With 18:12 left in the third, Martin Hanzal took a shot on goal. It would be the last puck the Stars put on the Carolina net all game, and somehow, it wouldn’t matter.
The Stars have won four games in a row, and the Hurricanes were the toughest team they faced in that stretch. As much as the team can take the points and move on, fans often have a hard time watching a 4-0 show of dominance turn into a nailbiter. Fans of the Dallas Stars over the last couple of years have an even more difficult time with this, as the associations are many and negative.
The common refrain from fans after the Stars’ third period was surely, “why couldn’t they keep playing the way they were in the first 40 minutes?” And it’s a valid question, to an extent. Of course we know that Carolina changed the way they were playing, and every NHL coach will tell his players to take fewer chances in favor of defensive responsibility when defending a lead. That (and other factors) lead to something called Score Effects. I’ll let Travis Yost of TSN take it from here:
Score effects are a well-researched and well-studied phenomenon. Teams with leads late in the game will often play to protect the lead and sacrifice most attempts at generating offence; teams trailing late will generally abandon their defensive structure in an attempt to equalize. It's an intuitive relationship, one that's a constant risk/reward bet for coaches and players.
The Hurricanes took the final 13 shots of the game, and put two of them past Ben Bishop. There were at least two marvelous stops in there, but we’ve already gotten so spoiled by Bishop that it’s hard for his prowess to register as highly as it should. In any case, this game was yet another one of those “would have blown it last year” deals, but thanks to some clutch plays by the team and its goalie (mainly him), enough goal scoring to start with, and a penalty kill that has gotten stingier than anyone could have imagined, the Stars managed to stand in the hailstorm and come out with two points.
Bishop’s performance gets even more impressive when you take stock of each tally. The first goal (a telegraphed chip out by Methot that literally Brock McGinn knocked down) was a second chance that Jeff Skinner never should have had. The second ‘Canes goal was, ahem, not entirely under Bishop’s control, as a wrister from the blue line probably gets cleanly gloved by Ben Bishop, I am thinking. I was not in charge of determining this goal’s legitimacy, unfortunately.
And the third tally was Dan Hamhuis to Not-the-Rescue when his skate got tangled up with Bishop. Stephen Johns failed to cut off Sebastian Aho’s feed back out front, and no one could pick up Jordan Staal as he dunked it.
Out of context, this seems like rationalizing, just like I could tell you that four of the seven goals Antti Niemi allowed tonight were absolutely not his fault at all. But for Bishop to keep his cool and make a couple of huge stops down the stretch? That’s what good teams have to get every now and then. Put it this way: how many times in 2014-15 did it seem like the Stars were the Hurricanes, able to crank things up when trailing, but rarely able to get that final goal past a hot netminder? I apologize for bringing up these memories. (Mike Sullivan probably did not apologize to Niemi for leaving him out there, but I wonder if that was as much a message to Sullivan’s GM as much as it was sparing his starter on a back-to-back. But we have more pleasant things to contemplate these days.)
Mattias Janmark got moved to center, which is one way of saying that Jason Spezza spent his second game’s worth of time at the wing, which is an Interesting Thing to Note. Hitch had mentioned this possibility earlier in training camp, you may remember. Spezza later spent some time with Hanzal, and while that line isn’t exactly dynamic—Hanzal did all he could just to put a beautiful Spezza feed on net but couldn’t elevate the puck—it’s not something I’m adamantly opposed to seeing again. The bigger question in my mind is why you separate Janmark and Spezza, since they seem to be one of those duos that plays well together.
Martin Hanzal took one of the two weak (but in vogue) slashing calls for the Stars, but his heavy game does have some good advantages. I tend to agree with Sean Shapiro in that the Stars are getting closer to figuring out what they want their middle-six forward group to look like, and it wouldn’t shock me if Hanzal, Janmark and Shore end up playing together a bit more. Real talk: would you rather see Janmark, Spezza or Hanzal relgated to a weird bottom-six hybrid with Brett Ritchie/Gemel Smith/Remi Elie? It’s not an easy choice when you break it down, considering:
-Hanzal can handle heavy minutes, and you want him out there against the other team’s top guys as much as possible, especially when defending a lead
-Jason Spezza still is a weapon, and I don’t think team can afford to expend his playmaking on lines that can’t capitalize
-Mattias Janmark is a responsible, fast player who can push the puck in the right direction, but who will likely score very little if he’s playing with fourth-liners (or whatever Ritchie is until he finds his scoring again).
It is easier to brush that worry aside when Tyler Pitlick is scoring two goals, though. Antoine Roussel is definitely loving life on that line, even if he’s not scoring goals yet. Radek Faksa is a force on any line, and when you give him two quick, sedulous players on his wings, you’re going to earn some goals that slicker players might not. As the Stars will need their depth scoring to chip in perhaps a bit more than in the last couple years, Pitlick’s production is a nice little beacon of optimism.
Jamie Benn’s shot is here, and my goodness, it’s a joy to watch that player when he’s healthy. If last season for Stars fans was like seeing their favorite band from their high school years mail in a late-career performance in Vegas while battling laryngitis, this year is like getting to see a Lollapalooza opening act by the re-tooled Journey with Arnel Pineda and Muse as a backing band. It’s good to have a top line that is tops, and Tyler Seguin’s hard work is making that line something even more beautiful than I thought it would be. It is a joy to see elite players like Benn, Seguin and Radulov all digging in at the same time and unearthing goals and good plays. (They did get hemmed in the zone a couple of times tonight, but they were far from the only ones in that category.)
Stephen Johns did also have a good game overall tonight, and it’s hard to see him coming out of the lineup any time soon if he keeps playing with confidence and purpose. In fact, the whole defense was pretty good, I thought, considering that the forwards really stopped attempting any sustained offensive-zone possession for most of the third period. Having bigger bodies with good hockey IQ can help when legs get tired chasing the 20th dump-in under a heavy forecheck, and New Esa Lindell is certainly in that category along with Marc Methot. Dan Hamhuis and John Klingberg had a couple of not-quite moments in their own end, but overall they made the most of the steaming pile of negative possession that was handed to them in the third period, and John Klingberg really is becoming a better penalty-killer, I promise. Dan Hamhuis’s assist (and Roussel’s slick dummy to let the puck get to Hamhuis) was a nice reminder that he has some offensive upside to his game, too. (I am fully aware that many folks are already planning for Hamhuis’s departure sooner rather than later, but it’s hard to see how this defense is better with Oleksiak or Pateryn taking Hamhuis’s minutes right now, so it’s a complicated question.)
One thing I’d be remiss not to mention is how the Stars gave up a couple of 2-on-1s early in the game and defended them both pretty well. John Klingberg and Dan Hamhuis both stayed on their feet, and this led to the Hurricanes only getting one chance out of the two rushes, which was a late shot that missed the net altogether and was summarily dealt with. I’d usually prefer to have a d-man keep himself in the play and just take up as much space as he can instead of going for the home-run dive, and Rick Wilson seems to agree, assuming the Stars are following orders. Probably it is also nice to know Ben Bishop is behind you when you make these decisions.
It’s funny...the outsider opinions about Dallas going into this year focused on the defense being basically Klingberg and a Bunch of Guys. So far, the defense has really been exceedingly functional, even quite good at times. That said, Julius Honka got the least minutes of anyone tonight (Hitch seems to see him as a defensive liability, though it’s tough to back that up with publicly available numbers), but you could see his smart play having a positive effect through the first two periods. I still don’t know when the second power play unit is going to find its identity, but it’s far less frustrating than last year, when it was all the unit could do just to maintain possession. The Stars are not leaking shorthanded chances this year, and that’s a victory all its own. The goals will come.
Tonight was Brenden Morrow night, and I am always available for Brenden Morrow night. It was cool to see him honored, although the awkward in-game interview felt a bit haphazard (perhaps it wasn’t planned), as neither broadcaster seemed to have any prepared questions, which led to some fairly short & sweet answers by Mini Mo. Still, I could listen to Morrow wax poetic about Jamie Benn all day long, and we also got to hear that Morrow’s health is holding up a bit better these days, which was very cool to hear. Again, I found myself missing Dave Strader, as Razor was a bit too distracted with play-calling (as a PxP guy should be) to fully engage Morrow, and Craig Ludwig is still pretty new to this whole thing. We do not live in a perfect world.
I’m always paranoid about Dave Jackson-officiated games, and tonight seemed a bit of an odd duck, all around. It’s weird to not have a power play goal scored, I’m realizing, and the lack of chances seemed to mess with the power play’s vibe. This upcoming five-game road trip for Dallas will offer its own challenges (though the schedule isn’t much tougher than the first eight games, unless Edmonton gets its act together), but it’s nice to know that Dallas can score at even-strength when they need to.
With Dallas at 5-3 now, you’d like to see the team come back home to face Buffalo with at east a 7-5-1 record. That doesn’t seem unreasonable at all for this team. Winning four of five (9-4) seems quite reasonable, in fact, but Ben Bishop isn’t going to start all of those games, and long road trips are never easy, even when they’re to Canada and Colorado.
The Stars finally got shellacked in possession, but that has been known to happen when you amass a big lead early on. The goaltending was fantastic, and the penalty kill did its job. There were some concerning moments in this game, but most of them were individual ones instead of systematic breakdowns. Dallas beat a middling team (that is improving quickly) to inch further above .500 after a soft schedule. Things will get tougher, but the only test Dallas can pass right now is to win the game they have in front of them. Four times in a row, they’ve been able to do that. This is something that never happened last year, so I’m going to choose to take that and be really satisfied. At least until the next game.
The defense will probably get tweaked again on this road trip, and I’d expect Gemel Smith to draw back in soon as well. It feels like we’re going to have a Greg Pateryn secondary assist to celebrate at some point in Canada, and that’s great. It’s also nice that we have other things to celebrate. Vegas is now 6-1, and they’re one 10-10-321 call away from asking Cristobal Huet to start their next game. The Penguins and Blackhawks have both won the same number of games as Dallas, and they’ve both played one more game. It’s nice to be able to have concerns about how the last game went and still be hopeful about the season at large. Life is complexity, and joy. It’s fun to have both again.