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Afterwords: Confidence Is King against Kings

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For once, the Stars showed that they can outscore their problems without the top line doing it all

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Dallas Stars
“The prophecy came true! We did score depth goals after the autumn equinox!”
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

4-4-0 is a slow start, but a manageable one. A 3-5-0 line and a four-game losing streak would have been trouble.

***

Some games have obvious narratives, clear heroes. This was not that game, except in a corporate sense. The players primarily responsible for Dallas’s victory over Los Angeles (or “St. Louis” according to Jean Hebert) were, in no particular order: Ben Bishop, Blake Comeau, Jason Dickinson, Justin Dowling, Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Tyler Pitlick, Tyler Seguin, and Devin Shore.

Still, I came away from this game wanting, more than anything, to talk about Justin Dowling, so I’ll start there. Check out Dowling’s HockeyDB page if you haven’t done so yet, then watch this video of Stu Bickel just flagrantly throwing punches at the back of Dowling’s head because That’s What You Do When You’re Stu Bickel. He’s worked hard to make a career in hockey, and he’s gotten pretty danged good at it. Dowling is an undrafted player who got a cup of coffee in 2016-17 on account of being 1) a solid call-up option, and 2) ambulatory during a season where any sort of health was a treasure. During that first call-up two NHL coaches ago, I remember thinking Dowling was fine, but not the most impactful player for Dallas (though the situation was admittedly a tough one).

This time, however, Justin Dowling flashed his skillset, and it stuck out. He can skate, he can shoot (hard), and he has really quality vision. The assist to Jason Spezza was a simple one, arising from a ripped shot into Jon Quick’s pads off the rush, but it showed Dowling’s confidence. Devin Shore made a nice play on a 2-on-1 break later in the game to feed the late guy (Heiskanen), but my feeling then (and now) was that Shore should have shot the puck he got from Janmark with Quick moving laterally. Dowling, for his part, takes a shot he knows probably won’t go in, but he’s confident in pulling the trigger for different reaons. I think Dallas really did need a boost of assurance throughout the lineup, and Justin Dowling was one of the primary confidence men Tuesday night. It was almost like he came in and reminded everyone on the roster that, “Hey guys, there are plenty of us dudes ready to step up and take the shots you’ve all been getting, so I’m just gonna kind of drive play here and make things happen there and if you’re not too busy chip-and-chasing, maybe join in, eh?”

Dowling even scored (to my eyes) what would’ve been his first NHL goal on the late second-period 4-on-3, but while time is relative, it offers no family discounts. Still, it’s great to see guys like Dowling getting rewarded after earning their chances. Denis Gury Gurianov (or maybe even Joel L’Esperance?) will get a shot in Dallas eventually, but Justin Dowling deserves every bit of the shot he’s getting right now, and the Stars benefited from his presence on Tuesday.

And hey, these days, there’s no better shot to get than the one that comes from playing with Jason Spezza, eh? Holy smokes, is Spezza ever breathing fire right now, putting up seven in eight so far this year. That rebound shot he dunked probably goes off the post last year, right? But hey, skill doesn’t evaporate overnight, and Spezza is carrying a line right now. That’s as big as anything for Dallas these days. (Aside: If you ever doubted Jason Spezza, I will ask you to adhere to the honor system and please fax me a five-dollar gift card to McDonald’s for one o’ those McGriddle sammies. Honor system, people. I shouldn’t have to enforce everything around here.)

However you define “depth scoring,” one thing is clear: all the goals were happening with the big guys off the ice for Dallas, for once:

hockeyviz.com

Or, almost all of the big guys, since John Klingberg is this team’s goal-scoring leader and all. But even Klingberg’s goal, which tipped off Jeff Carter’s stick to get by Quick, didn’t happen without some really great work by Devin Shore along the boards to protect the puck and then feed Klingberg. Shore may not be an ideal top-six forward, but he’s providing loads of value by making smart plays and eating some tough minutes in the lower lines. Nothing wrong with that at all. Now, if someone could just make sure Shore uninstalls whatever defer.exe virus Blake Comeau uploaded to his stick, that would be great.

We kid, of course, as Blake Comeau had a pretty good night. We’ve been saying that he’ll need to capitalize on his chances before too long, and what do you know? Comeau goes out and leads the team with four shots on goal and puts up his first positive game of the year (+1). He almost had a second goal, in fact. This is the Blake Comeau that can exist when he’s using all of his veteran savvy along with a high-grade shot tool. Maybe we should all check our antivirus software for updates more regularly, though, as Comeau’s appeared to restart when he whiffed on the empty cage (and by a couple of feet) from center ice. That was a weird miss for an NHLer that can score, but of course it’s easier said than done, and Comeau scored the more important goal earlier in the game.

Jason Dickinson fed Comeau on both of his grade-A chances, as you surely know, and it’s been said all over the place that Dickinson had his best game of the year. I noted just the other day on that Dickinson looked to be coming along, and whaddya know? [Note: I would be the world’s worst NHL scout.] [Note 2: but I still would have told them to draft Barzal]

As for the rest of this game, I’m not entirely sure that Jim Montgomery hasn’t been reading every single comment on every single article and making note of every single line combination y’all have been suggesting, because he sure seemed to try them all tonight. The 7F/11D thing was borne out of necessity (and a low estimation of what Gemel Smith’s game offers, for reasons I will never understand under any coach), and I doubt it’ll make a return any time soon. My suspicion is that Montgomery wanted to see what all three of the third-pairing defenders looked like in the same game for a more consistent evaluation, and if so, Connor Carrick may have lost that contest after the second Kings goal.

Carrick appeared to get focused on man coverage during a line change—a no-no unless that man has the puck or something dangerous, and a big no-no when you’re a Dallas defenseman, considering the Stars teach their blueliners to stay between the dots in that situation—which opened up the middle of the ice, as you, intelligent reader, will surely notice here:

Carrick has been less noticeable lately in what time he’s gotten, and while Julius Honka also had a couple of forgettable decisions (albeit one partly resulting from a Comeau buddy pass), he seems the safe bet to stick as the sixth defenseman in the next game.

This goal was the converse of what Razor and Josh Bogorad talked about on the broadcast with Honka’s turnover staying out of the net. Razor emphasized how, because Honka’s turnover didn’t go in, it was just a footnote and didn’t need to become a big talking point. Well, Carrick’s error did go in, and he basically sat the rest of the way. It’s not fair, but you don’t have a lot of rope when you’re playing at the lower end of the lineup; use it to hang yourself, and you’ll run out completely.

Yeah, I mean, that’s not “good,” strictly speaking. If Stephen Johns comes back into the lineup and stays healthy, I really don’t see how the Stars will go down the stretch with two of Polák, Carrick, and Honka potentially scratched the next 80 games, but then again, maybe all three are known enough quantities to where you don’t mind doing that? Carrying eight defensemen isn’t quite as onerous a prospect when none of the three players seeing the bench for long stretches is, er, much of a prospect anymore. Maybe the Stars are secret geniuses! (Note: they are not secret geniuses)

I’ll just say this: Roman Polák gives you a similar game from night to night. Coaches like that, even if Polák’s aggregate contributions are eminently repleaceable. What’s good enough for Mike Babcock is probably going to be good enough for most coaches, come down to it.

Maybe Montgomery will just start asking Tyler Seguin what defensemen he wants to play with, eh? That worked for Pitlick, who notched his first of the season (and first power play goal of his NHL career). What is this brave new world where coaches try different things and sometimes, the different things work instead of immediately spooking the coaches and causing them to revert and entrench their team even harder in their original plans?

Finally, Ben Bishop had a great game. I’ll never fault a goalie for giving up a breakaway goal, especially to players like Anze Kopitar or anyone named Tyler, and Ben Bishop’s outright theft upon Nate Thompson’s morale gave the Stars something they really needed: confidence. It’s always about confidence, isn’t it?

John Klingberg is playing with tons of confidence these days because Esa Lindell is both defensively sturdy and also running set plays off faceoffs and almost getting breakaways now. Tyler Pitlick is confident now because his body and psyche aren’t getting beaten down in Edmonton every night anymore—in fact, his personage is desired next to Tyler Seguin, whom Edmonton also passed on drafting, if you haven’t heard. Miro Heiskanen is playing like a Real Player with The Stuff, and Jamie Benn looked good on a night when he didn’t have to be otherworldly.

This was the Stars without Stephen Johns or Alex Radulov, and, well, it wasn’t clean. This game probably doesn’t get you two points against Winnipeg, but the Stars were playing a team much, much worse than the Jets, and they got their two points at home. Maybe the Stars were playing a bit too loose because they were overconfident at the wrong times, but I’d still rather have too much confidence than not enough when playing any sport except competitive skydiving.

The Stars are better than they showed in the previous three games, and we saw that, Tuesday. They will get another chance to tell Anaheim the same thing this week, and frankly, the Stars had better be heading to Detroit with ten points when all is said and done. I’m confident that they can do it, but I’m not a prophet, so we’ll all still watch the game just to make sure.