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Game 48 Afterwords: When Everything You Have Is Still Not Enough

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What do you think Julius Honka learned from watching this one, eh?

NHL: Washington Capitals at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine for a moment that you are Lindy Ruff. Okay, sorry, that was abrupt. Breathe, breathe! It’s okay. Just pretending. Anyway, try it again. You have watched almost four seasons now of the Dallas Stars from behind the bench, and this is, by far, your most challenging one. Even in 2014-15, the team improved around the sinkhole that was the crease, and so it was easy enough to point to one major flaw that coaching can’t really erase. Then came last year’s vindication, if you want to call it that, as even the inherited and enhanced goaltending mess wasn’t enough to hold back Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff’s plans, and the Stars careened to a tumultuous Western Conference Regular Season title.

So, imagine that you’re Ruff this year. What do you say to the media after yet another inexcusable loss as the team continues to disintegrate in new and exciting ways? Certainly you can only talk about certain players needing to step up so many times before you run the risk of demonizing them. And as much as you want to weep furiously and publicly about the 1-for-6 power play that spent nearly two minutes of 5v3 time without even accidentally shooting a puck on the Capitals’ backup goalie, that comes back to rest at your feet at the end of the day, or at least at the feet of the assistant coach who works for you.

Jamie Benn had his nose broken by a high stick, and Jordie Benn had his face smashed like a boxing bag. Radek Faksa got injured, and while he made it back to the bench in time to see the Stars lose in overtime, he can now officially join the walking infirmary that is the Stars’ locker room. Tyler Seguin’s superlative speed is painfully absent this season, Jamie Benn’s Jamie Benn is nowhere to be found (though some broken sticks would argue otherwise), and Jason Spezza is almost being outscored by Matt Niskanen, who racked up another three assists tonight against the team that threw him in with James Neal in a trade because surely he wasn’t going to turn into the defenseman they needed, so why even try to get equal value for him? Not that I’m still bitter about that. But yeah, the Stars are hurting, is my point. (But don’t worry; I’m sure whatever defenseman the Stars trade this year won’t turn out to be really good in a new setting.)

If you’re Lindy Ruff, what can you say after this one? “Kari Lehtonen needs to stop Alex Ovechkin’s power play one-timer.” Well, he did kind of say that, but mercy me; you’re getting actual quality goaltending from Kari in the last couple of games, and you’re going to criticize him for not figuring out how to stop the most unstoppable of predictable shots that has ever existed? Talk about looking a gift horse in the face and then getting upset at him for not sprouting wings and flying you to Las Vegas. Ovechkin shoots the puck as hard as anyone I have ever seen in the NHL, and your infamous PK gave him carte blanche to have himself a try. He hit the seam between the arm and body, and voila. That goal has beaten better netminders than Kari, and it’s going to go in on others, too.

No, if you’re Lindy Ruff, you can’t really do much besides what he did: Talk about how you couldn’t put Radek “at least he isn’t the worst at defense” Faksa out for overtime, but how you still put the team’s top (I know, I know) defensive pairing out there with their top faceoff guy. Lindy Ruff can talk about how the lanes weren’t clogged on the PK, how the compete level sagged, and all the things coaches have to say because it’s their job. But basically he just kind of has to analyze his own corpse without being too specific, because being too specific right now would look an awful lot like calling a spade a spade. (You could probably come up with a more colorful descriptor than “spade” at this point in the season. Or at least a bluer one.)

***

The first goal was a classic case of “welcome back to the lineup, now try to work your way back out of it,” as Brett Ritchie was a bit too casual with a dangerous puck and found himself setting up Andre Burakovsky for a non-Digiorno goal. It was a mess from the get go what with defenders tying up their men while the puck sat idle, but Ritchie was a bit too nonchalant as he dragged the puck along the ice with his backhand, and his lack of desperation was just what the hungry Capitals forward was looking for. No chance for Kari, no chance for the Stars, and they were trailing early because that’s the rule now. The start of the first period is the new overtime for the Stars nowadays. Also overtime is the new overtime, and also the old overtime. This season is kind of the new overtime, if you really think about it. (I do not recommend thinking about it.)

Still, hope came along in its own way. Jordie sent an accurate (they still make those!) one-timer towards the net from the blue line, and Adam Cracknell had established body position that allowed him to tip the puck home. It’s weird, but I’m almost starting to wonder if Adam Cracknell isn’t a helpful hockey player for an NHL team. Still figuring that out, but yeah. Something to ponder. And he didn’t take two minors this game, so that’s improvement, too. Hopefully he’ll be able to give Julius Honka some tips next game when they watch together.

What wasn’t improvement was the power play, and we need to be real. 1-for-6 isn’t atrocious, but it’s not good, and actually no, it was atrocious when a good chunk of that was gifted 5v3 time. Two avoidable delay of game penalties handed the Stars the perfect “get back in the game” chance, and the power play looked absolutely lost. They didn’t manage a single shot on goal during 80 seconds of 5v3. That’s embarrassing, and there’s no other way to put it.

But again, what can Lindy Ruff do? If Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg can’t figure out how to set up Patrick Eaves even once with two extra players on the ice, then no amount of coaching can fix that disease. Or at least, no amount of this coaching, as has become clear.

Ritchie, Roussel and McKenzie all got tough, and there were the usual things thrown around about how fights get people going and so forth. Personally, I will take players’ words for it that this is so, as there is no link between fights and improved play in ways that we can currently measure, and darned if I’m going to stand next to one of those huge guys and tell them they’re wrong.

Patrik Nemeth went full clown car at the end of the 1st as he lost an edge but just barely recovered enough to poke the puck to Klingberg, and then Klingberg reversed it to no one, and then Kari gave it away again, only just making a skate save as he got back into the crease. This isn’t to say Kari was amazing tonight, but just to point out that the Stars are getting the sort of goaltending they got in their good moments last year, but they’re squandering it this time. They are squandering a lot of things this year, these prodigal Stars.

Kari had very nice saves on Ovechkin and Wilson alone in tight, but surely there will be plenty of Facebook comments, casual media references and water cooler talk about how the Stars need to fix their goaltending. Yes, they need to fix it, but they’re actually getting good patchwork netminding for now, so that narrative is the least accurate its been in a while. But it’s more complicated to talk about the Stars’ various struggles and ebbs and flows, so the easy target is, as always, the guys whose mistakes lead to flashing red lights above their heads.

Adam Cracknell got a puck deep with a nice fake shot and carry-in, because basically Adam Cracknell is New Ales Hemsky and I’m going to pump his tires all day long whenever I get a chance, so deal with it. Anyway, then a Nemeth backhand was saved out to Eaves on the doorstep, and the inimitable Eaves shoveled it past Philipp Grubauer up under the bar for his team-leading 17th goal of the season, and the Stars were leading.

Side note: Patrick Sharp looked like Patrick Sharp in this one, even getting a partial breakaway right after the Stars’ second goal, but he was unable to tuck it around Grubauer’s pad. I’m cynically viewing this as a good thing for potential trade return, but Sharp is a good dude, and so it’s okay to be happy for him playing and feeling better no matter what.

Brett Connolly boarded Jordie Benn after Benn had run Connolly into the open door earlier in the game, and Jordie Benn got up pretty quickly to express his disapproval, but as was pointed out by many folks, Jordie probably could’ve gotten a major called there if he had gone full Corey Perry post-Garbutt and lain on the ice for a half-hour begging for sutures and morphine. But since the league has conditioned its referees to only call penalties if there is a certain result, it was just a two-minute boarding call.

Think about that. Slashing used to be called now and then regardless of whether the stick broke. If a ref thought a player hacked another dude’s stick unnecessarily, he’d call a slash. If a ref saw a player not named Gretzky hit someone up high with a stick, it was high sticking. Now, you have to toss the head back even if the stickblade is halfway down your throat. There is merit behind making calls less subjective, but calling based on result to the player instead of the action leads to embellishment, because the officials are looking for the signs, not the things themselves. Be careful what you wish for.

Anyway, Jamie Benn scored at the tail end of the minor, but the officials were befuddled as to how he did so, and they chose to call goalie interference for...I honestly do not know. I think Benn’s skate might have caught Grubauer’s about forty seconds before the play, but after another ten minutes of Steve Kozari playing Oracle of Ages, the goal was grudgingly (I am editorializing) restored.

Benn paid for his heroics, however, as he took a stick to the nose from Orlov that turned on the plasma tap, breaking his nose in the process. And so, the one-handed stick check that rode up into the nose drew more penalty minutes than the check to the back that boarded Jordie Benn’s face into the end glass. But probably Jamie Benn was okay with that in the moment, and maybe even still. That hurts, a lot.

Of course, considering that Dallas got about 10 minutes worth of power play time before the Caps even got one, it’s tough to manufacture too much discontent. And sure enough, despite the token tally Dallas got to go up by two goals, Washington was always going to get their chances, and they got two. And when your power play doesn’t operate like a child’s RC car getting radio interference from the garage door opener, it turns out two power plays can actually be plenty.

Curtis McKenzie’s retaliatory slash was, of course, needless. Still, Washington was going to get a chance, and if it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else. And it was something else, as Roussel’s careless stick was assaulted by Karl Alzner’s face, and then the Caps tipped a shot from the point, and the game was tied faster than a pair of Velcro shoes.

And while Cody Eakin did well to draw another power play for Dallas later, it was almost cruel of him to do so. Jason Spezza got two great shots off, but one hit Grubauer in the shoulder, and another hit Patrick Eaves. Tyler Seguin, of course, got the best shot of all, but it turns out he’s still not allowed to score, and Grubauer’s insane blocker save caused Seguin to literally (literally) drop his stick on the ice in exasperation during play. If you don’t think this team is more frustrated than you are, then you are wrong. They care.

I would also like to point out that any indictment of the power play structure would do well to start with the second unit, as they seem utterly devoid of any. It appears to be the Devin Shore and Dan Hamhuis show lately, as Patrick Sharp, Jordie Benn and Esa Lindell have been rotating on and off the left point. With no consistency and no apparent set group on any given night, the second unit has continued to be as useless as...well, as the Stars’ two-man advantage unit.

Okay, overtime. I’m tired and worn-out, but let’s wrap this up and take some aspirin or whatever. What three players do you start, right now? Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are out of the circle of trust, it seems (although after tonight, Faksa might be the circle of trust). Erin and David are very much not fans of Lindell’s skating (and other things), and surely tonight that shortcoming in his game was on display, as he was beaten fairly cleanly down the wing by Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose feed into the crease found Klingberg already discarded by Jay Beagle, and Kari was only able to save his teammate or the puck, and he chose to save his teammate. If this were some kind of trust exercise, Kari would have passed, if that’s any consolation.

Dallas has been beaten in overtime by Jay Beagle. I will not countenance this. The talent on this team may be broken, but you cannot be out 3v3’d by a lovable ol’ dog. John Klingberg was danced by Tavares the other night, and he was outmuscled by Jay Beagle tonight. It’s simply unfathomable, but hoo boy, it’s demonstrable.

Again, who you start 3v3? Faksa was still getting fixed up, so he was unavailable. Benn was playing with a broken nose (and will presumably continue to do so), so I’m not sure he was quite ready to go out there and keep up. The sad truth is that, with Seguin and Benn so far from 100%, and with the Stars’ defensive situation what it is, you probably would do something like Hamhuis and Johns (or Jordie?) behind, again, Spezza, the Stars’ best faceoff guy, or maybe the mid-thirties Patrick Sharp. And maybe Hamhhuis or Jordie Benn sticks with Kuznetsov down the wing, and maybe the Stars get the puck back. Do you see that same unit then creating anything? I see pretty much any unit you put together right now holding the puck only for a moment, and then giving up a breakaway. Or, rather, I have seen that. We all have. It’s called overtime, and it’s been that way for most of 2016 and now 2017. And, well, it kind of sucks.

If you’re Lindy Ruff, you might actually be trying to make some secret trades yourself right now, just for the luxury of having a new face on the bench who hasn’t failed you at least once this year. But since the Stars are apparently in a holding pattern before deciding to sell, it appears Ruff will have to continue trying to trust his men for a few games more.

Again, I think to myself how very glad I am not to be a hockey coach.