It’s fitting that an emotional night was fueled by the Stars’ most emotional player.
Going into Saturday night, the Stars had answered every challenge to step up and make something of a weak Western Conference with a resounding “nah.” From botched 3-on-0 rushes to special teams discombobulation, these 60 games have been a bit of a beating, and that made more painful for fans by the absence of the voice that narrated last year’s Western Conference champs over the season’s 82 games.
So to have Dave Strader back in the booth, to have Jamie Benn step up with his finally reawakened Art Ross wrist shot, and to have Antoine Roussel going full Chanticleer tonight of all nights? That’s just special.
I won’t wax too poetic on Dave Strader, except to say that we can’t know what he’s going through unless we or a loved one have been through it. To hear him back in the booth was a gift, and to have one of the most enjoyable games of the season accompanying his return was grace embodied. We don’t deserve Dave Strader. We are grateful almost beyond measure to have the pleasure of enjoying Dave Strader.
All three of Roussel’s goals were special, too. His first was the most remarkable as a goal, looking more like something you’d see in practice. Dan Hamhuis threw a backhand towards the crease, and Roussel, who had been jousting pretty heavily with Anton Stralman just to get his stick free, managed to reach back and drag the mid-air puck over Vasilevskiy’s pad with a bounce, nutmegging Stralman in the process.
The other two goals were products of a great Tyler Seguin setup and a great Roussel finish, but that doesn’t do the Roussel Hat Trick justice. The Stars went down 2-0, the power play failed to do anything except give up another prime shorthanded chance, and the penalty kill failed to kill a penalty for the second straight game. Kari Lehtonen did well to “only” allow three goals, and the only line generating anything like scoring chances was the “2nd” line, which featured Tyler Seguin. (I’m still not ready to call a line with someone tied for 5th in NHL scoring anything other than the top line with a straight face.)
In that environment, it was nothing but sweet delight to see Roussel angrily celebrating (his specialty) the first Stars hat trick since Jason Spezza to close last season. (Motion to wipe the collective fan memory of everything that’s happened since? Motion carries.)
It’s crazy when you reflect on where Roussel has come from, especially in the context of that 2013-14 “pit bull” line that drove Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry a little crazy in the playoffs. The line’s two undrafted free agents and Cody Eakin have all gone in very different directions, to put it mildly.
Ryan Garbutt (31 years old) eventually wound up in Anaheim before winding up in the AHL, and he’s still probably best remembered for penalties like the spearing major I was forced to witness in person. Never have I appreciated a penalty on Corey Perry less.
Cody Eakin (26 in May), acquired in the Mike Ribeiro trade, has gone from a hard-nosed third-liner to Lindy Ruff’s top center, frequently displacing Tyler Seguin even after Jamie Benn’s Art Ross season. Eakin, until this year, has been a steady 35-point scorer, sitting around 0.40-0.50 points per game from 2012-13 through last year. Jim Nill extended him for four years ($3.85 million AAV) after his career-best 40-point season in ‘14-15, an extension which just kicked in this year. His offseason knee injury is the best explanation for why his scoring has plummeted to 0.24 points per game and only two goals on the season, but either way, this hasn’t been the ideal way to kick off a long-term deal for either player or team. (Though the deal is hardly alone in the league in terms of dollars and length for production.) Eakin isn’t known for being a positive possession player, to put it lightly, though he is just about even so far this season.
Antoine Roussel (27) also got a four-year deal from Dallas ($2 million AAV), though his came in the midst of arbitration in the 2014 offseason. You know how many penalty minutes Roussel racks up, but his production has also been good, going from around 0.34 points per game in prior seasons to 0.45 this year. His possession stats have likewise skyrocketed this season, currently leading the entire team. Roussel has one more season remaining on his deal, though many project him to be left unprotected in the expansion draft in favor of players like Eakin and Brett Ritchie.
After a game like tonight, your heart says that the Stars would be wise to make sure that Roussel is the member of that trio who sticks around at all costs. But Eakin’s production utterly cratering this season hurts any possibility of trading him, and that’s assuming the Stars aren’t still as in love with him as they’ve seemed to be for years now. Even two bad giveaways tonight (one inside the offensive blue line and one right in front of the Stars’ net) can easily be papered over by the primary assist on Jamie Benn’s overtime sizzler, if it comes to that. You may not be shocked to hear that Lindy Ruff thought Jamie Benn’s line, which is to say Eakin’s, was great tonight.
Kari Lehtonen saved the Stars’ bacon in overtime, and even in the third period, Dallas seemed determined to continue their season-long streak of zero comebacks after two periods. But even sloppy overtime play and a glorious gift of a chance for Tampa in the final minute of regulation couldn’t get the Stars down and out. Even surrendering six chances to Tampa in overtime before Benn made apple pie out of a distant wrister couldn’t stop the Stars, tonight.
Tyler Seguin has 38 assists on the season, but he was not put up with Jamie Benn’s line at any point in the game, which I thought telling, especially on home ice. But Tyler Seguin will score wherever he finds himself, it turns out, and Antoine Roussel channeled his inner pit bull to its utmost. We can moan about line combinations, but you love seeing your best players play their best, and Seguin and Benn both deserved their place within Roussel’s radiant aura after this game.
Victor Hedman is still great, though you’d never guess that he’s been just about the only Lightning d-man having a good year. You’d also never guess that the Tyler Johnson who embarrassed the Stars’ third defense pairing on the penalty kill before beating Lehtonen in alone was the same Tyler Johnson who accidentally performed a red-card worthy slidetackle into Adam Cracknell’s ankle. It seems that even on this night of nights, the Stars had to pay for something nice. (Aside: Cracknell’s injury felt, personally, like the hockey universe giving me the final bird of the season. Can I not carve out just one tiny corner of joy during this farce without the universe snatching it away from me with a backhand to the face?)
Esa Lindell had some rough spots in his game, to put it lightly, but he also had a couple of nice plays, as well. It seems he is still a rookie who is learning, but I’m going to choose optimism for now, unless the universe wants to take that, too. The Jason Spezza/Radek Faksa/Devin Shore line was more or less inconsequential, which is not what you want from Jason Spezza. If you’re Dallas, you probably bank on him bouncing back next season. If you’re Dallas, you kind of have to bank on almost everyone bouncing back next season, because another 82 games before we get to enjoy games as much as we enjoyed this one will be about 81 too many.