The Stars staved off a losing record tonight by doing the unthinkable (or what used to be unthinkable, at least): they won the second game of a back-to-back on the road.
If you had to pick a game in which the Stars won, you’d probably choose a Ben Bishop start with four goals on his side over a Kari Lehtonen start on the second night of a back-to-back with zero even-strength goals, right? Well, you’d be wrong, my friend. Hockey is not here to make sense; hockey is here to make fools of us all. But our brains are wired for meaning-making, and that’s just what we’ll do. (Best wishes to the writers covering Vegas, since that record makes less than no sense. Fasten your cerebral seat belts.)
Anyway, without further ado, here are eight easy steps to follow if you want to win on the road. Congratulations to the Dallas Stars, who did these things, including the winning part. I suppose that last sentence is a bit of further ado. Sorry.
1. Hand Over the Reins to Your Eighth Defenseman and 13th Forward
Greg Pateryn led the Dallas Stars in ice time, full stop. I can’t even begin to fathom how this happens on any other team. Can you imagine Yannick Weber getting more ice time than P.K. Subban and Roman Josi? Or Jordan Oesterle surpassing Duncan Keith without extenuating circumstances? This is what the Stars did. I can’t see that Pateryn was particular effective, except that the Stars did not surrender a bucket fulla goals with him on the ice. Results are nice, but for a “trust the process” team, this process was, ah, interesting, to say the least. There is no answer to it other than a coach feeling comfortable with a given defense pair, and credit to Dan Hamhuis, I guess, for giving Hitch such a huge comfort level with a pair sporting the Stars’ 8th defenseman. Credit to Pateryn, too. Greg is a great guy.
I ranted a bit overmuch yesterday about how the Stars have refused to sort out their blue line for too long, and then Ken Hitchcock goes and does something like this...and TOTALLY REDEE—....no, no, sorry, no. This was just weird, but hey, the Stars won, so what do we know? Nothing. We don’t know anything anymore, because Greg is here to save the day, and that’s just what he did, by some unfathomable means. I will never write about hockey again. All further references to hockey from this point are actually just encoded messages to my past self reminding me where I hid the Wheat Thins at my parents’ house 20 years ago. (NEXT TO THE JANMARK MEATLOAF, DUMMY.)
Gemel Smith, meanwhile, had a fantastic game, generating a couple of chances himself, and generally making things interesting in the offensive zone, which is something the Stars will take from anyone on the bottom three forward lines right now. The Pitlick-Faksa-Smith line was really noticeable, and all three players looked like above-average bottom sixers at times. On a night when the Stars needed energy and patience during long periods of being trapped in their own zone, Gemel Smith was just what the doctor ordered. Doctor Hockey, that is.
2. Even-Strength Scoring Is for Losers
The Stars have the best GF/60 rate on the power play in the NHL right now, topping even red-hot Tampa Bay and offensively minded Toronto. Scoring five goals in two games (and 11 power play goals in as many games) will help your club quite a bit. Last year, the Stars scored 46 power play goals in 82 games. They’re basically doubling that pace so far. To top it all off, they have not surrendered a shorthanded goal (though only just, as we’ll see). Sorry in advance for the four shorthanded goals they will surrender on Monday.
The second power play unit has, I think, already outscored the first 30+ games of the JV squad from last year. Esa Lindell getting steady power play time (finally) with a playmaker (Spezza) appears to be a useful little tool. If we’re going to get greedy, it would be great to see Janmark or Hanzal start chipping in as well, but I suppose we can be patient for another day or two.
3. Just Make Sure the Penalty Kill Is Perfect, Again
The Stars have killed off like 21 straight penalties, and it’s not like it’s just a fluke of hot goaltending. The penalty kill box has been really tight this year, and the Stars have largely suppressed shots to begin with. Martin Hanzal deserves a lot of credit for this, as do folks like Rick Wilson, Mattias Janmark, Radek Faksa, Tyler Pitlick, Marc Methot, and even Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg, who’ve been tasked with PK duty this year. As frustrating as this team’s even-strength decisions and scoring have been, you have to hand it to them for stepping up on the PK. The Stars are absolutely dominating special teams on both sides, but the PK has definitely been the more unlikely improvement of the two.
4. Give the Puck to Alexander Radulov
Alex Radulov scored another goal, this one a beauty from a nice Shore slap-pass (similar to Spezza’s dish to Lindell in Edmonton), although Calgary fans would probably call it an ugly one, given the lobster claw thing Mike Smith ended up doing on the shot. Razor mentioned on the broadcast that Radulov delayed just a tick, and that might have forced Smith to start fishing. It worked, in any case.
Alex Radulov has gotten hot, and given his persistent puck retrieving and playmaking, it’s hard to guess when he’ll start to cool off. This is why you pay for the best free agents, I think.
5. Jason Spezza Is Still Contributing
With his helper tonight, Jason Spezza now have five primary assists. Yes, Spezza needs to start scoring, but he is also driving possession, and he is also creating offense in whatever ways he can. A casual fan might say that Spezza and Janmark’s chemistry is worth pursuing, and that you need to be okay with Spezza and Hanzal trading the greater ice time from night to night (Spezza had 14+ minutes tonight, about two more than Hanzal) depending on performance and score. Obviously, you’d expect Hanzal to get more ice time when the Stars take more penalties, but in terms of 5v5 play, the Stars really can’t afford to put Spezza and Hanzal together (in my opinion) unless they find a magic Skate Fast+Goals! serum to slip into their respeective water bottles. If Spezza, Janmark and Shore (or Jason Dickinson, say) can create some offense, that’s what you need to stick with. I am qualified to be making these proclamations because I am in charge of my own personal Twitter account.
6. Don’t Pinch Me Yet
Marc Methot took his turn in the “maybe don’t do that” zone of shame tonight, as an unsuccessful pinch of his led to a sort-of 3-on-1 for the Flames’ top line, and, it hardly need be said, a goal.
Just like Oleksiak’s pinch last night, the defenseman is technically covered up here, so it’s not like it’s a brainless move or anything—just an misjudged one, given the score and context (tight road game). The play is then exacerbated by a bad decision by a forward (Radulov in this case, Spezza last night), and suddenly it’s three Flames on Klingberg, with Jamie Benn racing back alongside the Flames forwards.
There’s Methot in almost the exact same place along the wall as Oleksiak last night, and there comes Radulov (just underneath the blue line) over to try to keep the puck in instead of backing off and playing defense. It doesn’t work, as you know, and Micheal Ferland pokes the puck past him to start the break. Johnny Gaudreau deposited the resultant high-danger scoring chance on Kari Lehtonen, thus we’re all left to wonder if maybe this pinching is something Hitch has been emphasizing with all his defensemen, and not solely a result of Oleksiak’s mismanaged development. Who knows? Hey, speaking of Kari Lehtonen though...
7. Trust Kari Lehtonen, For Now
Kari’s numbers are what they are, but game to game, the Stars will have to lean on him at times, and he came up huge tonight. No, this wasn’t quite as fun as another game in Calgary, but it was good to see the Stars minimizing the most dangerous chances against Lehtonen, and it was good to see Kari taking advantage of it. Even in their tired state, even without the last change, the Stars managed to bend but not break tonight (thanks to a couple of missed nets by the Flames, it must be said).
To combine a couple of our rules, Kari Lehtonen had that huge save on Mikael Backlund’s shorthanded chance late in the second period after a perfectly awful bounce on a stray John Klingberg pass, and it’s tough not to point to that as The Big Moment in The Game. With Devin Shore still settling into the top power play, it’s not shocking to see a moment like this, but it’s almost equally shocking (after the last couple of years) to see such a moment get neutralized. This really is a new Dallas Stars team, I promise you. It just doesn’t always feel like it. Tonight, it kind of did!
8. Everything You Know Is Wrong
We love to draw up our optimal lineups and talk about what is being done wrong. (Or done right, but, I mean, we complain a lot.) It’s cathartic to bemoan the obvious errors that lead to bad results. But then you have a game like this, where the Stars should have been tired, should have been out of sync, and should have given up an extra goal or two. Except, they didn’t.
Everything worked out. In fact, if you swapped the timing of this game and last night’s, you’d almost have just written off a loss, coming when it did in the schedule. But after two straight losses, this game just jars the senses. Why has Gemel Smith been sitting for nine games? Why did he look more energized and effective than a lot of the Stars’ middle-six forwards? (Usually the answer to that one is lesser competition, fewer minutes, and a nothing-to-lose attitude, but who knows?) How are Radulov and Spezza suddenly contributing against decent teams after being a bit quieter against softer competition earlier? How is Kari Lehtonen now helping the Stars to stay in a game that could have looked really lopsided after the first period?
We don’t know, really. I mean, we can surmise and deduce, but we don’t know. We just do our best to enjoy the games. I think we all did our best tonight. I’m sure you did, at least.