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Afterwords: Redemption Road Trip Ends with B.C. Comeback

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4-3-1 is a perfectly adequate way to finish a seven-in-eight stretch of road games

NHL: Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Things aren’t rosy by any stretch, but you’ll always take a playoff spot at this point in the season.

***

Jamie Benn has been the driving force behind the Stars’ last three goals. While that’s a bit of an unfortunate indictment of the Stars’ scoring as a whole, it’s at least a sign that the captain is leading them through the dark days of autumn. The fresh fall of rest arrives this weekend, when the Stars finally get to go home and stay there for more than a night. That they can do so on a bit of an upswing is, appropriately, somewhere between Something To Be Thankful For and an outright Christmas Miracle.

You know how banged up the team is, and yet they’ve gone 5-4-2 since Klingberg went down. They went 2-2-1 after the game in which Bishop was injured. That’s not what a winning team does over the course of a season, but it is, at the very least, enough for now

They’ve been treading water. Anton Khudobin stole a couple of games. And in Calgary and Vancouver, the penalty kill really kept them in a game they easily could have dropped. And who could have blamed them for faltering at the end of a stretch that saw Dallas play 13 of 18 games on the road?

As for that 18-game stretch? Well, Dallas went from a 5-4-0 team (91-point pace)—after playing seven of nine at home to start the year, no less—to a 14-10-3 team (94-point pace). You can get annoyed that the team is being outshot, but you can’t sit there and tell me this team hasn’t battled through adversity. And if there’s one criticism that’s been consistently leveled at the Stars for the last decade, I think it’s been how they tend to falter when things get tough.

From the debacle against Minnesota that cost the team the playoffs and Marc Crawford his job in 2011, to the embarrassment against Anaheim to drop game six in 2014; from the Art Ross season that saw goaltending sabotage everything in 2015 to Kari Lehtonen in 2016; from a 2017 team beset with injuries lost its way after coming off a world-class season, to the entire team crumbling in the toughest of moments late last year.

It’s been a rough decade for Dallas. And we’re leaving out some of the uglier seasons, too.

So, yeah, I’m not saying we all need to buy playoff car flags or anything, but now is a good time to appreciate just what this team did in Vancouver. Jamie Benn set the example in this game by finding his ferocity, and it was channeled the right way. No one needed his face punched for Dallas to send a message. The Stars just came out of the locker room for the final 20 minutes in B.C. and took over the game.

When Benn finally did score to level the game, I was doubly nervous. The entry had seemed potentially offside, and maybe this was all coming back....and then Vancouver was challenging for goaltender interference. That seemed pretty clear, but then again, Justin St. Pierre has been involved in some rough games for Dallas, so seeing him with the headset was a dicey moment, indeed.

I think it was when Tyler Pitlick adamantly latched onto the puck behind the Canucks’ net just after that when I finally realized the Stars had tied it, and that they wanted more. Fresh off some delicious steak (I assume) courtesy of Tom Gaglardi, the Stars could smell blood again. This team wasn’t playing with its food anymore.

The Colorado game was an awful letdown, but this game really did wash a lot of it away, for me. Dallas overwhelmed a frail Vancouver team, and they earned themselves two points.

We’ll finish with some rapid fire:

  • Jason Spezza had a couple of world-class passes and hit a post, as he continued his solid play from Calgary, but this time on a line with Benn and Tyler Seguin
  • That effective line might be a critical find for Montgomery, if he rolls 14-91-90 on the road again. Radulov can make any line dangerous, whereas I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the 35-year-old Spezza to carry the Stars’ absentee scorers right now. With Val Nichushkin and Mattias Janmark not scoring, with Blake Comeau turning himself into a PK specialist who doesn’t have an NHL shot to beat goalies anymore, and with Devin Shore scoring mostly in bursts this year (zero goals since the Klingberg injury against San Jose), Spezza has failed to spin straw into goals at an impressive rate (2G, 3A since that same San Jose game). But if he can remind Seguin and Benn who they are while Radulov works his magic elsewhere, the Stars could have two scoring lines again. And even if they do make it to the playoffs (they have a very narrow margin right now), they’ll need far more offense to beat the good teams than they’ve been able to muster thus far.
  • Radulov, of course, didn’t score in this one until Jamie Benn found him, so maybe it’s too early to anoint Radulov as King of Any Line.
  • Jason Dickinson, meanwhile, looks better every game. He was embodying a lot of the top dog’s tenacity in this game, and even the penalty he took (like Spezza and Radulov) was outweighed by his play down the stretch. Would you trade Dickinson for anything right now? I’m not sure Dallas could afford to do that, realistically. They need all the young help they can get until OHL Phenom J. Robertson takes the mantle as The Next Jason. Got a lot of those guys around lately, I’ve noticed.
  • I’d pay a lot of money (well, not my money) to know what Jim Nill thinks about the fact that his first two 1st-round draft picks spent this game in the press box together as healthy scratches, while his 2015 pick is currently in the AHL waiting for a spot to open up—a spot currently occupied by players like Gemel Smith, who played three games in this one. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-goon play that few minutes without injury or ejection. One begins to wonder if Smith and Julius Honka were responsible for an elaborate prank that went wrong and caused major water damage to Jim Lites’s living room or something. We are open for suggestions.
  • Nichushkin will be back in the next game, one suspects. I’m not sure who comes out for Brett Ritchie (five straight scratches) though. Can’t imagine teams are banging down the door for anyone’s press box fodder at this time of year.
  • Tyler Seguin will have a hat trick in the next couple of weeks, right? Not sure how
  • Blake Comeau had a breakaway in this game, and he did not score a goal. This has been your Blake Comeau Update.
  • Benn is still the team’s leading goal-scorer, by the way. Hey, he won an Art Ross with 87 points, so the dude at least knows how to be the fastest guy running away from the monster and all that.
  • Vancouver absolutely killed the Stars’ ability to exit the defensive zone for too much of this game. Dallas has a lot of trouble improvising zone exits with this defense corps, in case you hadn’t noticed. It pays to have John Klingberg on the ice for 25 minutes a night. The dude takes some risks, but he finds the seams and gets the puck heading north with possession more often than not. You gotta have that to have a good season. Teams are too good at defending the neutral zone.
  • Ben Bishop stopped a breakaway of his own (on Brock Boeser, no less!) as well as a few great chances. Welcome back, Ben. Things are slightly less on fire than before, but we still need you to save a few puppies from the burning attic, if you’re not busy. Thanks.
  • Roman Polák is a joy to watch on the penalty kill if you’re into that sort of thing. Is he the biggest catharsis for the “KLinGDBORG getS PuSHED AroUnd in teh CRASE 2 muCH!!!” crowd since Mark Fistric? Either way, he had some good moments on and off the kill, including a really nice play to pick up the puck and skate hard in order to get to space and clear the zone. His work ethic is unquestionable, and coaches love that. He still isn’t much of a passer, but the Stars’ blue line is a patchwork, and we love each square for its unique virtues these days.
  • Gavin Bayreuther still has some bad defensive lapses, which is to be expected for a player who was supposed to tidy things up in the AHL for another year, at least. Interesting to me how long a leash a lot of the other guys on Dallas’s blue line have than Honka. Something tells me he’s used his up over the course of more than just this season.
  • Credit to the Stars, though: Montgomery said he’s needed to simplify the system lately, and they’ve found a way to hit NHL-average when they didn’t have the blue line to risk much better. I still envy the Penguins, who can out-score other teams with Kris LeTang and an old Maytag playing 26 minutes a night, but if this is Functional Dysfunction, they can live to fight another day.
  • That final penalty on Tyler Seguin was, I think, the right call, since he didn’t have the puck with him, but it also prettied up the penalty differential, which officials love to do. Dallas has, by my count, earned 32 power plays and surrendered 34 since Evander Kane broke Klingberg’s hand by accident. The penalty kill has been stout (Khudobin, again, deserves high praise for his efforts on it), but you aren’t going to do well over the next 10 games if your power play is rocking under 10%, no matter how many loose vertebrae get dislodged in front of your net by your penalty killers. Time to figure it out and raise that low-water mark, boys.