There’s nothing like a punch in the mouth followed by a kick to the gut, as my pappy always used to say. The Stars discovered this specious aphorism to be true in their second game of this road trip, as opportunistic scoring and a bend-but-only-kind-of-break defense could not surmount their self-imposed difficulties. And so it is that the Dallas Stars are now 5-5-0 to start the season.
This record is not good. This is an 82-point pace, and the Stars just finished up the easiest part of their schedule. When your team is above .500 with no overtime losses to muddy the picture, being above .500 is good enough, early. But once you slip below it, things get bleak in a hurry. With three more road games looming, the Stars now have to turn around and play their second game in as many nights, this time with Kari Lehtonen starting in net.
I’ve been pretty positive to start the season, and not without good reason, I think. The Stars’ revamped special teams are a huge boost to this squad, and the metrics all show the fruit of Dallas’s steadier system and improved personnel. Their first couple of losses were more bad fortune and failure to stockpile goals than anything, and that meant we could be confident saying the Stars were better than their record. It’s hard to say that anymore.
Still, the power play is super fun to watch again, and that shouldn’t get lost. It will win them games later on, and hey, they got a goal from the second power play unit! For someone who spent all last year tracking the second unit’s lack of scoring while Esa Lindell was largely held off the power play, it is with a reticent smugness that I viewed his goal tonight (thought it came last year’s first power play unit’s assistant QB, I’ll grant). The Stars should be good on the power play this season, and they are, so far. This is a Positive Thing To Note.
Alex Radulov answered Ken Hitchcock’s question about who was going to join the leaders of this team, potting his first full-net goal (a beauty of a one-timer from Seguin) along with two nearly as beautiful primary assists. Brett Ritchie’s place on the top line that had so many of us a bit confuzzled this morning lasted about three shifts, and then Radulov was back atop the right wing depth chart, as he should be. I’m not sure what Hitch was trying to do by starting Ritchie up there, but if you’re into post hoc ergo propter hoc (I swear that’s the last time I’ll use that phrase this year), then it clearly, obviously, manifestly worked.
That Radulov goal really was satisfying, too. Tyler Seguin held the puck stubbornly on the left wing, faking, leaning and shifting his way towards the Edmonton penalty kill until a seam opened up. Finally, one did. Seguin drilled the puck through to Radulov, whose one-timer was in and out so fast that you could make the country’s best fast food hamburger out of it. (Whataburger is also delicious, especially that BBQ chicken tender sandwich thing.) It was like watching a kiln speeding up with nothing on top of it, blinking impatiently a couple of times, then suddenly seeing a brand-new jar rise up right before your eyes. (The kids are really into kiln analogies these days, probably.)
Jamie Benn continued to remind us of why we were so frustrated at his effective absence last season, as he potted two goals of his own (both from Radulov, as we said) and seemed to lead his team in a very captain-y sort of way. Health is so important to a hockey team, and that makes me wonder just how good John Klingberg is if he’s been having this good of a season (and really—it’s been fantastic) despite fighting what Razor called a “chest congestion” bug. If there’s some sort of upper respiratory infection making its way around the Stars locker room, that wouldn’t help, but man, it sure hasn’t seemed to impede Klingberg much.
The lineup has to be discussed. While we’ve already learned not to take everything Hitch says as eternal truth, it’s been frustrating to see Hitch’s promises about having a stable six defensemen and set forward pairings go up in so much smoke. There could be some kind of odd tension in the organization about Jamie Oleksiak and Julius Honka, because even in Honka’s worst moments, he hasn’t made as consistent a set of bad decisions as Jamie Oleksiak has been making this season, and Hitchcock’s effective benching of Oleksiak (who played only 10:47 tonight) seems to indicate a rather clear amount of distrust as well.
It’s really unfair that Oleksiak was ever put in this position, as you don’t need me to tell you that the Stars have done themselves no favors by refusing to move on from their 8th defensemen for way too long now. When you can’t get your young defenders games elsewhere, you’re going to feel pressured to play them when your other young defenders have a bad game or two. Jamie Oleksiak has never been given a clear season to be a 6th defender, and even last year, when everything went wrong for Dallas and you’d think they’d be okay letting him figure things out, he was only given 41 games. It’s not a good way to help a player like that learn, and the Stars are reaping what they sowed in that regard. Jamie Oleksiak has seen three different Dallas Stars coaching staffs, and they have all surely told him how he needs to mold his game. I can’t even imagine how frustrating that must be for a first-round pick who has yet to get even the kind of chance Mark Fistric got in 2009-10. It’s almost perverse, but I have been wondering lately whether Oleksiak might have found a more stable role by now if he had fewer skillsets.
Take, for example, the Oilers’ third goal tonight:
Oleksiak makes a bad pinch, with two Stars down low unable to recover. Shore is covering the point (or Roussel, who is going to come on for him), but if Oleksiak doesn’t win the puck, it’s still going to be a 3-on-2 for Edmonton. This is probably not how you play a tie game on the road. Oleksiak is trying to keep the play going, but he makes an error in judgment (he doesn’t get to the puck first), then compounds it.
In fact, Oleksiak doesn’t even really try to win the puck, choosing instead to steamroll his man (and to his credit, he definitely does that). This leaves the puck back up the boards for Milan Lucic, who dishes the puck out to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (after which Lucic takes another ill-advised hit from Spezza, although he was at the end of a shift and probably wasn’t going to be catching anyone anyway, I think), and the Oilers are gone.
The result of Oleksiak’s pinch is a 3-on-2 against the Stars with Antoine Roussel being one of those two players. Again, this is not an ideal situation. But even after Kris Russell’s shot goes wide (I think Bishop’s pad got a piece of it), Oleksiak makes one more appearance:
He overloads the Bishop’s right side of the net—where the puck went—instead of covering the left side of the net, where a left defensemen should probably think about going. Antoine Roussel doesn’t do a good impression of a defensemen—well actually, maybe it is a good one of Hamhuis from the other night, getting tangled with Bishop and all—and Mattias Janmark is a beat too slow in realizing the danger, and an uncovered RNH ends up potting the goal. (Do you think Ben Bishop is frustrated about pucks pinballing off the end boards and into his net yet?)
This is Oleksiak, who has been told he should be more active in the offensive zone, so he activates. He has been told he should be more physical, so he lays a guy out. He has been told he should skate more, so he hustles back and tries to take a guy even after the initial shot. All of these, to an extent, could be labeled “wrong” decisions, but it’s hard to fault him for instinctively doing what, again, three different coaches have probably urged him to do. Life can sometimes be easier when you’re less talented (said Robert to his lame self).
Again, I don’t do this just because we want to run down one player—remember, this is the same Jamie Oleksiak who can work magic like this—so much as point out that the Stars have actively chosen to ice a defense where Greg Pateryn (who looked almost as bad on the 4th goal) and Jamie Oleksiak are the primary options for a team with Cup aspirations the minute Julius Honka misses his coverage and Stephen Johns gets hurt. A team will often try to “hide” its third pairing in tight games as they go along, but these two players were on different pairings tonight, and each one had a moment to forget. You can only ask John Klingberg to play so many minutes (27 tonight) after all.
Esa Lindell, for that matter, also looked a bit awkard on his off-side at times, giving a puck away on the right side when he made a quick decision to try to bank a puck off the boards only to see it go right to Edmonton. Lindell also only played 16:44 tonight (Pateryn played 18:52), which seems to have been an unfortunate consequence of Oleksiak’s absence from the third period. Again, it’s hard to say the Stars deserved much better than they got.
Another player Hitch tacitly called out was Martin Hanzal, who got a bit lost out there tonight with his new linemates (Remi Elie and Brett Ritchie) when he took a completely unnecessary interference penalty, though he would later redeem himself a bit by blocking a shot after he came out of the box and clearing the zone himself. Hanzal’s skill on the PK is great, and the Stars’ shot metrics are helped by Hanzal (and those same metrics are strongly tied to winning games), but scoring also needs to be a bit more of a priority at this point, and Hanzal was never going to be a huge boon there anyway. He’s a 10-15 goal scorer who piles up around 40 points a season. He’s a bit behind schedule, but then, so is everyone outside the top line these days, including Jason Spezza.
Mattias Janmark and Jason Spezza did have some chemistry tonight, and that blistering Spezza feed to Esa Lindell for the Stars’ go-ahead goal was pretty as can be (even if it took Lindell a couple beats to actually shoot the puck). This is a reminder that Jason Spezza still knows How Points Happen, and hopefully he’ll get more time with Janmark and Shore to figure out how to do that, because scoring is sort of his game. It has to be.
It also occurs to me that the Stars could use another two Mattias Janmarks at this point, although they certainly seem to think Remi Elie could be the next Antoine Roussel, given the fact that he’s continued to stay on the 4th line while Gemel Smith (let alone an AHL player like Jason Dickinson) sits on the bench. Gemel Smith has now played one of the first ten games, as has Greg Pateryn. I did not see that coming, especially given the flash of scoring Smith showed last year (six points in 18 games).
I was tempted to shrug at this game when it ended, as the Stars did have some bad breaks (two goals off your own players’ skates is hardly normal, even for last year’s club), but then they also had some good ones, too. The Drake Caggiula post on that slick between-the-legs play that every player apparently knows how to do now easily could have gone in, but the Stars lived a bit longer. And given how soundly the Oilers dominated play at even-strength, it’s hard to argue the Stars ultimately deserved anything more than what they got out of this one, which was nothing.
The Stars need to make sure Stephen Johns has ample time to recover from his concussion (as it’s being referred to), but I’d think only one of Oleksiak or Pateryn will be coming out of the lineup against Calgary. After the second game in a row where Dallas was effectively reduced to playing with five defensemen for the last part of the game, I find myself wondering how the Stars have never really tried playing seven defensemen like Tampa Bay does so regularly.
Icing a lineup where any 5v5 production outside your top line seems like a miracle is not going to get the job done, especially on the road, where your top line consistently sees top defense pairings. The Stars need four points out of their next three games of this trip if they want something to build on in November, and it’s hard to say this lineup is going to do the trick. You can afford some losses on the road, but you really need to be forcing overtime as much as possible and getting those sweet, tasty bonus points in the midst of those losses. The Stars tonight could not hold a lead with 10 minutes to go, and they could not hold a tie with three minutes to go. They scored one goal at even strength and allowed five. Games are always weird in Edmonton, but I was hoping this was going to be one of the good-weird ones. Oh, well.