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Stars’ Trio Tantalizes Against Ducks

Down by three, head coach Jim Montgomery went to the line blender, and for one night, it seemed to work. One particular trio stood out as an interesting, promising experience, but is there more to the story?

NHL: Preseason-Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars
Valeri Nichushkin picked up his first point of the season, and maybe, just maybe found some fun new linemates.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This started as an article about secondary scoring. Right about the time Connor Carrick’s one-timer bounced out of the back of the net, I decided the play of Jason Spezza, Valeri Nichushkin, and Alexander Radulov demanded at least a little attention. That trio came together for the first time this season with Dallas in a 3-0 hole. Though the scoreline was somewhat against the run of play, three versus a goose egg is still a nasty place to be, especially considering how desperately Dallas has struggled to score outside of their big three. Could this, thought I, be The Moment?

It’s a interesting way to game the system, when you think about it. Unable to generate offense outside of Radulov, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin? Just move someone to a different unit! Duh. Not all the time, sure, but some of the time. Call it, maybe, the kick-in-the-pants line? We can workshop that. Thing is, if you look at the overall result, it seems as if the move worked. Radulov led the team with an 83% Corsi-For, Nichushkin was third (76.9% CF), and Spezza finished fourth (76.3% CF). Those are video game numbers.

In terms of tangible contributions, Carrick scored a tasty little one-timer courtesy of furious Nichushkin forechecking and a high-IQ centering pass. Spezza also picked up an assist on the sequence. Radulov, meanwhile, scored and added a power play assist of his own. Seguin (two assists) and Jamie Benn (one goal, one assist) did not seem negatively impacted by the temporary loss of their linemate (one man’s lost Radulov is another’s found Blake Comeau, as Nanna Lawrence has never said).

So that’s the answer, right? Radulov features on the top line and first power play, but can dance to the second unit whenever the team needs or wants a different look. Problem solved. Well, problem maybe solved. Let’s look deeper.

Both Spezza and Nichushkin’s points came on a single shift, a single shot, and a single goal. That is not a reductive statement, by the way. Not exactly. Nichushkin showed tremendous hustle forcing a pair of good scoring chances of his own, then hounding a loose puck, while Spezza’s deft touch put his linemate in good position to succeed. What I’m saying is that it was a single shift, and Montgomery did not exactly glue the trio together.

Nichushkin played 9:54 in the game against Anaheim and 0:46 on the power play. Jason Spezza fared better with 12:48 in total ice time, of which 4:11 came on the extra man. Let’s stop, for one second, to acknowledge that Spezza is a part of a lethal power play. Dallas came into the night 4-for-8 on the young season, and went 2-for-3 against the Anaheim Ducks. He plays well when put into good situations with skilled players. What he isn’t — yet — is a part of a consistent even-strength unit.

The Spezza line played fast and they played creative, but that statement comes with both good and bad notes. Inside the game’s final 15 minutes, Nichushkin came screaming back into the Dallas defensive zone, made a fantastic play to take the puck, and turned up ice. That’s good. Except he immediately threw that hard-won puck into a cluster of bodies to turn it right back over to the Ducks. That’s bad.

Earlier, much earlier, in the game, Jason Spezza coaxed a “how-did-that-get-through” pass onto Nichushkin’s stick-blade for a prime scoring chance. That’s good. Only Nichushkin couldn’t seem to elevate his attempt (sound familiar?) and forced only a strong save from John Gibson. That’s bad. We’re also not going to mention Anaheim’s second goal. It’s better for everyone involved.

This is not intended to be a bucket of cold water, by the way. For my money, the Radulov-Spezza-Nichushkin line felt like it finished on the plus side of the scoring chance ledger. They showed a dynamism that has been conspicuously absent from Dallas’ secondary units since Ales Hemsky banged up his hip and left town. Tactically, if Montgomery can get that kind of performance out of that trio, it will lift the last change blanket frequently facing Benn and Seguin’s unit on the road. For fans wary of another late-season swoon, you cannot overstate the importance of that kind of depth.

What the line did not show on Saturday night is that it can generate consistent offensive pressure across a full 60 minutes of hockey. The unit made mistakes, but offset those mistakes with hustle. They scored and were scored on, and probably should have scored more minus Gibson’s superfluous performance. All of those things happened against a woefully-depleted Anaheim roster. If the positives can be there each and every night, the Dallas Stars are likely onto something, but it’s going to be incumbent upon the players to maximize their creativity and effort.

In other words, is a single, promising preview enough to get this group the rope they need to really succeed, or is the Radulov-Spezza-Nichushkin experience one mistake away from the going back to the drawing board?