boys in Calgary. They've had to scrap a lot of shinpads-with-mini-sticks-taped-to-them prototypes since the trade.
REALITY: Fair enough. My point is, Dallas had plenty of chances, but Benn still hasn't proven himself capable of shooting a puck into the net like the Art Ross holder he was for roughly a full age of Middle Earth now. It's nice that you got the lucky tying goal on the gift power play to get a loser point--you did lose, in case you forgot--and it's especially nice that Jason Spezza had a tap-in goal after a shot off a defender, the goalie and the post bounced to him.
Ron Weasley Cody Eakin used a confundus charm on the defense to let an achingly slow pass get to his stick before he somehow roofed it past Allen on the backhand, and that same charm clearly bounced into his skates on the celebration when he went full Stu Barnes.
Jason Spezza scored half of your goals, and he'll be 33 in June. Can you really count on the puck continuing to bounce into his path in the brutal postseason as he starts mulling 401(k) decisions?
CLARF: Your honor, I would like to submit-
JUDGE BILL (interrupting): Can't talk. Eating.
CLARF: Look, okay. I have a chart. Call it Exhibit A for "it's A chart."
CLARF: As you can see, the Blues were shooting from outside the premium scoring areas quite a bit. Dallas scored all their goals in tight, albeit with the last one coming from a high wrister that was deflected. The Stars didn't try to generate much from up high, but they fought for good chances down low, and they got them. This game wasn't nearly as much of a "Hitchock the Gruff Bulldozer" story as it seemed, no matter what faceoffs or shot counts tell you.
And again, just as with Chicago, Dallas had multiple breakaways and chances to score (like that same Spezza's one-timer that destroyed the crossbar) that they didn't convert. Do you really think Jamie Benn fails to score on premium chances in the playoffs? The same guy who scored on the Ducks in 2014 with blue line wrist shots just because he felt like it? I'm betting on him putting those away when it counts.
REALITY: Congratulations, your coach put Spezza and Seguin together, and they managed to produce a couple of points. Must be nice having three of the top 12 scorers in the NHL on your team. Look, I don't really know what your forwards lines are even supposed to be, and that's saying something coming from a personified plane of existence. Your rookies on defense were shaky, and the third pairing (and second pairing, for that matter) were as generous as the Blues could have hoped for. Demers isn't coming back any time soon; do you really think Jordie Benn and the Swedish Twig are going to
CLARF: Objection! Klingberg's proper name is the Silky Smooth Scoring Swedish Twig.
JUDGE BILL: Sustained.
CLARF: If you're going to bring up the lines and defense, I'll just say this: One, John Klingberg is one of the very best defensemen in this here league, so yes, I expect his healthy ice time to make just about as enormous a difference as one defenseman's presence can make. Going from Oleksiak to Klingberg is going to help a bit.
REALITY: Hold on, I have a First Round Picks joke here if you'll just let me check my notes...
CLARF: *doesn't wait*
CLARF: As for the lines, take a gander around the league. Mike Babcock rustled the jimmies of every line designer in Detroit for years with how he played (or didn't play) the younger players. Coach Q continues to play Lines from a Hat in Chicago, and I don't hear people citing that as a reason for the Hawks' inability to win Cups.
REALITY: Actually, they would have won five by now if Kane had been converted to center. I can prove it with math. In fact, I have a chart right here that--
*Someone in the crowd interrupts with a loud "Woooooo!"*
JUDGE BILL: Someone please put that idiot in jail.
BAILIFF: *Puts the idiot in jail*
*Courtroom applauds gratefully for twelve minutes. Everyone hugs in celebration.*
REALITY: I don't remember what I was arguing, but allow me to make a closing statement, if I may.
JUDGE BILL: I forged my law degree in a treehouse using crushed beetles for ink and old soup can labels as a seal.
BAILIFF (to self): I knew there was no such place as The Progresso School of Important Law Things That Really Exist, Really.
REALITY: Can we stay on track here? Look, the bottom line is that a couple of loser points and catching Chicago off-guard a couple times don't suddenly mean the Stars' issues are solved. Kari Lehtonen hasn't been an average goaltender for almost two years now, and he's looking like your best option for this year and the next two years after that.
The defense is still vulnerable and small. Unless your coach suddenly decides that Nemeth and Oleksiak are perfectly fine to face top competition on the road when the stakes are highest, you're going to have Russell, Goligoski, Klingberg and Oduya getting pushed around in tight playoff contests over and over again. Your forwards still don't always play consistent defense themselves, and that means space for the other team, and that means quality shots, which mean goals, given your goaltending's track record this season. Are you really okay with that?
CLARF: Well...*makes circles on carpet with toe while avoiding eye contact*
REALITY: If you are seriously proposing to win 6-5 contests on a regular basis from here on out, then I'll just go ahead and leave the room for good, because you obviously don't need me around for a plan like that.
CLARF: For my closing statement, I have two things to say.
First, I would like to remind the plaintiff of their good friend, Math, who says that if Dallas continues creating more chances than they allow, they will usually end up winning the game, no matter how high the score. Sure, the goaltending isn't great, but Kari Lehtonen still can be good, and the Stars' defense with Johns and Klingberg on it together behind Goligoski, Oduya and Kris Russell(!) doesn't look so bad. Throw in the possible return of Demers at some point in the playoffs, and suddenly the Stars have three pretty nice pairings that are finally balanced in handedness.
Dallas shut down the league's best power play Friday, and they weathered a mystery zebra storm of calls for the Blues on Saturday. The power play cashed in when it had to, and Benn and Seguin are scoring goals again. Jason Spezza could cool off a tad from his goal(s)-per-game pace, and he
will might, but the offense is still going to be impossible to completely shut down. Do whatever you want with the lines-
LINDY RUFF, standing in the gallery: Oh, I will.
CLARF (continuing): ...but the Stars swapped Mattias Janmark for Travis Moen against St. Louis, and they still were one fantastic Jake Allen overtime save from pulling out a win after being down by two in the third period against Ken Hitchcock. That says something pretty significant to me.
And secondly, I'd like to present one more chart. With the judge's permission...*looks at bench, then hurriedly looks away, ashamed* Uh, you know what, just look at this chart, why don't you?
JUDGE BILL (wearing underpants on head): Case dismissed. Defendants are free to go.
* * *
Credits roll with voiceover underneath: "Despite being exonerated by the now-debarred Judge Bill, Cliff and Clara would find themselves right back on trial twelve more times before finally seeing justice served in April.
The Bailiff would eventually be named Svetlana, but not without controversy.
Find out how it all turns out next time, on This Stupid Edition of Afterwords."
* * *