Look, I couldn’t decide. And, as the Stars discovered, sometimes you end up needing two.
Tobias Stephan came to mind as the Stars attempted to nurse a 2-0 lead to the finish line Thursday night. Do you remember that game, eleven years ago? I’m sure I’ve brought it up at some point in the last few years, but this was that game, with slight modifications.
Tobias Stephan was playing his first career NHL game against the Blackhawks as they were surging towards the height of their powers, and he came within three seconds of making that debut a shutout—which would have been something, considering that Mike Smith had just gotten a shutout for Dallas in his NHL debut the year prior. Stephan, however, had what I am confident can be called the game of his life.
The Blackhawks were awarded eight power plays in regulation, and they scored on their final two to completely wreck what would have been a wonderful storyline for Stephan. It was heart-wrenching to lose that game (though the Hawks were certainly the better team), but it felt like an inevitability as the pressure mounted down the stretch, with the Stars taking first one, then another penalty inside the final minute. As Chicago mounted a 6-on-3 attack, hope evaporated for Stephan.
This game started to feel that way late. True, the Leafs were the better team, but the Stars had capitalized a couple of times and gotten lucky a couple of others, and they were in position to steal two points, until penalty trouble made things close again.
But Anton Khudobin’s night ended differently than Stephan’s did back in 2007. For Khudobin, he found that final shot (a dandy off a toe drag from Mitch Marner) with his glove. The Stars did just enough to survive, with Heiskanen blocking a shot as time expired. As much as the Stars were desperately clogging lanes and sprawling to block shots, it was Khudobin who earned himself this win inasmuch as any goalie can win any game. The Stars were bending in gale force winds, but Khudobin leaned up against them and refused to break, even after the Leafs finally got their first goal off a bit of a lucky bounce from a skate to Marleau’s stick.
That was Esa Lindell’s skate, I believe. Lindell played almost half the game despite being brought to the ice in pain after being hit by a pass from John Klingberg to Lindell on the doorstep, so his legs had to be feeling all kinds of wonderful after this one wrapped up. Lindell spent a bit of time in front of the net on the other end tonight, as it turned out. I don’t think enough has been made of Lindell’s increased abilities on the rush this year, but he really has grown by leaps and bounds in his offensive awareness and confidence. Playing with John Klingberg might be good for that.
I was assuming the Stars would be trying for a slog in this game after getting skated out of the AAC last month by the Leafs, and the Stars did manage to make the Leafs work for their zone entries, even if it cost the Stars consistent offensive pressure of their own. In some ways, this is probably the prototypical Road Game, with a tight first period in which you weather the storm, some opportunistic goals off mistakes or special teams, and a solid defensive effort to preserve the lead. That sounds sort of like this game, right?
Except for the part where you trust your backup goalie to basically play hot potato with the nuclear arsenal that is the Leafs power play. The Stars’ fourth line sat in the box four times between Brett Ritchie (3!) and Jason Dickinson, and given the Stars’ technical failure to score a power play goal of their own, it’s a minor—no, major—miracle that Dallas walked away not only with two points, but two points in regulation.
Credit can be spread around, certainly. The Stars dominated the faceoff circle, which helped keep the Leafs’ momentum from building too quickly. Dallas slowed the game down (predictably) and made Toronto work hard to gain the zone with possession…until the final five minutes, when Khudobin was the lone fireman in a burning house with the clowns from Dumbo trying unsuccessfully to stem the blaze.
Dickinson was great on the dot (86%, just like Faksa), but the fourth line had a rough one. Brett Ritchie had three penalties, and that’s something no 4th-line player can get away with, even if the second holding call was a bit of rubbish. Dickinson’s penalty right after the Stars went up 2-0, however, was the real musn’t-do. Three of Ritchie’s seven shifts in the third period ended with a penalty. I don’t know what else there is to be said about how the Stars are managing their fourth line, but Ritchie is doing everything he can to fall out of favor as quickly as possible.
That said, Ritchie did have a nice pass to Dickinson on a 2-on-1, but because it was This Game for the duo, Dickinson waited just a tick too long for his shot, and Frederik Andersen patiently absorbed the attempt, as he did for pretty much every look Dallas got from distance. And there weren’t that many of those:
Yeah, it was lopsided, but all roads lead to ScoreEffectsVille, and the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club have learned all-too-well how to find and crank that knob when trailing lately. In fact, the Leafs are now 8-5-0 on the year. The Stars are 7-5-0. As much ink has been spilled talking about the Stars’ bad start, it’s a little crazy that they’re keeping pace with a top-notch club like Toronto (who has been stumbling lately, certainly).
The Leafs hit them some posts in this one, as Patrick Marleau and John Tavares had no business not scoring before they finally did. That is probably what you call “luck” for Dallas, but the good thing about good luck is that when you get it, you get to keep it. Dallas got two points, and they’ll have those points all year. Going 2-1 to start this road trip would have sounded great before leaving Dallas, so if you can really, really compartmentalize, maybe you can just be content with points and worry about the process as things continue to take shape this month.
The team doesn’t have this luxury, of course. They must improve, must criticize, must discipline themselves. Reckless penalties in the offensive zone just won’t cut it, especially when they’re taken by a player who has been given every opportunity to be better than “below average,” but who continues not to manage that too much of the time. Physical play is great if it Picks Up The Boys, but you know what else physical play is? Replaceable. Roman Polák did not cost the Stars a draft pick. The Stars are not fans, and they can’t afford to just get frustrated with a formerly solid young player and lose him for nothing, but it’s hard to know what to do with Brett Ritchie these days. Justin Dowling was scratched for him, but I’ll take Dowling’s creativity and vision over Ritchie’s issues these days. But the season is still young, and certainly players turn things around. Val Nichushkin is perhaps someone you might have this discussion about.
Val Nichushkin and Ritchie both came out of the second period looking a bit better than either had in the first. Nuke drew a penalty in the offensive zone by pursuing a dump-in and protecting it, and he also had a couple small-but-good plays that didn’t really turn into anything. Still, the penalty he drew led to...technically not a PPG, but credit where it’s due. Jamie Benn got off his own slump with a sweet tip of a Seguin shot, and folks were smiling again.
The second goal was the pretty one, though. Mattias Janmark probably made a whole lot of Toronto fans groan when he knocked down a Travis Dermott (who is a bit of a Julius Honka figure for them) clearance and eventually seasoned the recipe he started to cook with a slick catch & release setup to Devin Shore on the back door. Did Janmark just force Mike Babcock to go over Kyle Dubas’s head and ask the Stars to trade Roman Polák back to him? Time will tell.
But honestly, I can’t say I’d want to do that if I’m Jim Nill. As much as Polák isn’t great at breakouts or passing or reading lanes and switching coverage (and we say “isn’t great” in a strongly relative sense, of course; we’re talking about a world-class hockey player, here), he has been a reliable player for what he’s asked to do: play bottom-pairing minutes and allow Julius Honka to do the complicated puck work while he does the heavy lifting along the boards and on the penalty kill. And hey, if you’re a big Honka fan, some veteran stability is perfectly acceptable if it gets him into the lineup for a good, long while, right? Not everything needs to be constantly upsetting, even if it’s not ideal.
And, while I was watching Polák and Lindell go Bash Brothers defending the net on an early kill, I had to shake my head and admit that the Stars probably, maybe need something like that right now. Yes, Stephen Johns is, when healthy, a better option. But coaches always want to simplify the game for their players, and Roman Polák has done a beautiful job of, er, doing his job lately. It’s not a horse I’d bet on for an extended stretch, but the Stars can be happy with what’s happened so far, and I can sort of join them. So long as we all agree that this is a provisional defensive alignment, at least.
Oh, and on the other side of special teams, that power play with Heiskanen in Radulov’s spot? Well, it should be great in the future, but Heiskanen got victimized by a buddy pass from Anton Khudobin in his own end, and Mitch Marner was able to skate around the stricken Heiskanen for a clean look shorthanded. But Khudobin cleaned up his own mess with a really nice stop on Marner that totally foreshadowed a later even better stop, and so Heiskanen didn’t leave this game feeling guilty and shameful for being involved in disaster. Seems like there’ve been a lot of those “learned without being burned” moments so far this season. I’m okay with that.
Blake Comeau had his own rush shorthanded, but the stalwart Frederik Andersen was again there to meet a Stars shot without traffic or wizardry. A goal there could’ve been a confidence-builder for Comeau, but alas. I don’t worry about players like Seguin during a goal drought, but I do worry about a new veteran who can’t find his niche on a team with a still-developing psyche. That’s a dangerous place to be if you don’t walk away from games with a lot of positive memories, so here’s hoping Comeau can start to look as comfortable at evens as he has started to while shorthanded.
I also found it interesting that Dickinson is trusted on the PK (though not as much as Comeau, who is depended upon). Seems like another indication that Montgomery really is on board the Jason Dickinson Moderate Levels Of Hype Trolley, which is not yet a full-fledged train but just might be someday, so be patient.
Anton Khudobin had another really solid save on the kill against Andreas Johnsson. Khudobin had some genuinely demoralizing (for Toronto) stops in this one, which is absolute gravy from a backup, and delicious, savory gravy when it’s against the Insufferable Leafs. Break their spirits, Dobby. Take their socks and run.
Oh, and admit it: you had some concern that the Seguin line would have trouble with two wingers like Shore and Janmark on it, right? Well, that all evaporated on the second goal, or at least I assume it did for the coaches, who will probably roll that same trio next game. And why wouldn’t you, with Janmark coming along finally and Shore looking red-hot?
In the interest of objectivity, I will note that Jason Spezza (who had the Deke-a-tron 5000 humming along a couple of times tonight) also had some lackluster defensive play, including one ambitious effort to keep the offensive blue line that surrendered an odd-man rush led by John Tavares. Thankfully, the Toronto ice continued to sabotage its inhabitants, and that rush came to naught. That should be a huge story of this game, actually; Toronto had a couple of really rotten bounces off the boards, and some really weird jumps on the ice. I would say more about how Toronto needs to solicit ice-maintenance advice from the Great State of Texas and all to get the whole “Ice” things locked down, but I’m assuming those were literal, actual ice gremlins haunting the Leafs, and I don’t need another gremlin haunting me right now, so they’re on their own. My life is complicated enough as it is.
So, by some supernatural assistance or otherwise, Patrick Marleau joined Tavares in plunking the post, as the Stars got a breath of fresh air from an iron lung for the second game in a row. If you’re judging the Stars’ playoff-readiness by this or the Montreal game, I doubt you have a ton of positive things to say. But four points are four positive things, so get outta here, Dour Dave! Here are the four positive things that these last four points are: integers, irrevocable, undeserved, and accepted. The Stars are now on a, what, 95-point pace through 12 games? That’s about where I have them (97, actually). It’s not great, but it’s a lot better than where they were through ten games. And perhaps the most beautiful thing about ugly road games in the East is that you get to actually leave and never come back, so the Stars can really and truly be satisfied with splitting the season series against the already-anointed Champs Of Hockey And Canada, and they can move along to fix whatever else remains to be fixed against less troublesome opponents.
Most teams can’t bring it when trailing like the Leafs can. The Stars showed some cracks, but they held firm enough in the end, and winning breeds winning. You might be unhappy with some players, but some other players did really well in Toronto. This team isn’t as bad as their worst decisions, and they might even start to be better than their middlest decisions. That seemed like a lot to ask two games ago. Now, it just seems like the next step, or maybe the first. And Leaving Toronto is a great way to start any journey.