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Afterwords: 7-4 to the Leafs? Oh, Right, I Remember This

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The Big Boys Say Their Lines, but Stars’ Supporting Cast Still Waiting in the Wings

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Fun fact: this song’s original title was “Stars Playing Leafs.”

****

It’s safe to say that the Maple Leafs are the Stars, or at least some sort of weird, alternate timeline version of them. Perhaps they are the 2014-15 Stars, still looking for their first playoff series victory in a long while after an ahead-of-schedule appearance in the previous season’s playoffs.

The tie-ins are numerous, including the fact that those 14-15 Stars had just been bounced by Anaheim’s surprise playoff goalie, one Frederik Andersen, in the playoffs the year prior.

The comparison fits, to a degree. The Leafs brought in another center to supplement their previous year’s young center who was acquired through the draft lottery, just as the Stars got their own supplemental center in Jason Spezza to back up Tyler Seguin, (whom the Leafs, uh, would have had if not for an idiotic trade). The Stars won their own lottery of sorts, if you count “Peter Chiarelli taking your call” as a lottery, which most teams now do.

The Leafs also show great promise in the offense department in front of a goalie with some stalwart history but some more recent questions. And the Leafs defense, while not at all dreadful, also lacks a definitive beacon of elite talent. The Stars got John Klingberg later that fall, and the Leafs might find the solution already in-house as well, but their back end certainly has some questions.

The respective front ends, though? Lethal. Absolutely lethal. John Tavares and Auston Matthews each scored two goals, while the Stars’ big four each potted his own puck. The Leafs were 2-for-3 on the power play (with a third goal coming shortly after the unsuccessful one), and the Stars scored on their lone chance.

The Leafs, like the 2014-15 Stars, can score goals almost at will. Actually, no, that’s wrong. They can score at will. That’s the only thing that would explain the goals off Esa Lindell’s skate, Blake Comeau’s stick, or Mattias Janmark’s Mattias Janmark. The Leafs aren’t the least bit afraid to crank open the fire hydrant and have a soaking wet street fight in October, and when you’ve got water pressure like they do, why not? This is a horrible metaphor, but it is about as functional as each team’s shutdown game was in this one.

The Stars, for as bad as a 7-4 loss looks, showed a couple great things in this one. For one, their big guys showed that they can still hang with the best of them. Razor called it a title fight, with each side throwing and taking big punches, and that’s about right. Look at how bloodied the top line got tonight while also doing all the scoring:

Auston Matthews is some kind of white-hot right now, and while his power play goal was honestly just a lucky bounce after great puck movement, he was setting the tone of this game much of the time he was on the ice (or lying on it, as he was after taking a Blake Comeau hit on the power play).

John Tavares, of course, is a giant, $77 million luxury, but the Leafs and luxury go hand-in-hand. This is a team that has all the money, all the coverage, all the drama, and all the attendant folderol. Losing high-scoring games to them is somehow way, way worse than getting laughably shut down by James Reimer three years ago. I hate that I can still recall that feeling.

The difference in this one, of course, was that the Leafs were better. They earned a few more chances, and they got a few more bounces. When you’re beating out Marc Methot and Esa Lindell to negate icings, you’re working hard. When you beat out Marc Methot and then a flailing Blake Comeau scores into his own net with a backbreaking goal after Dallas has clawed back to 5-4, you just kind of revel in how the universe has finally gone from revolving around the Leafs to occasionally smiling on them, too. Before another crushing first-round defeat, I mean.

The penalties were three to one, and that was about right. Miro Heiskanen’s high stick was marginal, but it was there. Patrick Marleau’s hold on Heiskanen was marginal, but it was enough to give the officials reason to finally give the Stars a chance at the bonus round after the Leafs had taken three deadly cracks at it.

Jamie Benn’s penalty was a bit foolhardy, borne out of frustration. I don’t see much there on paper, but when a big guy hits a player high on a drive-by, refs will happily life a hand. It looked like something a big old Bugs Meany of a player would do to a smaller guy, and that was plenty.

Roope Hintz’s penalty was the one I had an issue with, in principle. Hintz kept his hands on his stick, only slightly nudging the puck with the edge of his glove that was, again, still on the stick. It feels like we’ve officially gone down the rabbit hole of “Clear-cut standards for penalties are good, even if it means penalizing players for rubbing their head the wrong way like it’s the 27th round of the ‘Simon Says’ State Championships.”

But let’s not gripe about the NHL. There is so much to be pleased with in this game, at least in a vacuum, and let’s just run it down right quick, in a little segment I like to call, this one time,

HERE ARE SOME GOOD THINGS:

  • Jim Montgomery pulling the goalie with four minutes left down two goals. This is, by all measurable standards, a very wise approach to trying to get points out of a hockey game. You don’t get points for not allowing empty-net goals until one minute left in the game, and the Stars got a couple great looks with Bishop off the ice. Besides, it was probably cathartic for Bishop to see the puck go in when everyone else could see that he legitimately couldn’t have done anything about it, although I guess that was much like the majority of the game prior to that point.
  • Many athletes find careers in commentary after their playing days are done. I have to hand it to Tyler Seguin, though, as he was already coming up with the perfect game wrap after the Maple Leafs punched back to reclaim a lead late in the first period.
Tyler Seguin, doing my job for me

Thanks, Tyler.

  • Jim Montgomery mixing lines and defense pairs a bit in the third period to, as Razor suggested, keep Mike Babcock from getting in too easy of a checking rhythm. It wasn’t a sustained line shuffling, as we saw so often with Lindy Ruff, but more of bit of gamesmanship. I am here for outfoxing other coaches, or at least attempting to. It sure beats icing the puck twenty times a game. (note: And it turned out that Jamie Benn just missed a few shifts with a broken skate lace, but still, Montgomery embraced the opportunity and ended up mixing a few lines, so I dunno, partial credit for creativity or something.)
  • Tyler Pitlick dragging the puck through his legs to roast Morgan Reilly and create a glorious scoring chance. Pitlick was one of the few great forwards in the bottom nine tonight, and while his line (Faksa’s line, that is) did hold Auston Matthews’s line scoreless when they were matched up, it was unfortunate that Pitlick couldn’t get just one bounce to go his way, like Radulov and Matthews and literally Ron Hainsey did. I wonder if we see Pitlick get a shot on Spezza’s right wing at some point soon here.
  • Marc Methot shutting down a 3-on-1. That was some really amazing defense by a veteran there. Credit where it’s due: that was heroic.
  • Jason Spezza and Miro Heiskanen combining for a great goal. Jason Spezza had an ugly pass to the wrong guys in the first period that became a great scoring chance, but he also had a good game for much of the night. You could see him doing everything he could to create chances at 5v5 with his linemates, but it was with Heiskanen that Spezza patiently got the puck in low, waited perfectly, and then sizzled a nice cross to the rookie’s tape. I don’t actually have the game film at hand right now, but Heiskanen put the puck on net as Andersen did his best sprawled-Lehtonen-versus-Vegas-last-year impression, so obviously that puck must have gone in. Great to see the rookie get his first goal, I am assuming without watching what happened after Heiskanen shot the puck, I assume, past Andersen and his flailing glove.
  • Devin Shore also had a couple nice moments in this one, along with Connor Carrick. Those two players are key parts of Dallas’s depth—yes, depth—and while Carrick ate two (somewhat indirect) minuses tonight, Shore (on the Faksa line) did quite well against a powerhouse team. Good to see Shore finding a fit after some curious usage last year. And hey, he’s basically driving the entire Dallas Stars Secondary Goal-Scoring Bus right now, so good for Devin. He is good at driving, I hear.
  • With 17 seconds left in the second period, Jim Montgomery sent this group out to take a post-icing draw in the Leafs defensive zone: Benn, Seguin, Spezza, Heiskanen, Klingberg. You really have to appreciate Montgomery doing everything he can to take advantage of little moments in this game, whether through set faceoff plays or particularly line matching. All coaches do some of those things, but we’re really getting a feel for what Montgomery wants to do, and it’s a lot of fun. I’d rather lose 7-4 by keeping the game wide open than lose 4-1 playing tight.
  • The Best Players have been the Best Players. That is a huge part of the grand equation, if not the only part. Tyler Seguin’s huge 5-on-5(!) goal after eviscerating Andersen (and after receiving a Lindell chip off the boards, er, I mean Primary Assist) was a warning shot from Dallas: Yeah, we’re maybe still cursed by some Toronto spirit or something, but we know how to curse back. (See above GIF)
  • The Stars are averaging four goals per game.

***

Ben Bishop was, in my mind, quite good tonight, thought a bit messy on a couple wrap-around chances, as really tall goalies challenging a shooter are going to be. His great save on Kasperi Kapanen before the 2-1 goal right after it was huge, or at least it would have been. Honestly, if Heiskanen beats Andersen on his own great chance (yeah, I watched it), I think you say Andersen was lucky to win this one, as his rebound control was pretty bad tonight.

The Stars’ structure tonight wasn’t quite in shambles, despite the frenetic pace and up-and-down play at times. That is the Stars’ structure, and you saw their ability to counterpunch shining brightly a few times. What was in bad shape, though, was the Stars’ ability to keep the Leafs from imposing their own will in the Stars’ zone. The puck was getting to the net with bodies, and that just can’t keep happening. You’re going to get the bounces when you keep manufacturing the right situations.

John Klingberg was a step too slow in covering John Tavares at the net on the penalty kill, and man, I think the Stars really miss Stephen Johns right now on the PK. Klingberg can defend really well by tying up sticks and such, but he was being asked to do a lot this game, and he had some hiccups.

Too often, Dallas was forced into a passive box in the slot, leading to goals like Hainsey’s point shot and Matthews’s one-timer. Both showed a sag in structure and checking, and that comes from being wrenched out of sorts by a dominant offensive team. Toronto is really, really good with the puck. They are also vulnerable, like Dallas, without it, but they made more of their chances, and made more chances in general.

Valeri Nichushkin was in this game, and he did have a great scoring chance from Radulov’s stick (Nichushkin spent a couple of shifts with the top line) that he sent off Andersen’s pad and just wide. But overall, he looked like a player that wasn’t up to game speed. He wasn’t the only player to have a puck inexplicably slip off his stick—I genuinely think the ice was pooling at points, given how many wipeouts we saw tonight—but he was inconsistent, and coaches don’t love that. None of us does, really. Still, it was great to see Val back in action for the first time in far, far too long. I’ll admit to getting a bit warmhearted on his first shift if you promise not to make fun of me.

Roman Polák and Blake Comeau had some ugly moments in this game. Polák’s attempt to deke Tyler Ennis failed miserably, and Ben Bishop came up big with the subsequent save on the ensuing breakaway, though Polák did, at least catch up to the trailing Matthews to prevent the rebound from being put home. Still, I was surprised that even under Montgomery, someone like Polák has license to attempt a move like that without any support. Can you imagine what folks would say if Julius Honka had done that? I’m not advocating for Honka to be playing over Polák just because of that play, but it does seem odd, all the same. Polák only played about ten minutes in this one, however, so it’s not like Montgomery is leaning on him or anything.

Comeau, for his part, had some misfires as well (which we’ll get to), but I think his shot that went high on the Stars’ 3-on-2 was the most frustrating thing. He’ll need to start making something of those opportunities if he 1) wants to stick on the Spezza line, and 2) wants to make the three-year contract Dallas gave him look like something other than a Hanzal-lite deal.

***

I definitely felt the most intense rage and joy of the year during this game. That stupid, trickling Tavares goal on the weak wrap-around was about as break something, no anything right now what is this can I crush this entire desk with my hands I am very angry nope I cannot still angry as I’ve gotten in a fair bit. And never was I more thrilled to have the Stars losing 5-4 than I was when John Klingberg whipped a shot past Andersen after some great work by Radulov. For a bit there, it really felt like Dallas was saying to Toronto, “You’ve got demons, and we know it.” In that moment, I could see it all: one more power play awarded after a crazy shift, and one more Sexiest Goal Alive award from whatever magazine does that stuff for power play goals (don’t subscribe to that magazine, probably). And an insane, rocket-fueled overtime that would last a minute, tops. Whatever the result, I saw a game in which Dallas stole a point from an Eastern Conference team after being down 5-2. These, these could be this year’s Dallas Stars.

But then Marc Methot lost the race to Zach Hyman or whoever to negate an icing call after Klingberg had lost the puck at the other end. And just when the Stars looked like they were maybe okay even then, well...

Blake Comeau did not have a very good game tonight, as we said. He actually had fallen down in the slot (untouched, as best I could see) just prior to this, and he is here lunging from one knee to try to poke Tavares’s wrap attempt back behind the red line. And, I mean, he did succeed, technically.

Oh, right, and then the Leafs just threw a post route over Heiskanen’s head that went in for the empty-netter. Ah, yes, why wouldn’t that happen, I ask? The answer returns, all too clear: because you dared to dream. I look forward to every other coach using that stupid goal as an excuse to revert to pulling the goalie after all useful comeback time has elapsed. Great work, everyone.

So, yeah. Just in case you thought, after a 2-0 start to the season, that it was going to be easy, the Dallas Stars showed up. And they are here to remind you, in a lot of good and bad ways, that they are still most definitely The Dallas Stars, and that 2014-15 wasn’t that long ago all.