John Gibson may or may not have been physically injured in the second period, but he most certainly was broken in a deeper, more psychological fashion.
If you’re going up against one of the best goaltenders of the past two seasons, you’re going to feel unlucky. That’s about where the Stars were after 30 minutes, when a 3-0 lead had accumulated in spite of so much good work, so many chances.
And that’s not hyperbole. Jamie Benn had a golden chance from the slot, Brett Ritchie had hit a post, Jason Spezza might have tipped a Radulov feed off the post, Valeri Nichushkin couldn’t pot Spezza’s golden layup, Mattias Janmark got robbed on the backhand, and phew, I’m probably still forgetting a few of the great chances up to that point.
With all the injuries on their team—and there are a ton—the Ducks looked more or less like the Rickard Rakell and John Gibson show, with occasional appearances by bit performers; that Sam Steel feed to Kiefer Sherwood on the power play was not half-bad at all.
I, for one, found myself thinking of the Stars back in the Prime Kari Lehtonen Years of 2011-2012, when it was rare to have more than one or two other players really pushing play the other direction for any consistent stretch. Is this what other teams felt like, playing that team? That must have been really annoying, or eventually, fun.
John Gibson might already be better than Kari ever was. So, yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty significant achievement to come back from a 3-0 hole to pot four goals in half a period when facing a brick wall disguised as an American goalie. It’s even more significant when said brick wall is methodically pounded into dust by 30 (thirty) shots over the course of a single period. Yes, this was an historic period for the Dallas Stars, but this was one of those fun times when history was made in the good sort of way. Oh, and also Sherwood’s first career goal. Because, you know, the Stars do that, still.
There are momentum shifts in hockey, and there are also score effects. This was something absolutely apart from those categories. The run of play doesn’t generally command the game, but it does gently usher it towards one side or the other. On Saturday, however, the Stars’ kicked in the door to The Run of Play’s office and re-wrote the entire rule book overnight:
(the graph goes to QUADRUPLE AVERAGE)— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) October 14, 2018
I should note here that, if you are so masochistic as to go back and watch the second period via the Ducks broadcast on Center Ice or something, you’ll hear Brian Hayward give a classically homeriffic narrative about how the referees were willfully handing the game to the Stars.
It’s worth noting that the Stars did get some calls. Jamie Benn probably should have gotten at least a matching roughing minor for a cross check in the crease just prior to John Gibson’s losing his gourd for his own penalty, Jakob Silfvergberg’s hook on Tyler Pitlick was arguable, and Blake Comeau’s stick did seem to hit a bent-over Max Comtois in the head just prior to Jamie Benn’s game-tying goal. But whining about officiating is a bad look for the worst of us, let alone professional broadcasters. And hey, these things do tend to go both ways over the course of a season—weren’t we all just doing our own complaining about a missed high stick on Tyler Seguin the other night?
Anyway, the relatively small margin of victory (compared to the margin of shots on goal) certainly reminds us that this game was far from in-hand even before it got out of hand. But the Stars, for their part, were well aware of this thin margin, and Jim Montgomery (I suspect) decided to change their approach in the third period, and to great effect. No longer was the higher forward stretching the neutral zone to create space for the transition; instead, the Stars were sitting back in something like a trap, daring the Ducks’ forlorn personnel and suddenly Ryan Miller to answer their kiloton bomb of a period. And, despite some rung iron by Rakell late in the second, Anaheim had little to offer.
Even the initial three goals in this game were pretty predictable stuff. The Ducks cycled low to high with traffic and sent the puck north, and kablammo: crossed wires between Devin Shore and Julius Honka left the net unguarded once, and a rather emblematic Jason Spezza Defensive Zone Play let the Quintessentially Canadian-named Kiefer Sherwood get to the net for his first career goal. It was boring, deliberate Ducks hockey from Randy Carlyle’s depleted-yet-undefeated (in regulation) bunch, and the slick power play goal after another Radulov stick foul was as opportunistic as the Ducks have been all season.
And when you have great goaltending, you can be opportunistic. Heck, when you play in the Pacific, you can pretty much bank on playoff hockey so long as you don’t step on fifty rakes on your way to the mailbox. The Ducks might have won them a few games this year, but the Stars stepped on a couple land mines, and that put them in a spot we saw far too often last season: trailing by a little, but disappointing us a lot. Dallas had done so many good things, but now they were down 3-0, and looking pretty rattled and reckless. What would happen next? A fight to wake up the bench? A goalie change to shown mercy to the new backup?
What happened next was, quite frankly, a beatdown. The Stars just kept playing Jim Montgomery Stars Hockey, proving to the Ducks that you can indeed die from a thousand paper cuts if your Band-Aid dispenser wears out after 40 minutes. Dallas poured it on, took off, saddled up, and buckled down. Alex Radulov in particular willed the puck in the opposite direction, John Klingberg did what does against the Ducks, and Tyler Seguin did everything necessary to score goals except for bribe the universe, apparently.
It was a period of legend, and a comeback that means the world to the Stars. As everyone who’s watched a playoff series knows, there is a huge difference between 2-2 and 3-1. For a team with a new identity playing their fourth home game of the season, Saturday night was a weird sort of must-win. The 2015-16 Stars, for all their prowess and talent, needed a red-hot start to the season behind the best Antti Niemi the team ever saw in order to eventually hit 50 wins and earn the number one seed in the playoffs. Those Stars went 16-4 in their first 20 games, and still only just barely hung onto the top seed in the West.
These Stars don’t quite have their sights set that high (yet), but in the Central Division, you need to cash in when you get your chances. Starting out 3-1 is, as far as it goes, some great bird-in-the-hand stuff.
If you’re worried about secondary scoring, I’m not sure what to tell you after this game. Perhaps that Alex Radulov is going to singlehandedly create an effective second line for Dallas with Jason Spezza and Nichushkin? That Connor Carrick is already sort of what Julius Honka was intended to be for the past couple of years? Maybe both of those. But check back around Thanksgiving, eh?
A few quick things stood out to me in this game, so I’ll just list them off here and let you derive meaning from them:
- After Luke Schenn got all upons with Nichushkin after a play, the big Russian took a second to respond. After the players broke up, you saw Radulov skate right up to Nichushkin and say something. Who knows what it was, but if you watched the brilliant Supernova video from the Stars this week, you can see how Radulov is taking to heart his ability to help younger players find their way, just as Radulov found his. These are little things in isolation, but one wonders if they don’t add up to a more comfortable and more productive Val Nichushkin as the season wears on. Certainly one is allowed to hope so. More certainly, after this game.
- For my money, Blake Comeau is still getting acclimated to the system, and it seems noticeable. With the game still at a one-goal margin, the Stars’ top line went on a rare odd-man rush in the third period, only to have Blake Comeau cross the blue line too early, killing the play with an offside. As Razor put it, “That should never happen.” One applauds Comeau’s desire to bust to the net there alongside Seguin and Benn, but to my admittedly flawed eyes, it seems like Montgomery is trying to get Comeau going by sticking him up there, just as he was hoping Radulov would get Nichushkin online. One for two ain’t bad so far, I suppose, but if Comeau’s physical game continues to be his primary asset, it’s only going to perpetuate the Stars’ rather salary-clogged bottom six. Comeau showed some good flashes in the preseason, so we’ll see if he gets going here soon. Certainly he’s capable of it.
- Julius Honka’s first game of the year, and here we are, not talking about him until 1,500 words in. That says...something. Honka did a lot of things exceedingly well, and made a couple (two or three, max) of meaningful errors. Still, I loved the choice to play him against a slower Anaheim, as it allowed Honka (and all the Stars) to cover up for each other without twenty top lines read to victimize them with every mistake, like Toronto brought.
And, come to that, Honka didn’t need all that much help tonight. His patience created a couple of good transitions, and his vision and skating led to some very, very neat breakouts and forecheck-neutralizing passes. Good game for Honka, though Montgomery seemed noncommittal after the game in going too far with praise. Connor Carrick at least reminds us that, hey, these Stars can transition with all three defense pairs, finally. (Until we get the inevitable Polák/Methot pairing in game 30, of course.) A few more games like this, though, and Honka has at least boosted his trade value. At this point, I don’t know what to feel, but good games are good games, and they will be more helpful to the Stars if those good games come from an asset they can and are willing to move for a meaningful return.
- Anton Khudobin had a weird night for a goalie, and he stopped the shots he had to stop. I’m not sure I loved his effort on the first goal, but other than that, a bit of sloppiness was my only complaint. Too early to judge, especially after one game against the shot-poor (if standings-rich) Ducks, but hey, Khudobin didn’t lose the game. That’s any backup’s first job, and Khudobin did it, and a fair bit more. That’s what you need, and that’s what Montgomery appears to have been betting on by starting him. It’s nice when moves work out.
- Jason Dickinson looks a bit more ferocious this season. Give it time, but my hockey gut (read: regular ol’ flabgut) says he becomes a real bona fide player by January latest.
- Miro Heiskanen had a quiet night by his standards, and yet he also had some really key plays to keep Dallas from having to defend for too many extended periods in their zone. No, he didn’t score like Carrick, but I’m not convinced Carrick isn’t being magically improved just by having his locker nearby. Maybe Carrick’s locker aroma of artisan coffee beans just needed the catalyst of some Finnish icewater to rack up a cold-brewed goal, eh? This website is free.
- Jamie Benn is looking really good this season, and the power play reflects it. Honestly, what a joy it has been to watch the Stars’ power play at work. When Benn is cocky and healthy, he just lurks as a constant threat on that unit, even if he isn’t scoring. Todd Nelson’s Variety Spice is my favorite power play album recorded by the Dallas Stars this decade.
- There are quibbles, on occasion, about what lines are the “second” or “fourth” or whatever. Let’s just agree on one thing: Radek Faksa’s line is going to play the second-most minutes every night, and Miro Heiskanen’s defense pair is going to play the second-most among the blueliners. Any further definitions are sort of academic, to my thinking. You know what their roles are: Spezza’s line is going to get starts in the offensive zone, and Marc Methot’s pairing is going to play in the defensive zone a bit more. This is the final year of a Jason Spezza extension that was always going to be a year longer than we’d be comfortable with. Just enjoy what he can do instead of getting annoyed that he’s not 26 anymore. (And join me in wincing every time a wonderful Spezza setup doesn’t get finished.)
- The Stars will finally be getting matched up by other coaches as they hit the road, although I don’t know that Ottawa is really a team with a ton of offensive weapons that can exploit you. Still, I’d bet some money that the Radulov-Nichushkin-Spezza pairing gets more time on the road trip, just to see if the Stars can’t make themselves a bit less one-note than they’ve been in the past. Now they just need to decide if Blake Comeau can find his groove on Seguin’s wing, or if another shuffle needs to happen.
- Whaddya think: Gemel Smith plays his first game of the season in Ottawa or in New Jersey? Please place your bets. This is not a gambling website, but you may still send me money in hopes that I secretly run a casino. Don’t let anyone tell you I don’t.