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Afterwords: Old Stars Beat New Stars, Technically

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There was a bit too much past in Dallas’s present tonight

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Quick housekeeping note (I am told that these are a great way to grab readers right up front): I am working 30 hours a week and going to school full time this year, which means there will be a fair amount of games where I choose my master’s thesis over Afterwords. Please know in advance that any such periods of silence will be a result of my own finitude rather than any shortcomings of your own. You are all great fans, and winners too. Thank you for reading this nonsense.

***

Hey there, avid reader. It is a new season! Everything is different, and there are infinite reasons for optimism as we begin the season. To show you how different this year is, let me just say this: Cody Eakin led Vegas in ice time, defensemen included. Okay, yes, right. On we go.

Marc-Andre Fleury played out of his mind tonight. There can and should be no bigger storyline of this game, even if the Stars will choose a different narrative to motivate themselves for St. Louis. When your goalie faces 46 shots on net and stops 45 of them, you have to feel pretty good. When your goalie is playing behind a defense consisting of names like Luca Sbisa, Kevin Thompson, Jason Garrison and Colin Miller, you have to be over the moon. Fleury was playing like a Stanley Cup champion tonight, and there is a reason for that. I believe Radulov’s shot at the wide open net in the third period might have glanced off the giant chip on Flery’s shoulder before missing the net. Put another way, how would you feel if a team replaced you with Antti Niemi?

The offense is what Hitch focused on in his postgame comments, and you can see his point. The Stars were peppering Fleury with quality shots for much of the night, and you really can’t call it a good night’s work when you do that for 50 minutes and have only a single goal to show for it. Tyler Seguin might be the exception to this point, as he totaled 10 shots on goal, including the deft tip off Devin Shore’s alert shot-pass on the power play that did mange to beat Fleury. Tyler earned his “A” tonight, and yet his team as a whole scored approximately 0.2 goals at even-strength on the night (margin of error: +/- 0.2 points). Yes, zero goals for Dallas at evens despite forming what amounts to a Mega Man Wily Castle boss with their shot location chart:

(That’s from naturalstattrick.com, of course)

Ah, but the power play. Despite getting only four chances--and we say “only” both because the Stars had the puck for much of the game and because four pales in comparison to the seven Dallas gifted Vegas)--the Stars converted once and created some dangerous plays. That would be less disheartening if the Stars hadn’t also looked far too bumbly for much of that time. Shore really did look good on the top unit, but the second power play didn’t inspire much more confidence that it did last year. I trust that Julius Honka will solve this issue before too long (Spezza-Honka-Lindell-Ritchie-Hanzal seems plenty serviceable), but even then, you can’t point fingers at a 25% power play when your team dominated 5v5 play for as much as Dallas did.

In fact, I don’t have an iota of interest in pointing fingers anywhere tonight to lay blame for this loss. Given the opponent, this game wasn’t going to be a great indicator of the Stars’ fortunes no matter what happened, which is a fact that just happens to be more comforting in light of the actual result.

Sure, there are gripes. Kari Lehtonen was fantastic until a puck deflected off Faksa through his legs, but then he had a weak push across on a 2-on-1, couldn’t stay upright as a result, and James Neal elevated the puck from his own prostrate form, likely employing whatever dark revenge magic Cody Eakin was exuding to get the pass across in the first place. (Said power was surely what Neal used to clock Seguin in front of the net in the prior period.)

Did we already mention that Eakin led every skater on both teams but John Klingberg in ice time? Perhaps we did.

And yeah, you can resent Reilly Smith a bit for knocking Bishop out of the game with that shot off Bishop’s eye. Not cool, Reilly! Is this how you repay a team that burned a year of your ELC unnecessarily? I mean, not literally repay, of course. Literal repayment is not really customary in these situations. But still, the former Stars kind of beat up the Stars in this one, which made Radulov’s high-grade body check on Eakin in the first somewhat cathartic, but ultimately hollow.

Antoine Roussel might have wound up the goat in this one if not for a sufficient Stars penalty kill that went 7-7, thanks in no small part to some better-than-last-season goaltending in tandem with the new makeup of the PK box-wedge formation thing. Janmark and Hanzal are good at this, and Methot and Oleksiak did the job, though not uninterestingly, at times. Roussel probably didn’t deserve all three of those calls, but hoo boy, you kinda lose any benefit of the doubt when you’re reaching out of the box to play the puck like a disgruntled stage manager reaching for a rogue actor. When Hitch talks about the Stars not being focused, that’s a pretty good place to start.

Oh, and the final bullet on our not-gripe session might involve a polite request for John Klingberg to refrain from gloving pucks into his own net in the future, if possible. (Note to self: An early whistle like this one will end up burning the Stars at the other end of the ice in game 78. Whine about it less, when it inevitably happens.)

Tonight was an odd one in many ways, but when Esa Lindell seems like the more dynamic player on the top pair (and Lindell really was good tonight, I thought), you know something’s a little different. But if that pair can continue to find ways to succeed, then it makes the bottom four a bit easier (on paper) to sort out. I will make no (further) guesses as to how that situation will resolve itself, but Marc Methot and Stephen Johns each had a whoopsie in this one, and you can probably guess which one of those looms larger for the purposes of lineup rearrangement.

Okay, I lied. One more. Dan Hamhuis might, upon further reflection, choose not to have abandoned James Neal on an ill-fated sprawl towards Eakin in that patented “try to shut down the shooter while also blocking the pass” hero move that saw its heyday over the last four years in Dallas. The sarcastic writer might be tempted to ask if Hamhuis simply forgot which of those players is a 40-goal scorer and which one of them is not, but the sarcastic writer has no place here. Besides, such a scribe might also point out that Stephen Johns (and the other forwards, for that matter) hadn’t quite gotten into position as they came onto the ice on a change...and that the change was happening after Ritchie and Janmark failed to get the puck deep after an icing faceoff in their own zone. The lesson here is a familiar one: When you give up a goal on an odd-man rush, your whole team is probably to blame, to some extent.

*I totally made up the name “Kevin Thompson” back there. If you noticed, then you have won a free Afterwords Cornbread Coupon, cash value 32/100 cent. If you didn’t noticed, you have to post a comment apologizing to Jyrki Jokipakka. Hey, I don’t make the rules, okay?

***

I wasn’t even that frustrated as this game was ending, and that surprised me in the moment. But what can you say after this one? The concussion patrol (pretty sure that’s their name) wouldn’t let Bishop re-enter the game for precautionary reasons, and the Stars seemed a bit overwhelmed with the scoring chances they kept stumbling upon each time they got the puck. Vegas is not a good hockey team, but they’re made up of NHL players all the same, and NHL players don’t give you anything on purpose. You can call this game a warning sign if you like, but it sure has the stench of those weird Toronto games against James Reimer from two or three years ago.

I mean, look. Alex Radulov got a breakaway in his first game in Dallas, but destiny wasn’t having it, and Radulov couldn’t tuck it past Fleury. Jamie Oleksiak had a very solid game, but his delayed penalty led to the aforementioned shot that changed direction off Faksa and beat Lehtonen...who had just robbed Marchessault on another 2-on-1. Some things just clearly aren’t meant to be, you know? This game doesn’t have to mean anything more than that, for now.

These Stars are a good bunch of players, really. They played really well for stretches tonight, and it was just ding-dang fun to watch Stars hockey with the Stars playing well for much of the game. But in their first game under a new coach, they couldn’t finish the job. It happens. If there’s anything the Stars of today can learn from that 109-point squad two years ago, it’s that you can’t let these sorts of games define you. Dust yourself off, keep getting better, and hope that you have a healthy team come April. Hey, their PK%+PP% is at 125 right now, so that’s good news.

I mean, does anyone really doubt** that the Stars five or ten games from now will be scoring on a lot of the chances that eluded them tonight?

**Probably Brad does, but we love him anyway. Not because we have to, but because we’re forced to.

This wasn’t systemic failure by Dallas so much as a compilation of some game one miscues, bad luck, and great capitalization by the other guys and their demigod of a goaltender. We’ll check back in with Marc-Andre in February to see if he’s wilted a bit, but it would be kind of cool to see him drag this team to the playoffs. I am not advising you to bet money on this eventuality.

***

Finally, I miss Dave Strader. It’s funny looking back on it: I thought I had a pretty good idea what Strader’s announcing style was like when the team first announced he would be in the booth, and I was okay with it, if not overjoyed (which just goes to show how ignorant I can be). But the cumulative effect of hearing passionate professionalism alongside your favorite team every night just has a way of getting to you, and Strader’s passion more than most. By the midway point of his first season here, it had become clear that Strader was in a class by himself, and that this fanbase was beyond fortunate to have him. Greatness has a way of winning you over pretty quickly when you spend time with it.

We can seem greedy to wish for more of the wonderful memories we fans were given with him, but wonderful people tend to make you jealous for their presence far out of proportion to the time you spend with them. I don’t think we’ll ever stop missing him, and that’s okay and not okay at the same time.