This season, I’ve been guilty of perhaps a bit too much negativity, at times. Lately, I’ve found myself looking for things to complain about with regard to lineups, scratches, and player usage. Part of that is my job, sure; it’s important not to get too high or too low so the perspective is a bit more nuanced and balanced. But another factor that’s bred some of that negativity is, I think, all the change that we’ve seen this year.
This team is big now, and they embrace and value that. I definitely think size is overvalued in hockey (and Derek has been preaching that gospel far longer than a lot of us), and the Stars’ roster decisions are often a perfect example of that. Additionally, it’s been a bit too easy for me to look at Gemel Smith being scratched lately (and, again, for nine straight games to start the season) while a cobbled-together Martin Hanzal gets 15 minutes of ice time if he’s even moderately ambulatory, and get grouchy. The fact is, writing about this team for a few years, I’ve gotten married to a few notions about what the best possible outcome of this franchise could and even should be. That’s all well and good, and I suppose everyone has the right to envision their Ideal Dallas Stars, to one extent or another. At some point, that’s just fandom.
But in games like tonight, it helps for me to just take a step back and take stock of whatever this team is, or is trying to become, apart from my biases about what they should and could be. Apart from whether my evaluations about anything are even remotely accurate at any point (very debatable), there’s some real reward in just appreciating this team for what it is, and not looking for how it differs from the vision I’ve been subconsciously (or explicitly and obnoxiously) casting.
Sometimes, for instance, hockey devolves. James Reimer’s groin pull (as it looked to me) was bad and surely painful—I popped my groin playing slow-pitch softball a few years ago, which is definitely just as hardcore as doing so in the NHL—but it might have been the least painful blow of the period, speaking strictly in terms of pain. This game very quickly turned into something altogether different from what anyone apart from Michael Haley had envisioned Tuesday morning. Once you let go of the sort of hockey you’re expecting, a crazy Borderlands-type contest can be a really pure hockey experience to enjoy.
Keith Yandle apparently though Antoine Roussel was less than pure after the Reimer injury, despite Roussel’s innocence in this particular case. Yandle quickly regretted his decision after initially cross checking Roussel after the play, and from there, it was more a case of players Fighting Because the Other Guys Fought.
Harri Sateri came on in relief, and for a guy with less than 100 NHL minutes under his belt, I can’t imagine a much tougher game to backstop. There was zero flow, zero structure, and, in short order, only five defensemen for a team already struggling to look like a decent NHL squad. Yes, he gave up six goals, but if ever you were going to chalk up a solid performance to a goalie’s veteran presence, Ben Bishop showed the value of Having Been There Before. A couple folks remarked on the game’s being still fragile at 3-1 later on, but Bishop had a couple of key stops that helped his team stay in position to pull away, and that they did.
Michael Haley, by the way, got an instigator minor and a ten-minute misconduct for fighting Radek Faksa (who didn’t return fire very effectively), which is sort of odd to the naked eye, given the lack of such a penalty in Detroit last week, you may recall (though the weaker roughing call still drew Jeff Blashill’s ire). Haley’s night would be finished midway through the second period after Wes McCauley tossed him for, ostensibly, being just a big ol’ pile o’ nonsense. But Haley’s 39 PIMs in six shifts were definitely Good for the Game, I suppose. Everyone loves a villain, until that villain injures someone, but never mind about that.
When you let go of your Ideal Hockey Game, this was all-out fun for Dallas fans. When you get a bunch of professional athletes all hot and bothered in a culture of machismo, fists start flying, and six fights behind six goals is a hootenanny, and no mistake. Stephen Jonns sort of capped the whole night with his trip through the fist-bump line in the dying minutes after landing a rather workaday set of punches on Jamie McGinn’s face. I found that fight particularly satisfying after McGinn’s weird sort of barrage on Roussel earlier this season, and Johns seemed to have a similar sort of catharsis, if his broad expression of delightful nonchalance was any indication.
Radek Faksa, in his second bout, gave a bit better on Derek MacKenzie, (who is, it turns out, the captain of the Florida Panthers. Win a bar bet with that fact, eh?) and in that same mess, Dillon Heatherington went with Alexander Petrovic (who threw a couple of punches at Roussel’s head before Heatherington stepped in, because hockey), which got those two chucked for the game on account of That’s Not Really Hockey, Boys. (Though someone forgot to tell the broadcast, apparently. Come on, Truck Folks—help ‘em out!) Petrovic did get the extra minor, for the record, and thank goodness for that, said Devin Shore.
John Klingberg is really, really good. You might lose sight of him in a game like this, but that’d be a terrible loss. From the moment he was called up in 2015, you noticed his ability to get lower in the offensive zone before releasing a shot. His first NHL goal was a slick example of this against the Coyotes, but his assist on Shore’s deflection was cut from the same cloth. That’s what elite offensive ability looks like, folks. Or at least, that was part one.
Part two was even slicker, as Klingberg danced his way through the zone to set Mattias “Goal Machine” Janmark’s table, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Devin Shore credit for a very slick little pass through the skate-stick area to Klingberg right as he crossed the blue line. I smiled a lot while watching this game, but never moreso than after Klingberg just continued being John Klingberg. I do my best to remain even-keeled on the Internet most of the time, but it’s getting to the point where I am going to GIF every single primary assist Klingberg’s had this season and mail individual animation cels to every poor ignoramus who says Klingberg isn’t a True Elite Defenseman. He is this team’s transition game in a lot of ways, including that most important of ways: transitioning the puck into the gosh darn net.
Also, to stay on topic, good on Devin Shore for the deft tip past Sateri on Klingberg’s first assist, too. That’s what “net front presence” can look like when it’s utilized effectively. It’s also where Devin Shore will need to make a living, since his shot tool hasn’t been beating many goalies this season. By the way, Devin Shore had 17 minutes of ice time tonight. It probably doesn’t mean anything, just like Jason Spezza being demoted back to the second power play unit in favor of Brett Ritchie surely doesn’t mean anything. Ken Hitchcock said after the game that Spezza needs to “keep improving.” Spezza had a couple of glorious plays tonight, even apart from his assist to Radulov, though one such beautiful pass did go awry and turn into a rush the other way. It’s hard for me not to get super defensive about Spezza, who is still fourth on the team in primary assists, when so many potential assists are being forced towards Remi Elies and Devin Shores, but again, we’re trying to appreciate the Stars that Are, not the ones we’ve wished for. And besides all that, Brett Ritchie definitely owns his own top-of-the-line personal hockey gear, which is a vital prerequisite of playing on the top power play, so, box checked.
While we’re talking about offense, did you involuntarily cry out in awe at Radulov’s catch of the puck in his skates before his eventual assist to Jamie Benn? Look at this:
The linked video shows it better, but the puck gets passed laterally from the boards, just behind Radulov. No problem. Radulov almost scornfully reaches back, in stride, and kicks the puck up to his stick with his right skate without missing a beat. It’s not that uncommon a technique for most NHLers, but the speed and effortless nature of this particular skate-to-stick move just floored me. Maybe I am too easily impressed, but it seemed next-level.
As for the goal on that play, if I’m being cynical, I’d say Radulov’s pass was actually a bit of a hopeful one to Seguin, who had headed into the crease on the first pass. Then again, we saw Radulov’s mindsight with the assist to Spezza in Detroit, so perhaps he just knew Benn would lose his coverage at that exact time. Either way, he fully deserved his first star honors tonight, did Radulov.
Deserving of less honor was the silly tripping penalty by Trochek on Klingberg to put the Stars on a 5-on-3. Jason Spezza immediately set the table for Alexander Radulov, who eclipsed his goal total from all of last season, as you surely know by now. Sometimes, free agency isn’t the worst, other recent contracts notwithstanding.
Brett Ritchie also had a fight, and good for Brett Ritchie. It’s tough for me to understand what’s going on with his tough year, but your teammates will always appreciate a scrap, and he stepped up and joined the fray tonight. That is something hockey players really appreciate. I’m not sure Connor Brickley appreciated Ritchie’s final punch with Brickley already fallen to the ice, though. Those sorts of punches always scare me a bit too much to relish them, to be honest.
Uh, so, it is at this point that I have realized that I entitled this whole thing “six reasons,” and I haven’t yet laid out six reasons to believe in the Dallas Stars. Great writing, Robert, that’s the stuff we pay for.
So, yeah, I’ll wrap this up in a similar tone to how it started, just to keep you from changing the channel or whatever. Is that part of the New Media thing everyone’s talking about? Did I “Do New Media” yet? I am a millennial.
Here Are Six Reasons to Believe in Whatever the Dallas Stars Are Becoming
- Defense Wins Whatever, Blah Blah Blah. Hitch has built this team to strangle offense for the other team, and they’ve done that. Tonight, in a
weirdbit of a different game, the Stars managed to keep the Panthers at a single goal. I’m not sure Stars of Seasons Past could have done that. Certainly the Stars of that Unspeakable Boston Embarrassment could not, and indeed did not do that. So, good for these Stars and their defensive structure: it holds up to insanity!
- John Klingberg is still John Klingberg!, Tyler Seguin is scoring goals at his career pace (which is, ahem, outstanding), Jamie Benn is red-hot, and the Stars are holding onto a playoff spot in a Central Division that seems tailor-made to grind up wannabe teams and spit them out. The great Stars of this team are as great as you would have hoped they’d continue to be going into the season.
- The Power Play Stepped Up. You love to make teams pay for stupidity, and the Stars did that tonight. If Hitch likes his offense to be opportunistic, then this is what it can look like. Turnovers that become goals, and power plays that make teams regret careless behavior. The Stars’ power play is now eighth in the NHL after a cold stretch a couple months back. That’s huge for a team that doesn’t get all that many opportunities.
- Martin Hanzal is not the Glue That Holds Everything Together. Now, you may be ready to make jokes about how Hanzal could use some glue to hold himself together, but that’s because you are immature and insensitive to his current injury plight, you internet moron. The Stars signed Hanzal hoping he would cement their defensive structure up the middle, and they have instead discovered that their structure is actually pretty danged solid even without him. It’s not great to be without a key player, but the Stars have learned a lot about themselves in lieu of Hanzal, and that’s not nothing.
- The Depth Scoring, It Lives! Again, Hitch seems to have some weird thing about not tiring out Faksa by putting him on the power play (despite Faksa’s having more even-strength goals than Tyler Seguin), but Faksa and Pitlick are still piling up the points, relatively speaking, and Mattias Janmark continues cashing in goals, too. If your team can climb into the top-10 in NHL scoring with a couple players markedly underperforming, your staff is probably getting the job done. I must needs begrudgingly refrain from calling this team a hard-scoring club, as I’ve done far too recently.
- It’s the Dallas Stars, You Big Grumpus! Of course you shouldn’t believe, because you might get burned. You probably will, you know. Given 31 teams, always bet against any one of them going all the way if you want to keep your money. But hey, if you’re reading this, you’re probably on the Victory Green Train of Heartbreak already, so why not buy some merch and explore the observation car while you’re here? The scenery is going by a little more slowly than it did two years ago, but boy howdy, it’s still fun to beat other teams, no matter what shape that beating takes. This team is different, and they seem determined to keep it that way. The sooner we learn to start loving them for what they are, the more fun we’ll probably have.
P.S. There, I got through a whole piece without mentioning Julius Honka. Someone just lost a bet somewhere.