It occurs to me that I should be increasingly grateful for last season, when I got to write about 57 wins. I do not anticipate the Stars finding 36 wins in their final 32 regular season and playoff games.
And you know, the players feel the same way. Every hockey memoir I’ve ever read talks about how teams build camaraderie when they’re winning, but how arguments can blow up into bitter disputes when losses are piling up. No one in the Dallas organization is enjoying this. I wonder how many Rumpelstiltskin analogies Jeff Reese has used this season.
The Leafs were on the second night of a back-to-back, having given up six goals to the Islanders the night before. Jiri Hudler returned from a personal leave of absence to bolster the lineup. The Leafs were starting their backup goaltender, Curtis McElhinney. I did not bother to spell-check that last name. In short, things were set up for Dallas to win a game on the road.
And, in some ways, Dallas took advantage. Play was largely tilted in Dallas’s favor, and even the goals that were allowed came from a ways out. The Stars managed to keep prime scoring chances down, but Jake Gardiner got Toronto up 1-0 early with a long-distance slapper that was not good for the woebegone Niemi’s confidence. As Ray Ferraro said on TSN: “A shot to the glove side on Antti Niemi is always dangerous.” For context, Ferraro (and other Canadian media members like Jeff Marek) have this weird hatred of Niemi’s goaltending that manifests itself in surprisingly acerbic commentary, so this was an observation coming from some preconceptions, accurate or otherwise. (Probably more accurate that the Stars’ shooting tonight, though.)
Posts were hit, but who could bother to care? Lindell and Seguin dented them, and Dan Hamhuis flat-out missed the net on a prime chance. Dallas got an early power play thanks to Nazem Kadri’s weird Dallas role-reversal, in which he goes penalty-drawer to penalty factory so fast that he takes multiple penalties at a time. I was surprised to see a proper call made in that case, as Kadri did crack Eaves in the back with as vicious a cross check as one can perform (without breaking the stick, at least) when play was coming to a halt during the original delayed call. The nice, close-to-great officiating was fun, while it lasted, but Dallas, true to form, did nothing with the gifted double minor.
The Auston Matthews goal was a nice tip, but Ray Ferraro certainly didn’t miss a chance to deride Niemi from the outset as well, thinking it to be another “whiff.” Personally, I just saw it as a bit of bad luck and good hands. Dallas could have used either of those, tonight.
Still, Tyler Seguin brought the game close with a no-nonsense power play goal. The goal, blasted from the slot with no fuss, came from a clean faceoff win by Cody Eakin, and things were looking possible, for a moment. Unfortunately, Eakin decided to celebrate tying Jamie Oleksiak in points by inexplicably trying to kill Mitch Marner, cross checking him away from the play and breaking his stick in the process, all about three feet in front of the referee. Oleksiak has five(!) goals and one assist in 20 games this season, and Eakin has the reverse (1-5=6) in 32 games. This is the oddest statistic I have seen in a long time.
Anyhow, the Stars were headed to the PK thanks to a selfish penalty, and I couldn’t help but think back to how Stephen Johns was benched for a few games for a puck-over-glass penalty a while back, or how Julius Honka was scratched for the third straight game after making a costly mistake in the Stars’ victory over Toronto. If either of them had taken a penalty like that, I think Ruff would have suited up to play defense himself before dressing either of them again this season.
Instead, Cody Eakin led the fowards in ice time, again. And lest you think that was due to his time on the PK, Eakin was 12 seconds behind Jamie Benn for the even-strength ice time lead. In third place was Tyler Seguin, who did get elevated up to the right wing of the Stars’ top line for the third period, and it was helpful, until the penalty parade deep-sixed the comeback effort. I thought Ruff might reunite the 14-91-18 line at some point in this game, but he did not do that. He did something else. If you expected the shadow of Claude Julien to jump-start some changes in strategy, then you were disappointed.
(For Texas Rangers fans, I can’t help but remember the Michael Young/Jurickson Profar flap a few years back. The elite rookie shortstop Profar was promoted to the bigs, and Rangers manager Ron Washington responded by starting the late-career Michael Young at shortstop for the first time in forever. That was a message to Wash’s players and GM, but I don’t think anything like that is happening here. Occam’s razor and all that. Hockey coaches have reasons for why they do things, and the simplest explanation here is that Ruff simply sees Eakin as his best option at 1C for chemistry/defense reasons with Jamie Benn, who he likewise sees as his best player. If you read David’s article the other day, as you ought to have done, you will draw your own conclusions.)
Eakin did have a great night in the faceoff circle (62%), though Mike Babcock pointed the finger squarely at his own team. (Remember, the defensive zone center has to put his stick down first, which gives the attacking center an advantage.)
Fun fact: Dallas’s fourth line primarily went up against that of the Leafs, and they obliterated them. Ben Smith ended the game with a 8.33% CF at 5v5. That is not a relative number; that is a number that says 92% of the shots that happened with Ben Smith on the ice came toward the Leafs’ own net. For reference, elite play-drivers might send 60% of the shots the other way over the course of a season. It’s a one-game anomaly in a small sample, but it’s still nutso.
Less fun fact: Dallas’s second power play unit, while generating some chances in the first period, was staffed by Jordie Benn, Dan Hamhuis, Devin Shore, Jiri Hudler and Patrick Sharp. I think Ruff would put Johnny Oduya on that unit over Esa Lindell at this point. My best guess is that he’s just trusting the vets as he coaches for his job, because veterans are reliable, known quantities. Knowledge is good, I suppose. Coaches like veterans. Mike Babcock is the NHL’s best coach, and he played Ben Smith.
Adam Cracknell had another good game. The fact that he has played himself into the conversation about expansion draft eligibility (though he won’t be taken by Vegas) is fantastic. There are still bright stories to be found in this season. There are also dark ones, and hey, we have one of those, too. Cracknell had the misfortune to click on Curtis McElfinnigan’s Twitter profile or something equally invasive, and he was penalized for goaltender interference, to his dismay (see photo caption above). Honestly, it was every bit that bad a call. Cracknell wasn’t in the crease, and he was both curving away from the netminder and being bodied by Toronto. Nonetheless, the officials found a 5v3 call out of all that. Remarkable, considering you usually have to lock a guy inside a haunted aquarium overnight with nothing but those candy circus peanuts to eat in order to possibly get called for a penalty to put your team two men down, yet the officials went there in Toronto for an inconsequential bit of goalie flopping.
But these seem to be the days of doubling down, and Radek Faksa would be the final victim of Officials in Ontario as he was adjudged to have won a defensive zone faceoff with his hand. This was a lie, but linesmen like to play hockey games calling time as well, and so the chagrined referees gave a stilted announcement tantamount to “This linesmen, who you gave to me, he gave me this call, and I hate it.”
The horrible Leafs 5v3 finally stumbled onto the secret to goal-scoring, and tossed a shot from distance because why not. It glanced off Dan Hamhuis, because even Do-great Dan (this nickname will catch on, I promise) can’t have a nice game without being stained with the stench of defeat these days.
Then what happened? Dallas finally poured pucks toward the net, and the Leafs turtled, successfully. It was remarkable, really. Toronto’s only legacy of this entire decade has been erected on giving up third-period leads over and over again, but Dallas couldn’t quite find a bounce or a play good enough to beat goaltender Carl Mackelhornsby. It was that kind of night, which is to say it was a road game. Dallas has not won many road games this season.
It’s broken, and we all want to blame someone. That’s natural. This is a team fresh off a dismal (contextually speaking) home stand, and they’re seven points out. Only time is standing between certain players and a new team at this point, and that time will come on the road. If the last 11 games are any indication, that time will also feature the Stars giving up three goals per game.