I don't always enjoy Stars games when I'm at the rink. Living in Southern California means that the vast majority of my in-person viewing has taken place as an Enemy Fan, and too often over the past decade or so, I've walked out of an enemy barn with scoffing and jeering at my back. In fact, during my last visit to Staples Center this season, we had the pleasure of being soaked with a flying beer* as we walked up the stairs to the concourse after a Kings victory. And even when Dallas has won with me in attendance, it's just not quite the same sort of joyful experience that a victory among home fans can be.
*To Staples Center's credit, they had the sweater laundered and shipped back at no charge.
But walking back to the car on an 80-degree sunny SoCal afternoon, I reflected on the fact that this was one of the most entertaining and enjoyable games I had ever been to. Mind you, I've been to playoff victories against the Ducks, and I even went to the famous shootout victory against Ilya Bryzgalov and the Ducks in Dallas in April 2007 with a game-tying Morrow goal with Turco pulled. (Ladislav Nagy scored the shootout winner, of course. Good old reliable Nagy!)
This game, though, was edge-of-your-seat fun. Dallas created a metric ton of of chances during the stretches of play when they were able to hang onto the puck, and they also gave up a few heart-pounding ones as well. Physical play and skirmishes aplenty got the sold-out crowd into the game as much as 18,000 Angelenos can get into a hockey game. It was fun.
The best thing about being at the game, though, is seeing what happens outside the broadcast camera's purview. In this case, the by-far best thing was the ongoing trolling of Jonathan Quick early on by John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski. After a whistle with an ensuing scrum near the Kings net, Klingberg was near the puck, and he slyly slid it at Quick, in the LA net. Quick angrily swatted the slow-moving puck away, but it slid to Goligoski--and remember, this is all happening outside of the scrum going on in the corner--who then batted it softly right back at Quick. Klingberg did this one other time as well, and it was one of the best things I have ever seen. Please never change, John Klingberg.
Dallas never had the lead until the late Jordie Benn goal, but they controlled this game except for a couple of Kings presses early in the second and third periods. That made it all the more maddening when the Kings inevitably went ahead 1-0 on a fluke goal.
In fact, let's talk about both Kings goals, because I could practically hear people decrying Kari for both of those odd-looking tallies. On the Pearson shot, I don't know what you want Kari to do on a slapshot that suddenly shoots up and knuckles just under the bar after Johns deflects it with his stick. There was a slight hiccup with the fourth line, and Johns had to rush to get over to Pearson, and that's why he was only able to get his stick up. It was a bad break, but I don't know what you want Kari to do on a crazy shot like that. It was pounded, and it knuckled like crazy. Kari wasn't down just hoping for the puck to hit him--he was up on his skates, ready to handily blocker it aside before it veered elsewhere. Maybe you'd ask Johns not to block that, but sticks in lanes are almost always going to send that puck aside or into the netting. Not sure there's much to do with things like that other than shrug and move on.
As for the second tally, Goligoski was at the end of a shift (Klingberg had just changed for Oduya, weirdly), and a failed clear by Kari and some patchwork coverage led to what looked like a piddly little deflection by Carter. In fact, I agree with the Kings' broadcast in that Carter was clearly trying to catch the puck and move to his right. He failed to do that, and by the time Kari realized the puck hadn't kept up with Carter, his barn door had already allowed the puck to trickle through. Again, it's a fluke play, and I don't really fault Kari for trying to stay with the only Kings player in the vicinity. It was bad luck after a great play by Carter to knock down the clearance.
That goal also came at 4v4, and boy howdy, has that scenario been nerve-wracking this year. Dallas has both generated and allowed the third-most high-grade scoring chances (per War-On-Ice) this season at 4-on-4, but they're -2 as a team. Combine that high-event style with the Kings being an unfathomable 70.8 CF% team at quads, and you can't be altogether shocked by Dallas eating a biscuit today.
In all, Kari found everything else Saturday afternoon, including plenty of shots through traffic and a particularly deadly chance with about two minutes left. He is not Henrik Lundqvist, still, but he was good today, and the Stars' offense put up its three goals.
And really, the Stars should have had six today with all the chances they created. Jason Spezza in particular was immensely impressive, dangling between Kings players and generating offense in the zone like you wouldn't believe (well, you probably believe it at this point). His play at the blue line led to Benn's goal, he hit the post with a sizzling wrister in the first, and the power play was (in its relatively brief time) downright scary when he had the puck.
John Klingberg likewise reminded Los Angeles of how their offense pales in comparison to that of the Stars. While Jonathan Quick was pretty sensational today (just ask Ales Hemsky), that Klingberg wrister that trickled just wide of the post told you all you needed to know about which goalie remembered to feed his Luck Dragonfish before coming to the rink. This sounds more reductive than it is meant to be, but basically I am saying Jonathan Quick is a flawed goalie just like every other flawed goalie. He is going to look extra-good when some things break his way.
Aside: I wonder if Nichushkin has a tough time playing with Spezza without trying to emulate him completely. Spezza can sometimes hang onto the puck longer than most folks, but he generally does so for a specific reason. Nichushkin has looked more like a binary decision-maker lately, which is to say that he is just trying to beat a guy, or just trying to feed one player. I know Nichushkin is far more capable than that description suggests, but it seems just possible that he's set his sights prematurely high as things stand right now. He still created offense today, and he does add some good two-way responsibility to that line.
Tough news about Mattias Janmark. That might end up easing the roster logjam after the season ends if he can't make it back for the playoffs right away, but Janmark is not a player you want to be without. I have no guesses as to what he might have injured, but the way Ruff talked about his injury makes me think his regular season is over.
Goligoski had an overall tough game, really. He got caught out there a bit longer than he would have liked multiple times, and that ended up leading to one or two terrifying chances for Los Angeles. I suppose someone had to channel the spirit of Kris Russell against Los Angeles, so props to Goose for picking up the slack. Really, he seemed to have issues with the size of the Kings' forecheckers at times, which puts him on par with quite a few other defensemen in the Western Conference. Not his best
night day, all in all.
Stephen Johns and Oduya had themselves a much better afternoon by way of comparison. Nemeth and Jordie Benn also had good afternoons, but Oduya and John had a couple of sequences in all three zones that made you feel pretty secure, the Pearson goal off Johns's stick notwithstanding. Johns still has his rookie moments (a needless icing in the third didn't help matters much), but I don't see how Johns doesn't stay in this lineup after game 82. Now just forget that you were saying very similar things about Patrik Nemeth back in 2014. Forget them now.
I really wanted Jamie Benn to hit the empty net as he chases down more hardware. Dallas shockingly couldn't score despite three or four attempts at the yawning cage, but it was hard to be upset considering how well Dallas stifled Los Angeles in the final minute or two (basically everything after that huge Lehtonen save). Dallas locked it down for a victory, which they have down all year round. Dallas has the league-best goal differential when the opposing team's goalie is pulled--they were even last year with nine goals scored and allow--and it is not particularly close. Scoring is an easy (for Dallas) way to wrap up the game, but just denying the trailing team zone entry from the get go is also an effective tactic. Patrick Sharp in particular had *checks sheet* forty million takeaways in his final shift, which was a nice way to send the Kings fans home demoralized. Anaheim is still chasing them down, and the Kings can hear the footsteps. Dallas did the courtesy of fabricating them an ear trumpet Saturday.
My view on officiating is that I will never understand why the referees enforce fewer rules as the games get more crucially important. Are we just ignoring the obvious trend of penalty calls decreasing later in the season while also searching for ways to increase offense? I don't know, seems like there might be an opportunity there.
I'm not complaining, though. Dallas got what was apparently a gift penalty when Fiddler's stick hit his own face, and there were calls on both sides that got swallowed up in order to let the Players Decide the Game. I am not sure what that sentence has ever meant, because it is patently false. Players cannot ever decide on the game because half of the players disagree with the other half about who should win. They will never agree! This is why we have objective rules and moderately objective rule enforcers. Let's take advantage of those guys. They know what a penalty looks like, but they start to forget as spring comes along. (Maybe it's a seasonal allergy thing? Sounds like there's a well-funded study to be put together in there somewhere, just for your FYI)
Radek Faksa and Antoine Roussel are playoff-ready. Jamie Benn is in full Sans Seguin mode. Kari and Antti are stopping some pucks quite often, and Ales Hemsky is Ales Hemsky. (Hemsky's point streak ended, but it's not like he didn't have a chance to extend it when he instead chose to--guess what?--pass on a 2-on-1. Hey here is a Suggestion for Hockey Players: if you are on an odd-man rush with Ales Hemsky, stop at the net and be ready to shoot, because Hemsky is forbidden by intergalactic law to shoot in those situations. I suspect he used up his quota of rush goals back in December or something.
Cody Eakin seems destined to decide a crucial playoff game, but after two bang-bang giveaways today, I can't say which team will benefit from said decision. Eakin tried to carry the puck through the Kings with some nice shoulder-shimmying, and he was stripped clean. That's okay, even if the other turnover wasn't, though. These are the Dallas Stars. You could steal the blueberry pie cooling on Jim Nill's windowsill without fear of reprisal so long as you said you needed it to try to create a scoring chance. Ruff would nod solemnly, and you would probably get a lifetime supply of Marie Callendar's Razzleberry pies courtesy of the brass. Scoring is what this team does.
Dallas still hasn't locked up their position, but today really felt like a final stamp on the regular season just the same. The Stars came back against a team determined to lock things down with a lead, and they came back at even strength. They bunkered for the final minutes, and Kari Lehtonen took care of the one dangerous chance.
Are you ready for the playoffs? No, I am not, but the Dallas Stars sure look like they could say "yes" to that question without failing a polygraph test. Those aren't admissible in court, but that's okay. I would just take their word for it at this point.