Ain’t nothin’ like some hot jones waitin’ on the stove.
After seesawing their way across the last eight games to the tune of 4-4-0, this was a bit of a statement game, and it’s safe to say the Stars made themselves a statement. On a four-game skid, Dallas welcomed a 22-10-2 team into its barn, and, to put it in technical terms, they thumped them.
Dallas defended the slot well even during the turtle, and they outright dominated the game everywhere except on the power play. The team talked a lot about emotion after the game, and it’s safe to say this game was a bit of a catharsis after some tough losses. Dallas pushed Calgary around in every sense of the word, and only Dave Rittich and some posts kept this game from being uglier than it turned out to be.
Of course, this is the Stars, and so things were also a lot more difficult than they needed to be, too. Even the first goal was a bit fortunate, as what otherwise would have been a Roman Polák icing was waved off because, I think, of a pinching defenseman. Then a fortunate bounce off Jamie Benn’s skate, which is more or less his new Wrist Shot as far as goal-scoring is concerned, and the Stars were finally on top, as was proper after a 12-3 advantage in shots on goal.
Val Nichushkin and Denis Gurianov are going to get compared to one another if this is Gurianov’s home for the next little while, and this game was instructive for such purposes. While Nichushkin is the larger player, Gurianov’s game really does “play” bigger, and you could see it tonight. Nichushkin is great at using his size to protect the puck, but he doesn’t really impose his size when attacking players with the puck as much as you’d expect from a bigger guy. Honestly, his game kind of reminds me of Devin Shore’s, at times, while Gurianov has a bit more of that Radulov jump to him at times, both on and off the puck. Early days for him, but it’ll be interesting to see if the duo gets another opportunity to play together on Thursday. Certainly both of them earned it on this squad against Calgary, with Nichushkin in particular setting up a scoring chance or two and forcing the issue more than once. A tone was set early in this one.
So yeah, Stars were fighting the Flames with their own fiery play tonight, and they were taking things personally. The Stars are convinced that Garnet Hathaway turned into Tyler Seguin on purpose, and after the shoulder cap to Bishop’s mask, Roman Polák’s bloodthirsty response is easy to understand. In a way, Dallas was a team looking to pick a fight in this one, but it might be to their benefit that they never got one. In fact, if the Flames had scored on the Polák roughing minor on Hathaway, I wonder if that third period doesn’t turn out a whole worse. Instead, Dallas got a goal from Faksa late in the second, and they were as comfortable as a turtle under fire can be in the final frame.
This was a let ‘em play affair, even with six penalties awarded. There must have been a No 5-on-3s Allowed memo circulated in the officials’ locker room, because a clear trip on Gaudreau and a high stick on Benn early into each team’s penalty went uncalled. Add to that the conspicuous absence of almost any faceoff violations called by the linesmen, and you had a game that felt pretty different than we’ve seen for a while. Credit to the Stars’ PK for keeping things from turning sour, as well as Ben Bishop and Anton Khuduboin, who each had to make a couple of slick saves to keep the game in hand.
With Jason Spezza being assaulted by a streptococcus
virus infection, the Stars made some noteworthy lineup changes. Julius Honka sat after a couple of strong (for him) games, while Radek Faksa was moved to wing for Martin Hanzal And I guess you’d say it worked, as Hanley was solid as far as a third-pairing defenseman goes, and Martin Hanzal racked up a primary assist on a duffed shot that Faksa converted. Even Gavin Bayreuther looked Insistently Safe, as he and Polák were the only +2 guys on the team, if that means anything to you numbers nerds out there. I suspect Bayreuther took hisRick Bowness Soft Talk to heart, as he seemed hell-bent on not making a risky play in this one. That’s fine, when you’re defending a lead.
Back to Faksa, by the way, the Calgary broadcast pointed out that Faksa seemed to be chirping at Rittich as he skated back to the bench after celebrating, so one wonders if there is any history between the two at some Czech boarding school or whatnot. I will work on my Slavic languages and get this scoop for all of you the next time I see Rittich at the ol’ Burrito Barn, or else I will die trying. We all die trying, sooner or later.
The Faksa lineup move is particularly interesting, as it’s abundantly clear that Hanzal still isn’t up to a really NHL-caliber conditioning level. After earning his stripes as a shutdown center, Faksa seems an odd choice to displace in order to get the older Hanzal into a position with more responsibility. On the other hand, Hanzal’s lack of speed is probably more likely to hurt him as a winger who can’t get to pucks on the forecheck, so you can sort of see the logic there: he can sag into the slot on defense (though this doesn’t help disrupt the cycle much, as his somewhat ugly defensive metrics so far show), and be a Big Body By The Net at other times.
Anyway, it’s something to keep an eye on, but as the Stars can’t just trade Hanzal for magic beans at this point in the season, I don’t blame Montgomery for trying different combinations to see what works. If this gets Faksa scoring, then I think that’s a win for everyone. Tonight, it was a win for the Stars, which are the Everyone we are really concerned with most in this space. Still, Faksa’s individual game really was dominant, and he almost set up a goal of his own, too:
As much as the Stars got unlucky at times on the road trip, they got some good fortune in this one. Derek Ryan whiffed on an open net after getting the puck in behind Bishop, Gaudreau got stopped on a bit of a breakaway, and the Flames rang a post late in the game to scare the shutout a little. You would love an end-to-end victory, but after four losses in a row, I won’t fault the Stars for counting this effort as complete, or complete enough.
The power play’s woes (recently staved off) returned, and they were exacerbated by the lack of Spezza to carry the puck through neutral ice. As much as the Stars might have deserved more power plays with their play, it’s probably something to be grateful they didn’t get, given how badly it was going.
The big lineup questions on this team right now are mostly around the edges, wouldn’t you say? Here’s what seems still murky with John Klingberg’s blessed return approaching:
- Is Radulov’s slowed scoring pace just part of standard regression? He seems dangerously close to catching a cold streak from his top-flight linemates right now.
- Taylor Fedun is playing on both sides of special teams, while Honka has been kept off both units, more or less. That seems telling.
- Will the Stars stick with Nichushkin 25 games from now if he’s still not scoring goals, or will they start scratching him more and giving Gurianov some of those looks?
- Esa Lindell played 5:55 on the penalty kill. At one point does his transmission just need to be totally rebuilt, if ever?
- Will Jamie Benn ever score with a wrist shot from the circles again?
- Blake Comeau pushed like three guys just plumb onto the ice. Is Pushing Dudes Over the new market inefficiency? You can practically see the lightbulb going on: “Hey, wait a second...I could just move that guy over...there!”
- Does Oliver Kylington just ignore you if you mispronounce his name, or is he cool about it?
One game is nice, but two games are Momentum. The Stars got some emotional momentum in this one, and now they need to start piling up some points again if they want to hit January with any real shot of making noise this year. They’re about a coin flip to make the playoffs as it stands now, and that’s just not good enough. Games like this remind us that all of us, at times, are also not good enough. But, sometimes, we are great. And, if we are really lucky, someone else notices.