No one wants to do a blow-by-blow of an embarrassment like that, so I’ll spare us all the trauma of re-living Thursday night in any sort of granular sense. The Stars got run out of their own building by a struggling, young team on the second night of a back-to-back in front of their backup goalie who hadn’t played in over a month. That’s pretty well unacceptable no matter how you slice it.
Jason Spezza and Mattias Janmark’s longstanding chemistry abandoned them tonight, and they both surely would have preferred playing in Toronto instead of Dallas with the level of misfortune they encountered (or produced). Janmark had a giveaway at the blue line (after a Spezza faceoff win that the team seemed to hesitate on collecting) that led to the first goal (though it’s worth pointing out that John Klingberg appeared to get held up by Mitch Marner by the Toronto bench, but you’ll rarely see that called on what’s already an odd-man break), and then Spezza lost the puck and couldn’t beat his man up the ice for the second Leafs goal.
The third goal was a calamity of errors, starting with a sloppy trip by Remi Elie to put Toronto on the job before the universe orchestrated a double deflection off Janmark (of course) and Hamhuis to beat a bemused Bishop. The fourth goal against was pretty well Greg Pateryn being Montreal Greg Pateryn, as a bad breakout pass and a poor pinch led to the Leafs’ forty-sixth odd-man rush of the night. Aside: the Stars should find a right-handed player who makes great breakout passes at some point. Seems like those players can be really useful, even moreso if they can skate really well. Oh well, we can dream. Those players don’t grow on trees after all, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Sure, the Stars had chances. The top line looked fantastic tonight (and it’s why Hitch gave them a ton of ice time), but they had too many glorious chances that were shot into Curtis McElhinney. Yeah, he made a save or two, but Jamie Benn shot a puck right into the goalie (from Klingberg), and then Klingberg’s cross attempt that bounced off Roman Polak somehow bounced perfectly into the same leg pad instead of mirroring the bad bounce Toronto had enjoyed in the Stars’ zone earlier. Alexander Radulov also set Tyler Seguin’s table once before the eventual goal, but that shot went right into the Maple Leaf on McElhinney’s chest, too. Sometimes it just isn’t your night.
Spezza and Janmark did not have good nights tonight, and that’s okay, given their overall production this season (surely you don’t need me to point to Spezza’s solid assist totals yet again). But Brett Ritchie continued to get top power play billing (though a bad puck bobble that led to a 2-on-1 probably didn’t help his already-shaky case to stay there) for much of the game because Stu Barnes and Ken Hitchcock Have a Plan, and the Stars’ advantage came up dry. More than anything, honestly, I’d credit an aggressive Leafs penalty kill that knew its opponent well, but if you want to pile on the Stars tonight, you’ve got a lot of places to start, so don’t let me stop you.
Look, we can use tonight to gripe about every coaching decision we’ve disliked, but at the end of the day, it’s one game. The Leafs found their skating legs, and the Stars looked ready for a weekend away from the office. If you want to point to the Stars’ lack of speed as a crippling vulnerability that will be exposed in the playoffs, be my guest. They need another scoring winger in the top six; that much seems clear, and I’d guess that’s at the top of the Deadline Shopping List for Jim Nill. But tonight doesn’t validate our concerns any more than Tuesday night invalidates them. This team had its chances, but they missed the net quite a bit tonight, while the Leafs capitalized most every chance they got. Hey, at least Ben Bishop came up big a couple of times to keep this thing from getting even uglier, right? This is Positivity.
Radulov’s hustle to strip Jake Gardiner and set up Tyler Seguin was an example of what could have happened at least two or three other times tonight. If the Stars got two of those breaks and forced overtime at 3-3, we’d credit them for keeping up in a track meet with a skilled, young team. They did not get those breaks, and perhaps they didn’t earn them. Dallas looked a bit out-coached and out-hustled tonight, so there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Spezza-Janmark-Shore line was as ineffective as they’ve been all year, and while Devin Shore seemed to be particularly hapless with the puck, Jason Spezza was the one giving quotes to the press, and his -3 is probably not an inaccurate indication of his responsibility for that line’s faults tonight. Sometimes you just get beaten.
So, the Stars have a nice, long weekend to think about this stinker. That’s not fun for anyone, but they are sitting in the first wild card spot with 32 games to go, and that is a measure of success all its own, I suppose. It’s going to be a sprint to the finish line this season, and Dallas can’t afford to turn things like this into trends, so perhaps it’s a good thing the All Star break is coming now. Move on and forget it, if you can.
For my money, though, the Stars still have a lot of questions to answer, starting with their coaching staff. At some point, you’d hope the suited men behind the bench would be able to admit that Maybe It Is Not Devin Shore’s Year, and stop giving him 17 minutes a night as a reward for falling out of bed when you need Actual Goals. The Stars were trailing for over 40 minutes of this one, and Excellent Shutdown Defenseman Greg Pateryn got 21 minutes of ice time despite his proven inability to create offense of any kind. These are choices that seem to run counter to a coach’s stated intentions of winning the game, and while there is much we do not know, the minutes speak for themselves, to an extent.
This coaching staff has an Ideal Construction of this lineup, and Julius Honka and Gemel Smith do not appear to fit into the roles they are looking for. Honestly, I can be okay with that. Any first-year coach should have the leeway to order a lineup and employ their tactics, and Hitch has had every bit of that freedom, up to and including handing the keys to the defense to Literally Jamie Oleksiak despite a suspended defensive zone driver’s license.
The Stars have been much better in their last 30 games in terms of their record, but this team has, through 50 games, been unable to separate themselves from the pack. At some point, one would hope the coaches could adapt The Plan to Reality, but every indication so far has been that this team is going to be run one specific way until doomsday, and that means Dillon Heatherington will be back in the lineup against Los Angeles, unless I’m very much mistaken. It means Martin Hanzal will continue to be implicitly trusted regardless of results, and it means Marc Methot could displace Esa Lindell next to John Klingberg the minute the pair has one or two rough games. It means Gemel Smith can produce all he wants in limited minutes and still get sat for five games at a time because Devin Shore and Brett Ritchie fill a role the coaches drew up a long time ago. Call it confidence, call it intransigence, or just call it Coaching in the NHL, but it’s hard to see anything drastically changing in the season’s final couple of months. You know the plan by now, and while there may be a new face or two arriving at the end of April, I don’t see any surprises coming down the chute any time soon.
And really, like we talked about Tuesday night, that’s okay. I mean, I don’t agree with a lot of the decisions this season, but the coaches have the privileges as well as the concomitant risks of building the lineup as they desire, so sometimes you just have to let go and let Greg, you know? The Stars have done a lot of things really well as a result of these coaches, so we can either hold onto our frustration at the things that don’t seem to be working, or we can offer a wry smile and hope that John Klingberg and Alex Radulov can lasso the rest of the roster and drag them into the playoffs, where we are assured that Anything Can Happen. And without a shred of schadenfreude, I can tell you that I’m looking forward to see how that works out. Critique Hitchcock all you want, but there’s no denying that his system changes the game, and often in his team’s favor. Optimization is a nice thing to dream about, but the coaches are more interested in prioritization, and right now, Controlling the Game is atop the list. They value a lot of players who seem to be able to do that (control the game, I mean), and while it can seem borderline asinine to stick with that low-event plan down three goals, that’s the coaches’ prerogative. And apparently, being Barely in the Playoffs means they’ve earned the right to ride this one out.
Some players have underperformed (and quite a lot of them Thursday), and that makes a difference, too. Focusing on coaching decisions and ignoring some players that have failed to step up at times is unfair, so maybe you’d prefer to look askance at a particular couple of guys who made mistakes recently, or whose results this season don’t seem to bode well. I don’t know how much catharsis is to be found in that mindset, but fandom brings with it the right to envision a better future for one’s team, or to wallow in dread of the next game on the schedule. But there is a lot of hope to found if you look for it, relatively speaking, so this weekend is probably better suited for hope than cynicism. Every weekend, for that matter. (Well, unless you play in the Central Division.)
You’re never as bad as you think you are at your worst, and you’re never as good as you think you are at your best, right? The Stars are not three goals a night worse than Toronto, but after the viscerally enjoyable game against Florida, this one tasted as sour as a game can taste. The context makes this one feel like a letdown more than a random January loss to an Eastern Conference team should, so it seems prudent to just assume that James Reimer paid off a sorcerer or something on Wednesday to get his old team some extra magical bounces against the Stars on Thursday. It’s a far-fetched explanation, but sometimes the fantastical can help you move on; and moving on seems to be the most important thing the Stars can do right now.
Enjoy the weekend. It’ll be the last deep breath the Stars get to take until April. Hockey really is fun, even though it’s not, sometimes.