I was going to take the night off, but some games just demand an audience.
If you’re a Caps fan, the postgame radio callers are surely going to be talking about the big boys: a poor Alex Ovechkin dummy gave up the Jason Spezza breakaway, while a Braden Holtby rim was intercepted by Tyler Pitlick and put past the bedeviled goalie. On the positive side, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov both put world-class shots past the shoulder of Ben Bishop, who wasn’t terribly out of position on either one, but found himself digging the puck out of his cage nonetheless.
That might be what makes this win so impressive for Dallas. The Capitals had plenty of offensive zone time and won the special teams battle, but thanks to an early hole, the Caps couldn’t manage more than a point out of a game where their best players were largely really good. For the Stars, John Klingberg (six shots) and Tyler Seguin (also six shots) were both kept off the scoresheet. If you’re Washington, a 5-4-3 record is small consolation after this one.
But we’re talking about Dallas, and it’s simple as this: the Stars have won three road games in a row against three tough opponents. They’ve guaranteed themselves a .500 road trip at least, and Jamie Benn is looking like he’s Back Online after some hiccups. The team isn’t perfect and neither was this game, but a Jason Dickinson GWG in OT is worlds away from where this team was in the twilight of last season. You celebrate games like this for what they mean just as much as what they are.
The defense was the talk of this one, and for good reason. Miro Heiskanen joined Klingberg and Esa Lindell with 27(!) minutes of play, and Heiskanen in particular was just a defensive beast, unwilling to get beaten by the best that Washington could throw at him. You’ll hear praise for the 19-year-old blueliner so much that you might get numb to it, but really, this season is already something special for Heiskanen. Soak it in, marvel at his stick work and skating, and relish the fact that it’s just the beginning. This is why we watch the games. Sure, Heiskanen gave Kuznetsov a sliver of space for that power play goal, but if you’re gonna allow a shot on the PK, that’s as low-percentage a beautiful goal as you’re ever gonna be okay with, and it certainly didn’t seem to bother Heiskanen the rest of the way. Little does.
Jim Montgomery and Rick Bowness shortened the bench in Washington, and while Dillon Heatherington gamely filled in, this was all about the top four. Even Roman Polák continues to look downright useful at times, as we’ve said. But with Lindell, Klingberg and Heiskanen all giving Dallas half-hours of service time like that, you can match up with teams of superstars, and Dallas did just that. Jason Dickinson’s goal was a bit fluky, but the Stars didn’t steal two points; they took them and held onto them, even as Washington leaned on them with all the weight of a shirtless, keg-standing Ovechkin.
Even with the bounces going their way at times, Dallas has undeniably done some things on this trip they had trouble proof-testing for much of last year. The contrast isn’t hard to pick up: Gemel Smith, Jason Dickinson and Jason Spezza were all on the scoresheet for this game, while Julius Honka, himself relegated to a role-player down the stretch, still played double the minutes of Dillon Heatherington. The coaching staff deserves a large amount of credit so far this year, as Todd Nelson, Stu Barnes, Jim Montgomery and Rick Bowness have really worked hard to make Dallas more multifaceted. The power play boasts a lot of different looks, the penalty kill is finding success even with some young players on it, and the Stars have shown a willingness to use both seven and five (effectively) defensemen despite the high amount of maintenance required. The men in suits were working hard tonight, and an 8-5-0 record is something for Montgomery and Nelson in particular to be proud of, given the learning curve of the NHL. (Though, in all fairness, even Montgomery recognizes that “send good players out there” is as much a part of coaching strategy as anything else, so it’s not like he’s a puppet master back there or anything.)
And speaking of coaching come from all over, Razor mentioned on the broadcast that Jim Nill suggested to Jim Montgomery that they reduce Jamie Benn’s minutes a bit to get him going, which I found interesting for all kinds of reasons. It goes without saying that Ken Hitchcock seemed less amenable to such suggestions than Montgomery apparently is, though of course we can’t know if this was discussed at all last season; still, that plan seemed to work in D.C. as well as such a plan can, with Benn scoring an even-strength goal and sitting out the PK while totaling only 15:44 in an overtime game. It’s something to keep an eye on, but the Benn-Spezza-Nichushkin line had some nice moments in a wide-open game, so we’ll see if that trio can keep moving the needle whenever Seguin starts turning his threats supplied into promises fulfilled.
And, as for threats: as much as Blake Comeau has had trouble elevating whatever line he plays on at times, he had no difficulty leveling Madison Bowey with the hit of the season so far.
My goodness, but Comeau has brought some surprising physicality with him this season. Comeau also played 19:16 this game and took a penalty, so that’s where we are. This concludes the Blake Comeau portion of your reading.
Tyler Seguin is now on a 10-game dry spell, so he might want to think about asking Jason Spezza for his lucky Aeropress back or something. As cool and collected as Spezza looked while scoring his own breakaway, Seguin seemed a bit clenchy on his penalty shot (which should definitely have been a power play). Still, Seguin is getting chances and hitting the goalies and posts, so I refuse to worry about him. It’s easy to brush off goal droughts when you’re on a winning streak, of course, but Seguin scores the game-winner if not for an insane Holtby stick save, so I take the good as more indicative than the bad. I’ve found life to be more rewarding when (too infrequently) doing so.
The Stars really did have some wonderful plays tonight to make things happen, even as the Capitals cranked up the octane to fuel their own offense. Jim Montgomery seemed to sense his team champing at the bit, and he let the horses run, trusting them not to be too irresponsible in the process. And as wonderful as the blueliners were in cleaning up messes and weathering some extended shifts in their own zone, I was just as struck by the great efforts of players like Val Nichushkin, Jason Spezza, Devin Shore, and Mattias Janmark to hunker down and move things along to safety while looking for the better play. Even Spezza redeemed a less-than-stellar defensive effort the other night with some good, hard work below the dots in the defensive zone in Washington, and that’s a beautiful thing to see when the offense is flowing, too. If Jason Spezza’s defensive game is fueled by his offensive freedom, then we have even more good things in store. Spezza is on a 63-point pace through 13 games, and no, I will not shut up about Spezza before I’m good and ready.
I suspect Nichushkin had an extra gear to find tonight in part because of some countrymen on the other bench to impress, but a good game is a good game, and Nichushkin’s big hit and slick play behind the net to set up Benn’s goal was really encouraging. Always great to see Dallas getting production from a first-round draft pick, right? Sean called it the best game for Nichushkin all year, and I don’t disagree with that one bit. The trick for Nichushkin will be carrying the good with him from the banks of the Potomac.
There’s still plenty of road trip left, and we’ll surely be writing up a loss again at some point in 2018, but how can you watch this game and not smile about an 8-5-0 record? That’s a 101-point pace, and you’ll take that through a team’s first 13 every time. It’d be one thing if the team was relying on just one aspect of their game, or if the goaltender was saving their bacon every night. But, as good as Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin(!) have been on this trip—and Bishop really was great tonight, particularly in overtime with a vital stop and hold for a whistle shortly before the game-winner to allow Benn and Seguin to change—it’s been the whole team, or swaths of it. Miro Heiskanen continues to make 2016-17 look at least Somewhat Worth It, and Jason Dickinson is coming into his own before our very eyes. It’s been a good year, or at least a great month. You can only evaluate what you have for what it is, and 8-5-0 with some promising kids and some resurgent veterans is a perfectly fine place to be as the weather turns cold.
Besides, we all know Seguin is going to snap out of his funk in Boston, right? Poetry moves at its own pace.