Monday’s game had a stench about it. Not just the early start time (noon central), and not just the fact that it was on a holiday. So much about this game just screamed, “forget about me” up until the moment the puck dropped.
Oh, and then there was Jason Spezza. At the last minute, he was discovered to be scratched, but healthy. Jim Nill confirmed it to be a coach’s decision, saying Spezza “knows he can be better.” Ken Hitchcock added after the game that...well, read it yourself:
Spezza is in tomorrow. Hitch on Spezza: "We need a reset. He's got to play better, a lot better, and he's capable of it. He's a big part of what we're doing here, but we need a better player, and we'll get one tomorrow."— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) January 15, 2018
Now, if I were going to be obstinate, I’d point out that “we need a better player” is clearly not an all-encompassing mantra for Hitch. Case in point: Martin Hanzal, who has definitively shown himself to be not a better player than, well, a lot of folks so far this year. Part of that has been due to injuries (and injuries), of course, and none of this is Hanzal’s fault. Martin Hanzal is just a lightning rod for Hitch Criticism in times like these, and Scratching Jason Spezza is Just Such a Time.
Hanzal, by the way, played over 17 minutes today, put up a -2, lost a battle in the defensive zone that led to one of those goals, and his line was caved in almost beyond comprehension. I am not exaggerating:
Of course, it’s just one game. The Stars can win with Hanzal—who can be a productive player, as his career has shown—but they need to decide whether they want to maximize Spezza or not. So far, Hitch seems to have kept Spezza from the upper echelons of production unless injuries or shakeups have forced his hand.
Does Spezza need to better? Yes. Has Spezza underperformed this year? Well, yes, but also not as much as you think. Even putting aside Spezza’s still-great shot generation as a product of favorable zone starts and matchups, he’s still providing secondary scoring, if you don’t look at Spezza’s cap hit while calling it such:
Jason Spezza is playing 13:29 minutes per game, on average. These are third-line minutes at best. You’d love Spezza to be able to carry a line by himself, but at some point, you have to be realistic. He’s 34 years old, and if you’re determined to keep him off the top power play unit (as Hitchcock has mostly done) and give him bottom-six minutes with bottom-six wingers, you can only ask for so much straw to be spun into gold. And yet, he’s fourth on the team in primary assists. One might conclude that it pays to play Spezza with scorers! One might also choose to play Spezza with Martin Hanzal, then scratch him for not playing “better,” nebulously defined. One might further conclude that this was bound to happen to Spezza at some point the moment the Stars signed Hanzal.
Clearly I am a bit hypersensitive to this issue, and most of our wonderful readers already have their minds made up about whether Spezza deserved the scratch or not. Let’s move on.
There was never much doubt this game was going into OT, was there? A 2-0 lead signaled what was largely the end of Dallas’s offensive efforts in regulation, and with as good as this Bruins’ team has been lately, I was, ahem, somewhat skeptical that the Stars could effectively turtle for half of regulation. As has been said, Hitch’s system has the smallest of margins for errors, and all it took was a world-class clapper on a backup goalie and a butt goal in the crease to level things. I’m not saying I had a better plan, mind. Boston is really quite good, and the Stars’ getting two points out of this game (and a ROW to boot) is a huge positive. But the vindictive part of me wanted to see Boston’s point streak end, and given the nature of cross-conference games in this league, turtling is going to be most coaches’ first option anyhow.
Oh, how about Remi Elie today? He almost set up two goals, and the one he did set up was nicely done indeed. It’s good to see some depth scoring, and the Stars needed it today. Stephen Johns, as has become clear, is someone the Stars can rely on to do a bit scoring. His five goals at even-strength are tied with one John Klingberg—no small feat. It’s good to see him having a good season after the ups and downs of last year.
Should Kari Lehtonen stop that Chara blast? I’m still not positive. I *think* so, yes, given the distance and lack of a screen. But that’s also a legendary slapshot from 40 feet. There’s a reason Chara won that skills contest so many times. You probably don’t want to tee up the big man like that, if you can help it. Still, Kari probably says he should have that, and in principle, I guess so?
Finally, overtime. After both coaches scratched their loser point itch, Boston almost scratched Dallas right off the hop, as Tyler Seguin got beat off the draw on a Boston set play into the zone. Thankfully, John Klingberg broke up the 2-on-1—he’s quite good defensively, if you haven’t heard—and that preserved our collective ability to witness Something Special.
Absolutely sick effort by Tyler Seguin to beat the Bruins in OT pic.twitter.com/WigXZfSlFs— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 15, 2018
You surely recall the solid minute of possession the Stars kept on the delayed call, right? How deliberate, how plodding it seemed! But Tyler Seguin is young and impatient in some ways, and so he finally decided, having thoroughly tuckered out the Boston three, to have a go at them.
First, you have to admire the pre-emptive stick lift from Seguin on Matt Grzelcyk before utterly discarding him. That’s a player who’s already thinking two steps ahead. Seguin discards Grzelcyk without a thought, and moves on. From there, it’s a comedy of sprawling Bruins, as the other two skaters slide harmlessly along the ice while Seguin, head up, continues looking for his shot.
He keeps looking. He meets Khudobin, who does some sort of weird pad-stack that might have served its purpose, had his pads been, well, stacked. Instead, Seguin (we’ll give him full credit here) threads the needle, going five-hole on the Boston goalie despite the awkward angle. The elation is there to be seen.
Said Seguin: “I felt like everyone just kept sliding at me.” Indeed, it’s hard not to feel like there was some mystery puppeteer pulling the legs out from under those last three Bruins left sprawling on the ice.
Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov went head-to-head with maybe the most electric line in hockey right now. They did so, in large part, backed by Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn. The Stars won the game. Seguin scored the game-winner. It’s hard not to see this play as validation of a larger tactic. It’s easy to be happy with the results, even if the process can be frustrating. Tomorrow, Dallas takes on Detroit. We’ll see how the Stars’ process (and Jason Spezza) can withstand their second game in as many nights on the road.