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Afterwords: Depleted Stars Again Depleted, Then Defeated

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Radulov returned, but Devin Shore tapped out to spend some time on the shelf

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NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When you feel like the team pushes hard, but you’re staring at a 2-1 loss at home, some soul-searching may be in order.

***

Through 18 games, the Stars are in a wild card spot. With some stolen points and some missed opportunities, I think it’s fair to say that’s about where this team belongs.

That still holds true, by the way, for this team healthy (if we ever see it). It’s easy to put all the good in a giant pile, gaze at it for a while, and pronounce this team Cup-ready as soon as it Can Put Everything Together. But then you poke the pile a bit, and you notice that it’s a bit more wobbly than it should be. There are weaknesses here, even if they’re a bit indefinable at times.

Tonight, those weaknesses showed up. You’d expect the Stars to look vulnerable with Joel Hanley and Ben Gleason—something like #11 and #12 on the blue line depth chart for this organization—playing Meaningful Minutes for the second game in a row, but they looked less vulnerable than outright ineffective, and maybe that was the more damning effect of the injuries so far. Players will occasionally be tried on when they’re wet behind the ears, but the new guys have acquitted themselves well enough in the still-emergent circumstances of their recall. Losing John Klingberg meant, on Monday, that the Stars just didn’t have a way to lean on Columbus for sustained periods of time, and that meant they had to seize the opportunities they did have if they wanted to scrap for some points. Enter the power play.

Oh, mercy, the power play. Credit to Columbus, who looked more like overcoats on the Stars’ entries with the advantage. Dallas could barely get set up to save their lives, and when they did, it was usually one-and-done, if a shot even got sent towards the net. This was a very tactical penalty kill that knew Dallas didn’t have a John Klingberg on the back end to punish Columbus for their aggression. You miss that, every night.

So, after a first period with some chances but no results (including three power plays), the Stars probably could have wilted after the power play goal allowed; the Stars got pretty well dominated in the second period, but Radulov’s late goal brought the Stars level. The third period was the hockey game, and the Stars probably didn’t deserve to be in that good a position. We’ve said that a bit too much lately for my liking.

Speaking of things I don’t love, Jamie Benn fought another player who Is Not on His Level, which meant he ended up missing out on a power play, by the way; and while Benn probably won the fight, it’s tough to be thrilled about the prospect of losing Benn (for five minutes, or even to injury) in order to Send a Message to some Eastern Conference team in your last meeting of the season. Benn also took a slashing penalty, and his physical play as a whole really ramped up after the Dickinson hit, with Seth Jones as his hot target. Jamie Benn’s ferocity seemed to feed off Radulov’s tenacity in spurts, and for stretches tonight, we saw Angry Jamie Benn, who tends to be pretty good. But if you’re Jim Montgomery, you’re probably picking up the Batphone and calling Ken Hitchcock to ask how you can get Benn not to take the bait from guys like Anderson. Hitch (and every coach before him) will likely have the same answer: that’s something you have to live with if you want Jamie Benn on your team. I don’t suppose that means we have to like it.

Perhaps Benn was most angry about the injury to his Most Lovable Teammate, Devin Shore, who appeared to twist his knee on an awkward fall behind the net. Shore only played a couple minutes before leaving the game, throwing the forward lines into a bit more of a shuffle. Thankfully, these Stars coaches appear to be capable of shuffling players without much difficulty, as Rick Bowness has demonstrated on the blue line for most of this season. Less thankfully, the Stars’ needed some goals from deeper in the lineup tonight, but no one could find them. With Shore being red-hot on a team needing scoring, the loss of Shore felt like the prick of a poison dart. The worst pain might not be felt until the days pile up in the week or more that Shore misses. I suppose Denis Gurianov is on his way back up to Dallas as we speak, though. If watching Gurianov outscore Brett Ritchie is your jam, then you’ll be in for one heck of a time over the next week, friend.

That said, there were still contributions from lower in the pecking order. In a weird bit of reversal, the Stars had power plays that were drawn by Jason Dickinson, Ben Gleason, and Joel Hanley, while Dallas were whistled for infractions by each member of the top line. This game was an odd one through the eyes of the officials, and a downright rotten and wrong icing call with 3:30 to go really highlighted the lackluster effort from the officials. Maybe they were just matching the lackluster effort of the players in this one, though. Regardless, I am comfortable declaring that this game was not handled very well by the Men in Stripes, whether in terms of controlling it or, you know, officiating it. Jason Spezza took a clear high stick that got no response, even as we’ve seen more than a few players get the call just because of their reaction. But somehow neither the infraction nor the reaction got the stubborn arm of the officials to flinch in the Stars’ favor. But, as we already detailed, it’s not as though the Stars were doing anything on the power play. You get four chances, you need to bury one, end of story. The Stars, instead, got one shot on the power play and allowed more than that. Perhaps they’re lucky they only had to trot out that old thing four times.

I didn’t think Julius Honka was a big problem with the power play, but I will say that this was one of his worst games of the year, to my eyes. It’s weird to admit that about a player I once thought could be a top-pairing guy in this league, but at least right now, Honka’s radar is a bit off. He was too casual at some really bad times, and he was trying to make room for things with skill when there wasn’t room or skill enough to make anything happen. He did have a great stretch pass to Val Nichushkin (if memory serves) that nearly led to something, but tonight was a night where even Razor had to restrain himself late, when Honka tried and failed to keep the zone with a too-fancy play, because I think even the Stars’ color commentator knew there was no need to pile on at that point. Honka had some over-try in his game that didn’t work out too well.

Jim Montgomery said these games would be a chance for players like Honka to step up, but right now, Honka has probably stayed level, at best. Maybe this year ends up being a positive step for the still-young defenseman overall, but then again, Honka will be turning 23 next month. He hasn’t had the smooth development path some would have liked, but he also hasn’t seized a ton of chances. Even with some of his nice moments in this game, his overall body of work had too much deliberation or thoughtlessness about it. That’s not a good combination for a small-ish player trying to earn trust, still. Honka needs to reward Dallas for choosing him in the first round if he wants them to keep choosing him in the next round of cuts, whenever or wherever they might come. If Honka wants to earn trust from his coaches and GM, he needs to trust his own game to be good enough in its details without trying to spin gold out of straw.

***

Val Nichushkin would be happy to earn a goal in the Gurianov fashion these days, I suspect. Val had a wonderful chance from Mattias Janmark on the doorstep, but his shot went off the outside of the post (along the ice, because of course it was along the ice), and a later effort in the game of similar quality was likewise rejected. Nichushkin has been looking all right lately, but it’s unfortunately the case that Val is not judged the same way other bottom-six players are judged these days. If Val can’t start to put up points, no amount of quality first-half-of-the-play-before-it-fizzled will get him going. He’s been a positive in the last few matches, but the Stars need to be able to hang their hat on some crooked numbers before too much longer.

Anthony Duclair got a breakaway out of the box after a weak play from Honka at the offensive blue line to lose the puck, and Anton Khudobin stood strong once again. Those chances can’t happen, but we’re all more confident right now if Khudobin is the one attempting to stop them, aren’t we? Of course, he isn’t immortal. The fates were cruel later, when on a 2-on-1 chance shorthanded Dickinson couldn’t get a shot off and lost an edge, which presaged a rough night for Dickinson in terms of his relationship with the physical world. Columbus then went the other way, and Cam Atkinson got a shot through a screened Khudobin. After the Stars slogged through the mire of three ugly power plays, it was a bit of a gut shot to see the Jackets score a power play goal so effortlessly after a prime chance by Dickinson.

Gut punches are still better than head shots, though. Later in the period, Dickinson had another shorthanded rush, and Seth Jones defended it by, erm, breaking his stick across Dickinson’s face. The referees begrudgingly called a penalty—I think Josh was right on the broadcast when he said there wasn’t really going to be a penalty call upon the initial hit, but only after Dickinson lay on the ice for a bit—which Blake Comeau then evened up by expressing his Great Displeasure to Seth Jones at the unrequested “composite bow tie” (Razor really was on fire in this one) bestowed upon his teammate. I don’t have any particular problem with Comeau defending his teammate there, but again, it’s interesting to note when we excuse willful penalties and when we don’t. In a vacuum, we’d prefer Comeau to just headlock Jones and bark in his ear to get the Stars off the PK, but viscerally, you’re probably not mad that he tried to Ramp Up The Intensity Of The Hockey Game, are you? Sometimes sticking up for your team is an investment, and you just have to hope your coach is willing to wait for his interest to accrue.

***

Dallas was hemmed in their own zone far too much in this one, and it cost them some penalties taken as well. Still, it’s not like the Jackets weren’t also having trouble controlling the offensive players while in the defensive zone, eh?

Panarin could play defense for the Browns, at least

I don’t really care whether that gets called or not, but it’s pretty telling that Panarin needed to resort to the old Grabby McGrubers on a teenager. Seems like a good sign to me, I don’t know.

Radek Faksa, who is high on the list of players that need to start chipping in more, opened the third with a nice feed to Tyler Pitlick on the rush, but Bobrovsky saved the puck, then absorbed the diving Pitlick. For a good while after that, the game seemed sitting there for the taking, with neither team really able to step up and grab it. The top guys on both sides tried some toe drags and other moves, but nothing really broke through. You run into a game like that every now and then, but this one was clear as day: a 1-1 game felt almost like a playoff game as things went on, and players learned that you can’t move a standing car by yourself. It takes a few guys pulling on the rope to start the wheels moving, and a lot of individual efforts by both teams sputtered and stopped for the first half. Then...

Anton Khudobin saved the game on Dubois halfway through the third with the best save of the season for Dallas so far, no big deal. Yeah, the best of the season, and I say this knowing full well that Khudobin made the previous save of the season in waning time against Toronto. But a contorted right leg somehow got itself elevated with the rest of Khudobin dead to rights, and his “Kazakhstanian scorpion” of a save, to quote Razor, kept a game tied that had no business being that way.

Khudobin has been unequivocally better than Ben Bishop this year, and his increased usage speaks to Montgomery’s opinion there. It’s refreshing to have a solid backup pushing the starter, but it’s less refreshing when one contemplates that Bishop is younger (marginally) and owed a whole lotta dollars for the next half decade. Small sample size, of course, but it’s something to watch as the season goes on. Who would you start in a game one today, should the Stars be playing *checks standings* uh, Vancouver? That can’t be right. Well, NHL.com has had its problems, so we’ll just assume that should be, like, San Jose or something. Who would you play in the first game of a series vs. the Sharks?

Sadly, one good save only preserves, but does not further a cause beyond itself. A weak centering pass crept underneath Khudobin’s stick, and Seguin’s stick check on Dubois wasn’t enough to keep the puck from getting shoveled past Khudobin for real, this time. From gut punch to cold-cocked, the Stars were now lying on the floor as a 2-1 lead was painted on the ceiling above them, with Sergei Bobrovsky on a ladder touching up the details. That’s a tough place for any team to be, but especially tough for this team, right now. A nice points streak to taste the top half of the division is waning, and the Stars’ possession stats are looking rather unenviable.

Again, you find yourself wondering why Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin seem to look so much better with Alex Radulov. You question whether Tyler Pitlick’s goal-scoring last season was just a fluke of the old system, and who might be such a beneficiary in this one.

Dallas can tread water, for now, because they have worked their way (barely) above the surface. It seems like they’ve done some good work to stay afloat during some adjustment periods so far, and it’s easy to dismiss this game as a special teams loss, and nothing more. But if you’re starting to doubt The Process after a loss (as so many fans are prone to do with any coach, any process), this one offered some confirmation bias fuel for you. Transition was difficult, the Stars didn’t seem to be able to use their home-ice advantage for anything significant, and the Stars weren’t able to adjust to the Blue Jackets’ pushes with any consistency.

Some local folks called this a “crappy game all around,” and that’s about right in terms of viewing experience, result, and The Feels. If you’re inclined to say that this was just one game, that’s a fine way to move on and hope for better in the future. If you think it’s indicative of some bigger issues, you’ll have to wait for Friday at the least before getting fuel for more optimism.