(Also know as “The Ballad of Big Save Dave”)
Writing about hockey means capturing the highs and lows while trying not to get too high or low at the same time. But after a sickening loss to Colorado, a heartbreaking loss to the old head coach in Edmonton, and a one-two punch to lose a third-period lead in Calgary, it was hard not to feel the bile inching its way upwards. This team has been beating the odds for a while now just to stay in the hunt, and a couple of recent collapses felt like icewater at sunrise.
Things started out so well. Jason Spezza had announced that This Was A New Game after he stashed a really nice piece of work from Radek Faksa, after all. Spezza’s move to wing for the game seemed a new twist from Jim Montgomery, and it immediately paid off as Spezza got a feed from another center, albeit one he never played another shift with in the game.
There’s one really noticeable thing about this play (other than Heiskanen’s great pinch and Faksa’s nice vision, I mean): how Jason Spezza shoots this puck. He cruises into the slot calling for the pass, and as he receives it, he goes all the way down to one knee. This ensures that he’ll be able to get elevation on the puck, as it’s much tougher to elevate a shot off a fast pass coming straight at you than it is when it’s on your tape. You have to really overpower the puck in that situation to avoid it flubbing off your tape (similar to how you can’t hit as many home runs in baseball if your swing’s launch angle isn’t set right), and Spezza makes absolutely certain that everything from his body position to his stick angle will be pointing the puck up and over the goaltender’s pad to get as much elevation as he can when he’s shooting the puck hard. We’ve seen a few of the Stars’ struggling scorers put one-timers into the goalie’s pads lately, so this shot by Spezza was a good reminder that scoring really does require more than just being in a good spot. You have to know what to do with the puck when you get it. Jason Spezza knows what to do with the puck.
And again, after three great PKs to suck the momentum from Calgary, and just after Josh had said, “This is an important final four minutes” of the first, the Stars got a little trapped in their zone, and a good low-high one-timer from dime novel antagonist Garnet Hathaway squeezed through Khudobin’s arm. (Thanks for nothing, new goalie equipment rules.)
The Stars’ best line from Edmonton was probably Janmark-Dickinson-Comeau, and that same group generated the Stars’ best shift of the first right after that. Only good fortune kept the game tied for Calgary, so hey, a good road game, right? That’s what people say about tied games and all that. We’ll come back to Jason Dickinson, but he and Janmark are looking a bit like Something together. Now, to get Janmark off that single goal he’s been stuck on.
And the chances. Oh, the chances! Even when they came on the wrong sticks, the Stars had some counterpunches available, like this one below. if you don’t think Roman Polák is a heartbreaker, just ask Alex Radulov:
It’s not quite as egregious as Jamie Benn in Edmonton, but it’s still painful to see such a potentially great chance turned into a harmless slapper off the pads. Radek Faksa found Spezza, but this is a whole ‘nother level of “defensive player who thinks in straight lines.” Since Polák doesn’t have the same expectations as more offensively minded players, you didn’t hear a peep from anyone about it, unless you count Radulov’s stick turning into a beaver tail wired into a speaker at an EDM show.
The chances kept coming. Blake Comeau was as snakebitten as...[flips through Book of Apt Analogies to “snakebitten” chapter]...ah, here we are, as “a Dallas Stars Forw-” Hey, wait a second. Well, anyway, Mattias Janmark dropped him a perfect pass on an odd-man rush early in the second, but Comeau, like so many before him, couldn’t replicate Spezza’s work from the home plate area. Pucks were buried in Dave Rittich’s belly a few too many times in this one, but the Stars hadn’t lost the lead, so again, what was there to say? Oh well. This has been a Blake Comeau update, but there will be more later, don’t worry.
In the interest of fairness, I want to state for the record that Dillon Dube’s hooking penalty on Seguin was absolutely rubbish, as Seguin just grabbed his stick with his hand along the boards. In the interest of honesty, I want to state that the Stars’ power play adequately represented the quality of the penalty call. Woof.
Hey, did you hear that Calgary has James Neal on their team now? Anton Khudobin has, and he came up huge on Neal with a great save midway through the second. It was another sign of Khudobin getting the job done behind a Stars team a bit too careless with good players, even if James Neal’s point totals this year are more representative of Tyler Pitlick’s than a five-year UFA signing. Not all of those turn into Radulovs, I suppose. Heck, none of them had turned into Radulovs for Dallas for at least a decade before Radulov.
The Stars’ power play finally did wake up in this one, and not a moment too soon. After some brisk puck movement and shot recovery, Seguin threaded a pass to Benn’s tape in the crease, and Jamie Benn isn’t going to miss that one after what happened in Edmonton.
How did Todd Nelson feel about getting the monkey off his back? Well, Tyler Seguin knows how he felt. Tell ‘em, Steph:
A new take on the "monkey off my back" celly. pic.twitter.com/8Edy47x4l6— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) November 29, 2018
Jamie Benn was effectively demoted to the second line to start this game, and that’s something else. It’s crazy, really, that Jamie Benn has 10 goals in 25 games (two more than the next-highest scorer on Dallas), and yet it seems so insufficient, or something. We do this every season, don’t we? Captains are always going to take more criticism, but something about Benn’s body language and overall leadership-ish-ness is prone to being interpreted with less than the benefit of the doubt when things are rough. Benn had a much-needed sort of game tonight (penalties taken aside), and there’s no question the team likewise needed this one. But back to the action, for now.
Khudobin’s most important stop of the second period came off a rough play by Polák:
It’s hard not to look at any play by a defenseman and say, “Oh, well what if Honka had made that error, can you imagine what the coaches would have done?!” That’s the tricky thing about this whole situation on defense, where Honka wasn’t used in the second game of a back-to-back despite being “fresh.” If every play becomes a referendum on the Stars’ defensive depth, then we probably have to admit that the Stars’ defensive depth really isn’t good enough right now, and they’re picking up “just enough” points anyway. Ultimately, I don’t love how the defenders are being used, but it’s plugging the leaks well enough in the results department, and coaches tend to follow results over everything else. Standing behind that bench is a pretty intense experience, as Bill Peters knows too well. (Man, you can just tell that scar is gonna be Guy Boucher levels of cool when it sets in.)
Khudobin also cleaned up a mess made by Valeri Nichushkin, but you don’t need a GIF to remember how Nichushkin’s forced pass back up to the point was intercepted easily, and how Matt Tkachuck’s dangerous shot off the ensuing odd-man rush was only subverted by a windmill save from the glove of the Stars’ most important goalie this season. Ugly though Khudobin’s work can be at times, he’s ugly in the good sort of way: never giving up on plays, and making saves that his team needs. I can’t remember seeing an out-and-out “soft” goal from Khudobin this year, and while I obviously just jinxed things and am very sorry, that’s huge for a team whose confidence could have been shattered during this last month. The toughest part of the schedule is waning, and Dallas is going to see another sunrise. You learn to be thankful for these sorts of small victories, but moreso when you have The Actual Victories to punctuate the journey. Another one down.
But yes, Khudobin’s importance was exacerbated nine minutes or so into the third, when Jankowski and Friends peppered Khudobin with some awfully sinister chances in tight once again. That should have been the worst part of things, but the third period turned into the funhouse version of the 1-0 slog on Tuesday as both teams kept licking their lips and getting overeager for chances only to give away shots on the counterattack. It was frenetic and terrifying and wonderful, because of the ending. Still, it’s fun to enjoy the ride, even if we were grimacing for a bit more of the third than we would have liked.
Something I’ve been wondering: Jason Dickinson has become an extremely solid penalty-killer for Dallas this season. Tell me, if the Stars had gotten to see Dickinson being this effective last season, would they have signed Blake Comeau? I’m not sure Dickinson was this player last year, and Comeau certainly has been better (i.e. average) than he’s been (below average), but since Dickinson never really got a consistent chance to show whether he could have been a meaningful contributor in Dallas last year, the Stars perhaps ended up paying for certainty in a player who is probably a bit closer to Ty Dellandrea’s ceiling than we’d like to admit. This is a lot of hindsight and, like, Friday afternoon quarterbacking, but with the Flames tying the game due to a mystifying misread by Comeau on said PK, it’s a poignant question indeed.
I don’t understand that read at all; Comeau apparently though Dickinson was switching him off when Dickinson seemed to be preemptively getting into the slot in case the one-timer was fed at the point. Comeau, the man closest to the puck-carrier, basically did the opposite of what Esa Lindell did in overtime in Edmonton, and let Johnny Gaudreau walk on in and hit a corner. That’s not how the PK is supposed to work, but I suppose we can cut Comeau some slack given how many penalties the Stars forced themselves to kill in this one. As Seguin said after the game, Benn was probably playing a bit guilty late in this one.
After the lead was lost, the now-shellshocked Stars skaters let Calgary outcycle them a minute later and generate a perfect screened shot to pull ahead. It seemed inevitable, a stupid shot finally finding its way through as the beleaguered Dallas team finally had its crazy road stretch catch up with them after giving it the ol’ college try. Instead, the ol’ college free agent stepped up.
If you’re prone to narratives, this was the spot where the game could have slipped away. Instead, Benn, Seguin, Bayreuther: boom.
Things were brand new again, but this game never settled down, and Khudobin’s subsequent robbery on Sean Monahan was desperately needed after the Stars had scraped back to 3-3. It occurs to me that I am describing Khudobin saves with rather dramatic language lately, and perhaps that’s what goalies like Sean Shapiro are referring to when they describe Khudobin’s style as less than technically perfect: his technique makes saves look more difficult than they sometimes are. It’s something to keep an eye on over the long term, but for now, I’ll take any goalie who grabs three of four points on a back-to-back on the road.
With ten seconds to go, we had one more call-back from the night before reared its head. Again, a puck leaked through and sat in the goal mouth. Playing the role of Gavin Bayreuther behind Khudobin: none other than Alex Radulov, whose tip in Edmonton was what led to Bayreuther’s save off the goal line in the first place. Credit to the Stars: from Benn on throughout the lineup, there was a lot of desperation in their game in this one. I don’t think a team can find that level for 82 games, but if they ever needed a rebound game, tonight was probably it.
It’s tough to maintain any sort of equilibrium in games like this, in seasons like this, in three-year stretches like this. So, you’ll pardon me if I got a tad emotional and marveled at Jamie Benn, diving to his stomach to reach a puck and fling it back into the slot for Seguin.
With one tremendous play, Benn got the puck into the slot and got himself out of the doghouse. We live and die with overtime goals, and living it up after this one is the right thing to do.
Final note: yeah, I’d be livid if I were Rittich (or a Flames fan), too. Rittichessentially negated any interference call because he made the effort to get back into position. Like Khudobin, who couldn’t shake his loosened mask free right before the Flames would score on a gassed Stars squad, Rittich also would have been rewarded for some more violent gesticulation that forced the officials to acknowledge the issue. But Khudobin couldn’t quite shake off his mask surreptitiously (a dangerous play which is a goalie’s best chance to stop play, assuming they aren’t adjudged to have done so unnecessarily), and Rittich got himself back into the play adequately enough that the call on the ice had to stand. Seguin’s shot wasn’t down the middle of a gaping net or anything, and even if we all know Rittich wasn’t at the height of his powers after the contact with Benn, he was able to goalie things up enough to give the NHL an excuse to stand aside, which is their preference when things are grey.
So much the better for Dallas. My only regret about the play, really, is that Mike Smith wasn’t in net for it. Rittich “only” shattered his stick and chucked the handle after the ruling; Smith would’ve been grabbing the net frame and hurling the whole thing through the boards, at minimum.
Finally, I’ll let Josh have the last word here, as he seems to be pretty good with those:
That could be an important win for the Stars. Minutes away from the same fate as Denver, and the top guys lead a rally back. The power play chipped in, the offense awoke, and now a couple of days off before an opportunity to make it a winning road trip.— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) November 29, 2018