In Conan O’Brien’s last Tonight Show broadcast before he finally left NBC over the whole Jay Leno fiasco, he had some poignant parting words. You should watch them if you haven’t, but essentially he said this: don’t be cynical. Even in the darkest times, there are better comforts to be found than the expectation of the worst from people.
That said, there is prudence in adjusting one’s expectations according to demonstrated behaviors, and if overtime isn’t the place to adjust one’s expectations for this team, I don’t know what is. The Stars were on the equivalent of a PK streak for them (3-for-4 on the kill Tuesday), and when they managed to come up with the big kill at the end of regulation, it was hard not to get hopeful, because that’s just what fans do. You would not watch many games if there were no hope of enjoying vicarious victory, unless you were forced to watch those games. Please remember that many people are forced to watch these games.
There were a few Moments in this game, but they all fade into the background behind what Sean Shapiro called a microcosm of the season.
After the Stars and Wild spent most of overtime exchanging coy glances, Charlie Coyle fell down and served up a Tony’s Pizza Napoletana special. Lauri Korpikoski and Cody Eakin were at the end of their shift, but you don’t get a 2-on-0 very often in this league. I believe the Stars’ last 2-on-0 goal was scored by Krys Barch, and I am not making that up. Possibly there has been another one since then.
Anyhow, Kopikoski carried the puck all the way down the ice with Eakin in tow, and Stephen Johns succeeded in getting into position as well. Thus came to be the picture you see above. A team should be able to execute this play. And when a team out of the playoff picture is playing in overtime, a team must execute this play.
Growing up, I played a few different sports, but one I never got very good at was basketball. I would usually play as John Stockton in NBA Jam, less because he was not-tall and comically white, and more because his was the only sort of game I could ever hope to emulate on the court. Shooting from distance wasn’t my strength, but then, people don’t expect you to make many 3-point shots. They do expect you to make layups.
One time when I was around 13, I was playing basketball with some other kids, and I somehow stole a pass—blind squirrels and all that—and found myself dribbling down the court on a breakaway. It was a great feeling, at first. Because once the exuberance from the steal faded, I realized that I would have to make a layup at high speed, and it turns out that I had never really gotten what you would call “remotely adequate” at layups. I spent all my time shooting from distance instead of trying to bull my way into the key because getting packed just once is enough humiliation for any 13-year-old.
Still, I thought myself coordinated. During the microseconds after I crossed the three-point line and began to angle into the right side of the lane, I tried to picture how people made layups. Surely I had seen my friends make them. They were easy, eponymously easy! All there was left to do was leap and let the ball roll off my fingertips, hit the corner of the box on the backboard, and settled into the rim. I would look smooth. I would be able to smirk on my way back. I would feel that feeling of basketball competence that had eluded me all my life, and it would be sweet indeed. So I stopped dribbling, transferred the ball to my right hand, jumped, and tossed the ball up for the layup. I landed beyond the baseline, looked up to see if the ball had caught the right part of the backboard, and then it landed on my head.
Instead of gently tossing the ball up, I had thrown the ball clear over the backboard, and the arc I had given it corresponded perfectly with my slowed momentum, allowing it to land upon my head, beyond the court. I don’t play basketball anymore.
Korpikosi did not give Cody Eakin the best situation that he could have given him. Korpikoski waited a bit too long to make a pass, and that meant Devan Dubnyk didn’t get too out of position. Stephen Johns kind of looks like the best option here for a quick pass-and-return play to get Dubnyk swimming, but Johns wasn’t always clearly going to be open the whole way, and Korpikoski looked like a man who had one idea here from the start, and that was “pass to the other forward because I am totally gassed.” He passed, eventually, and Cody Eakin one-timed the puck, because he really didn’t have time left to do anything else. And hey, Cody Eakin has a great one-timer! But Cody Eakin shot the puck too high. Cody Eakin shot the puck into the glass, and into the netting above it. The Stars lost in a shootout. As you can imagine, I have a lot of sympathy for Cody Eakin. At least the puck did not land on Cody Eakin’s head.
For all that, the Stars could easily have won this game a different way. They scored a power play goal, yes; but they had five chances, and the only time they scored was on a tricky little play I like to call The Spezza-to-Benn-to-Spezza-to-Benn-to-Spezza-to-Benn-Who-Holds-It-Holds-It-Okay-Maybe-This-Will-Work-Dang-Pass-Was-Blocked-Easily-Eaves-Baseball-Okay play. It is not a very common play, but it was successful. Probably the Stars have better theoretical options in their 5v3 arsenal. Certainly the Stars have not displayed many of those options this year. But a power play goal is a power play goal, and 1-for-5 isn’t bad. It just isn’t great. And when your PK gives up the obligatory (and this is becoming a literal adverb) goal, a single power play tally doesn’t mean all that much. Dallas had chances to get to three goals long before Charlie Coyle sent them a 92-point-font invitation.
It occurs to me that Dallas has no puck-mover on the second power play unit. There is no Goligoski or Demers or Hemsky this time around to lug the puck and to perpetuate the puck within the zone. Perhaps that is a big problem? There are likely other problems with it.
Kari Lehtonen made some saves at some times, including a shorthanded stop on Jason Pominville that kept the game in check. He did not save a ton of shots in the shootout. Dallas went 2-for-5 in the shootout, and once again, two goals was not the right number of goals. What kind of season is it? Dallas lost because a guy who I think plays bass for a Smashmouth cover band in Deep Ellum Thursday nights scored in the fifth round of the shootout.
This whole season has been a bubbling cauldron of frustration for fans in many ways, and while I’m tired of saying “that tears it,” Sean Shapiro might not be wrong. Dallas played the best team in the conference, and they had more chances to win than the other team did. Dallas found a way to keep those chances from hatching into means.
Some of those ways are excusable. Tyler Seguin was playing with some sort of illness, and Jamie Benn was playing with a broken [note: find alternate term for ‘entire everything’ and update before publishing]. Radek Faksa was gone, and the Stars managed to hold Minnesota to two goals through 65 minutes. The Stars did not lose in five whole minutes of overtime! Yet here we are with 33 games left, no happier than we were with 34. This game was a horizontal move across a ladder sinking into hot lava.
Dallas isn’t done for realsies, but teams are done long before the math says they are, and their play evidences that as much as anything could. Probabilities are how we live life, and the life of the 2016-17 Dallas Stars is, probably, near its end. Barring a nuclear-power AED maneuver, this game revealed Dallas to be only exactly what they are: broken, despondent, and lost in the wilderness. We at least have the consolation that the wilderness will only last for so long.