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Afterwords: Losing Streak, Ahoy!

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Losing streaks aren’t exactly optimal at the best of times. This is not the best of times.

NHL: Preseason-Dallas Stars at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The question was put to me by a friend last week, “Are we sure we still love hockey?”

You tell me.

***

First, an exhibition:

Now, sure; it’s not the same thing as a puck on the tape, like Thornton more or less got for what ended up as the game-winner, but still, Dallas really did have some shots to tie things up in the final minutes, and they couldn’t do it.

This team is playing a low-event style of hockey that has made first periods a drudgery, and while sometimes they get enough saves to withstand the other team’s press, other times they don’t. San Jose has been the better team this season, but Dallas won two of their three matches. Jim Montgomery wants to get his defense more into the attack, and Julius Honka clearly took that message to heart. But there’s no denying that Dallas labors to create scoring chances these days, and how much fun can it be for us to watch 50 more of these, do you think?

Ken Hitchcock’s Oilers, by the way, are on a 7-2-1 run, and they’re now holding down a wild card spot along with Vegas. Stars fandom is more haunted than ever, these days.

But this game was the second in as many nights, and while that didn’t stop Vegas from stomping the Stars Sunday, it did seem like Dallas had a bit less in the tank than they might otherwise. Jason Dickinson had some good moments, but he and a few other of the livelier skaters seemed to be missing some jump, and it showed. But there’s a difference between looking a bit worn and looking disengaged, and the Stars deserved credit for making this a game, more or less.

For all that, though, you can look at the Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin chances late in the second and say that Dallas should have controlled this game better. Seguin is now on pace to score only 20 goals in the last season of his ValuePak Boston Extension, and he’s still somehow leading the Stars in scoring. Dallas kept things buttoned down in the first period, and while some loose plays meant Anton Khudobin was tested not infrequently, the Stars could easily have taken a lead to the third period for the second night in a row. Instead, the Stars gave up the lead and dropped two points, again.

Losing to the Central Division is bad, and when those games start to come fast and furious, that’ll be its own concern. But for now, if you believe Dallas to be a wild card team, games like these are just as crucial, if not moreso. Anaheim and San Jose could easily be in the hunt for these spots by season’s end, and Dallas just hasn’t been able to finish them off on this road trip.

Maybe it’s our fault for expecting more. I know you know the Stars haven’t been great this year, but a four-game winning streak will get us excited for a bit. We’re hockey fans, that’s how it works. The team did well, so they might continue to do well. Instead, they’ve more or less blown up the bridge to contention they put together while an expansion team and a worse one that fired its coach have overtaken them.

***

This game, though? It had some moments.

Two players got back into the lineup, as Brett Ritchie and Julius Honka made their returns. The results?

Well, for Ritchie’s part, he turned over a puck that forced Khudobin to bail out the Stars in the first, he battled well around the net a couple times, and he failed to cover up Miro Heiskanen on a rush led by the defenseman in the third period, leading to a 3-on-1 and a 2-1 Sharks lead. Ritchie, for all the criticism he’s gotten in the last season or two, also showed some of his weaknesses in transition play in this one, as he fired a couple of passes into skates that killed potential rushes.

Ritchie is a player that can forecheck well and recover pucks, which comes in handy when you’re having to dump pucks in at the rate Dallas is this season. But you wonder if his usefulness might have peaked last season in Hitch’s system when you see him struggling to make good plays consistently at 25 years old. If you’re not going to score, you need to earn the coaches’ trust in other ways, like some other players have been doing:

I’ll let that comment speak for itself, but I do think Blake Comeau probably gets a lot less criticism this year if Dallas had a deeper forward group to begin with. Anyway, that’s enough about the depth forwards. Let’s talk about the 7th defenseman!

Julius Honka had an uneven game in his return from press box purgatory, and Jim Montgomery’s comment that it might have been Honka’s best game of the season is close to damning with faint praise in that light. Still, Honka, like Nichushkin in this one, seemed like that overzealous employee who has Definitely Read The Mission Statement One Too Many Times. He was out to pinch in the offensive zone (which was instrumental in creating his own assist later on) and get the puck up the ice from his own end as quickly as possible (which led to a couple of bad giveaways).

If it weren’t for the impending return of Gavin Bayreuther, I’d say there was a lot to build off of in this game for Honka. But I think he’s going to be fighting for a spot for a while yet. Still, this game was great fodder for whatever argument you want to make about his usage, one way or the other. Dallas definitely needed the good that Honka could bring, but they can ill-afford the poor judgment he had on a couple of his turnovers. There were these growing pains with Klingberg, one remembers, but This is not That, for better or for worse.

Sometimes I’ll complain about the officiating because the officials missed a call or made a bad (in my eyes) one, but this game just seemed like one where the zebras didn’t earn the full 20% tip, you know? They let a few obvious calls (Polák’s grab to avoid a goal, for instance) go, then chose to nail Devin Shore for shoving the net off its moorings on purpose, of all things. Working theory: the officials enjoyed that first period about as much as you did, and this was their form of nonviolent protest. We here at the DBD PD will investigate and get back to you posthaste.

If there such a department, by the way, I can tell you two things: First, that Tyler would be played by Emilio Estevez, and Second, that it would be processing charges against Josh Bogorad for jinxing the Stars on the tying goal with the “Another gem by Khudobin” comment a split second before the puck wafted its way into the net. (At least Razor seemed to enjoy not being the one accused of jinxing it, for once.) You have to find the lighter side of things sometimes, you see.

Oh, and for the record, I really think Val Nichushkin could turn into something, still. He set up a couple of great chances in this one, and he whistled a shot just wide and high(!) that could also have been Something. The trick, as with so many players, will be for Montgomery to keep finding ways to keep Nichushkin believing he can score when so much of the lower lines are just fighting to get the puck into the offensive zone. But for a team that had trouble getting into the middle slot, Nichushkin found a way to get the puck there a couple of times.

Esa Lindell had a quiet game for long stretches beside Honka, while Miro Heiskanen continued to look a bit evenly matched against Erik Karlsson and Friends. Heiskanen played mostly with Polák, and that meant two things: he was playing on his left side, and most of the breakout attempts flowed through him. The Sharks trapped accordingly, and it was a slog to get through the neutral zone, even for Heiskanen much of the time. Still, that goal was a beauty when the Stars needed a jolt. As for that bad turnover that only looked that bad because Karlsson is a wizard, I think Heiskanen might have just learned himself a lesson, eh? Growing pains happen. Sometimes they cost you a goal, or even a game.

Don’t get too high or too low, still. Nothing major seems likely to change before Christmas, so for now, I’m stuck on game-by-game investment. Oh-for-three in a row is bad when you’re a bubble team, but it’s happened. Now the question is, as it was after that loss in Detroit to kick off another road trip a while back: how will the Stars respond? Games at Pepsi Center tend to be awful in terms of results, and the Avs are, as we’ve seen recently, a tough matchup for Dallas. This is an understatement, as are most statements about the scarier things. But I’m not here to ruin your Friday as well as your Saturday. That’s what terrible Christmas music is for.