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Game 52 Afterwords: Desperation Discovered, but Victory Vacancy Continues

They poured it on, after surrendering four goals, but they...well, they surrendered four goals.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The number 52 always makes me think of this:

***

When Radek Faksa and Tyler Seguin took pucks to the hand and face respectively early on, there were quick intakes of breath followed by sighs of relief. Disaster seemed to have been averted.

When Jamie Benn punched in a found puck at his feet after collecting a rebound to make the game 2-1, disaster once again seemed distant. The Stars had gotten back into their old habits by allowing an early goal, but two goals by two leaders wrested control back from Winnipeg, and things were okay again. This was, after all, a game against Winnipeg. That team isn’t good. Coming into tonight, the Jets had fewer points than they had games played.

Leaving tonight, the Jets and Stars now both have exactly as many points as games played. That is because the early hope evaporated, and after getting pushed down the Crisco-coated slide to the tune of four goals, all the madcap frothing, screaming and scrambling in the world weren’t enough to get Dallas back up again. They were passed up in the standings by a team who isn’t going to make the playoffs, and they lost Jason Spezza for (I’m guessing) a few weeks with a shoulder injury. This was a very bad thing to happen to Dallas.

The nice thing about games like this is that at least you already have the rubric to grade them. Spotty goaltending complemented by a free goal giveaway behind the net? Check. Generous penalty kill? Generous enough. Missed scoring opportunities? Oh, I should say so. These are, it would seem, still the Dallas Stars. Nothing new, really.

Or, almost nothing. For in the home stretch of this game, Dallas did the thing so many coaches talk about this time of year, and brought Playoff-like Intensity. Jamie Benn appeared in a ferocious way, and in a kinder universe, his gorgeous move and blistering wrist shot finds the inside of the post and settles behind Ondrej Pavelec late in the third period. But oh, dear me, it seems we’re still in this hockey universe, so how would you like a few posts, a missed net in the dying seconds by Brett Ritchie, and a shorthanded breakaway on a 5-on-3 that isn’t cashed in? Great! Here you are. (P.S. Pardon the smell. Also, just so you know, that would have been Spezza instead of Ritchie with that puck at the end had Spezza not been hurt. Not saying it would have changed anything, but just wanted you to know that. Love, the Hockey Universe.)

Many have said that Jamie Benn had his best game of the year tonight, and I don’t know what to say about that. For, in a way, it seems almost sad that you could legitimately say that about a night in which Benn’s missed coverage on the 5-on-3 facilitated the Winnipeg goal (on a 5v3 that Winnipeg was fairly well botching, to that point); or about a night in which Benn couldn’t beat a former Atlanta Thrashers goalie on a breakaway; or about a night in which Jamie Benn only brought out his gorgeous wrist shot when the game was nearly over, and that to no ultimate consequence. Jamie Benn did go into beast mode in this one, and he did step up. He scored three points! But just as Kari had some nice saves later in this game, it’s hard to get too rah-rah when you have something of a mixed bag on your hands.

Kari didn’t have his best game. Mark Scheifele scored three on him, but thankfully one was called back because the offside illuminati decided to hate the Jets tonight. Kari got beaten short side on a couple of shots that ticked off defenders’ sticks, but given how many odd-man rushes Dallas allowed tonight, “holding” Winnipeg to four goals is something I can type with hardly a wan smile. Kari was outplayed by Pavelec, and quite thoroughly so. Hey, that’s how Pavelec got the starting job in Atlanta in the first place!

Dallas is three points back of St. Louis, and the Blues have one more game remaining (and one fewer Ken Hitchcock). You can talk yourself into Dallas going on a run, but when you have to jump four teams in 30 games, you’re...well, you’re in a tight spot.

The Antoine Roussel penalty to put Dallas down two men was a fair bit of nonsense, but the goalie interference call on Scheifele was hardly better. The difference in those cases is that a 5v3 is a vastly better situation than 5v4, and in their unearned chance of the night, Dallas was able only to create, not consummate.

Lindy Ruff mentioned that the Jets’ speed gave Dallas problems early on. It strikes me that Julius Honka could be a helpful sort of player when speed is a challenge, but then, I don’t know the entirety of why Honka was scratched. Surely a stud blueliner wouldn’t be sat in favor of Patrik Nemeth just for one mistake, right? I do not know. And hey, after all, Nemeth had a primary assist. That isn’t nothing! That gives Nemeth two primary assists on the season, which is the same amount of primary assists as the player centering Jamie Benn and Patrick Eaves. That is quite an accomplishment for Patrik Nemeth.

John Klingberg tried some moves, and they sometimes worked, sometimes not. He was clearly trying to do his thing tonight, and even when it didn’t work, he was covered up by his mates, and it was fine. However, I would imagine that more than a few fans threw up their hands in exasperation when a Klingberg foray up the ice ended in nothing. It is not easy to be brave in a world of fear. It is not easy to try the patience of those removed from the battle. If you were to tell John Klingberg to “stop with the turnovers,” I would imagine he would look at you for about 20 seconds with an inscrutable gaze and ask if you have a lot of third-pairing defensemen jerseys at home or something. Then he would leave, and you would notice your shoelaces are gone. Another ten years of those conversations creates players like Ales Hemsky.

The Sharp/Faksa/Shore line is still great. Shore seems to do much better when he doesn’t have to center a line of sandpaper; when he, in fact, doesn’t have to center the line at all, and can instead use his speed on the wing. Combine that with Radek Faksa’s top-notch hockey strength and Patrick Sharp’s resurgence, and you have quite a good line; in fact, the Stars were just one healthy Jason Spezza away from being a three-line threat team again (and we’re not even counting Adam Cracknell’s ability to at least make me assume he has like 12 goals this season every time he protects the puck). But now the Stars are, as they have been, in trouble.

Patrick Sharp was close. This is a perfect picture. If it’s blurry, it’s your computer’s fault, better buy a new one.

How much trouble? Well, unless you break up the third line, you essentially have but three actual scoring threats in your top six players. Roussel has had his moments this year, but he’s basically scoring at a Korpikoskian rate. (Or is Korpikoski scoring at Rousselian levels?) Brett Ritchie seems like a possibility, but his speed is going to lag behind Seguin and Roussel. The most logical option in training camp would have been Jiri Hudler, but he’s almost an afterthought at this point, and so you’ll probably see Sharp bumped up. Who really knows?

The Jets have skill, to be sure. Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien is a great starting point for any defense corps, and it appears to be the ending point as well, since Trouba played over 30 minutes while the Jets’ third pairing didn’t even reach 10. Up front, Mark Scheifele has 25 goals somehow, and Patrik Laine, Ehlers and Wheeler are all productive bodies, to put it mildly. This is a team that could be a pain in the division for a while, and they’re struggling to even hope for the playoffs on February 2nd. The Stars are not far ahead of them in some important ways.

There are surely many things being played out behind the scenes right now. Jim Nill has trades he can explore, but why buy right now? Even a three-game losing streak makes selling almost a no-brainer, with the Stars sitting 12th in the conference. There will be so many things to manage with this season both at the deadline and before the expansion draft. Any window to give this team a trade-boost back into contention passed along with Hanukkah, and you can’t really expect to get much more from net than has already been gotten to date. If the Stars were going to get hot, it needed to happen when the top players were healthy and the goaltending was present. Dallas has been allowing lots of goals lately, and Jason Spezza is gone for a while. Any run now will be created wholecloth.

Hope if you like, despair if you’d rather. But just don’t deceive yourself. They’re in a tight spot.