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Afterwords: No Warm Welcome Back for Hitch

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Dallas thumped the McDavid-less Oilers 4-1, but it was hardly a cake walk

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

That’s the song Hitch thinks everyone in Dallas is singing, but it’s probably closer to something like this:

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Any decent team should beat the Oilers when Connor McDavid isn’t playing:

Edmonton has been a pile o’ issues for a while now, and even their recent upturn since the Hitchcock hire hasn’t suddenly given them a quality blue line or a consistent scoring threat behind the top line. That said, the Stars didn’t take the game to the Oilers for most of this one or too many of the ones before it, which is either encouraging (since they’ve been picking up points in spite of that) or worrisome (because the other shoe has yet to drop).

For all that, the Oilers had their chances to steal this one before things deteriorated. But some good last-minute defense and Anton Khudobin kept the game well in hand, and the 1-0 lead eventually emerged from its chrysalis with a couple more goals on its wings.

It really is too bad for Khudobin that the shutout was lost late in the third period, because he was as strong as ever in this one. His stop on Leon Draisaitl during a 2-on-1 that became a clean shot was clutch, and his other high-danger saves and rebound minimization have become almost rote. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be this confident in a team’s goaltending. It’s pretty cool, this feeling. Still, it’s tough to get too bent out of shape at Heiskanen for a little bit of a lapse on Jujhar Khaira 23 minutes into a game.

Tyler Seguin later walked in on a 2-on-1 of his own, and he hit his target—or at least what I assume is his target, since he’s the league-leader in post-hitting this season. Those two moments pretty well encapsulated the first 40 minutes of this one, as offense was pretty well strangled in full view.

In the only slightly less violent crimes category, Jason Dickinson was bludgeoned in the face for like the twelfth time this season (rough estimate). I ask you, gentle reader: is it time for the Robidas Cage in order to prevent a similar fate?

The Stars’ power play deserved a goal on its first chance, but Devin Shore’s one-time shot went into Koskinen’s big frame, and Tyler Pitlick’s rebound chance didn’t get collected and fired quickly enough to get past the defensive wall in front of the crease. It was an encouraging sign from a power play that has been, to put it kindly, “Mostly Very Bad” for too long now, and the encouragement would only grow later on when Jamie Benn chipped a really slick Gavin Bayreuther feed past Mikko Koskinen for a much-needed insurance goal.

Fact: Jamie Benn has been looking much more like The Captain lately. We’ll get to that, but before we do, I don’t know what to make of this rather feeble shot by the former Most Accurate Shooter in the NHL:

Benn hasn’t ripped too many goals past netminders this year. The majority of them have been deflections, rebounds, or tap-ins. All of those still count, and hey, to literally any goal this season: well-met, indeed. But this play gave Benn plenty of time to pick a spot, and he missed it. That’s a bit concerning.

I know the five hole is available there, but a shot along the ice works a lot better when you’re in the slot, as the goaltender may need to move laterally, thus moving his stick and opening up the gap more frequently. But when you’re on the periphery, you need to either shoot it over the stick or around it, and Benn shot it pretty much right into the middle of Koskinen’s tape here. One wonders which Benn was aiming for here, as he pretty clearly is not trying to pick a corner. Anyway, I guess I’m just saying, the Stars’ leading goal-scorer seems like he isn’t quite as sharp as he’s been in seasons past. There are worse things, I suppose. Something to watch, anyway.

But back to the good: Jamie Benn got into the physical part of the game as well, and a retaliatory attempt by Zack Kassian put the Stars on the power play midway through the third...upon which Benn scored to make it 3-0. That’s how you use a physical game to play smart. Benn laid a solid (legal) hit on Brodziak to start the whole fracas, and he played the part of Elegant Abstinence when Zack Kassian gronked out and tried to maim Benn and, later, Tyler Pitlick. Benn also laid a bit of a soft pick on Drake Caggiula before heading to the net on the power play, so I suppose we might be writing a different story if that had been called. Or, for that matter, if Devin Shore’s fumble on the entry pass from Bayreuther right before the goal hadn’t fortunately bounced back to him. (I’m still not sure why Spezza isn’t on that unit, but wheels within wheels and all that. Besides, maybe you say that any power play with Spezza and Heiskanen on it is the top unit. It’s nice that the Stars let their oldest and youngest players spend some time together. I bet they like different music, ha ha ha.)

I’m curious to know what Kassian said that actually garnered a 10-minute misconduct for verbal abuse later on, as the dialogue on the ice isn’t exactly refined at the best of times. Either way, I think it’s safe to say Kassian just became Hitchcock’s shutdown defenseman for the rest of the season.

Jason Dickinson, broken face and all, was notably put on Benn and Seguin’s line for an offensive zone draw late in the second period. Was this a reward for his goal, or a sign of things to come next year? Montgomery is clearly seeing what you’re seeing in Dickinson, and one has to think the Stars will only continue to expect more from him as time goes by. Patience, though.

Dickinson’s goal, by the way, was an interesting one, as it came from some good work by Brett Ritchie (number one star of the game) and, less intentionally, Mattias Janmark’s shattered stick. You have to admire Dickinson’s not being fazed by the flying twig heading his way on the play, but when you’re getting conked with sticks in every game regardless, maybe you jut get used to it.

Ritchie also looked solid enough for a fourth-liner in this one, and he had a couple of nice, quick plays with the puck in this one that give you hope for his return to some kind of productive form. His own goal came, as you know, from another broken play by Janmark, and that fourth [third] line’s effective play in this one was much-needed. Heck, both even-strength goals for Dallas were scored with the third defense pairing of Taylor Fedun and Joel Hanley on the ice. That’s some kind of depth, and depth scoring.

Blake Comeau and his wife Lacey had their third child on Monday. That is a wonderful thing. This has been a Very Wonderful Blake Comeau Update.

Bayreuther joined the Iron Man club with a rocket off the crossbar that would have made it 3-0. We can fawn over Bayreuther’s hard shot, but I’ll take the quick passes and patient transition play over slapshots all day long. Still, I suppose you have to unleash it every here and there just to keep penalty kills honest. Bayreuther is on the Stars’ top power play. One still marvels. Fun fact: Dallas signed Bayreuther right before losing badly to the Oilers two seasons ago, thanks in no small part to Rich Peverley.

Back to this one: Esa Lindell also added a goal of his own, but I was much more interested in his utter disregard for Edmonton’s first-round draft picks than a mere empty-netter (though Lindell’s scoring is becoming noteworthy):

Thank goodness another couple of those Edmonton picks were either scratched or traded, because heaven knows what Lindell would have done to Taylor Hall if he tried to steal Radulov’s banana.

Also, here’s something: Edmonton had six of their first-round picks playing in this game tonight. Dallas had four (though a fifth was celebrating his 23rd birthday in the press box) of their own firsts and three second-rounders to boot, with another second-rounder now playing in Edmonton.

Speaking of which, how about Roope Hintz standing up for Jason Spezza, who took a big hit from that same second-round pick, Alex Chiasson? Chiasson has really found some sort of identity in Edmonton, and while it remains to be seen whether he’ll hold onto it as the shooting percentage continues to dry up, I’d appreciate it if Chiasson would stop boarding Spezza and punching Hintz in the process.

One last note: Jason Dickinson now has eight career goals. Valeri Nichushkin has 23. Care to bet on if and when Dickinson will erase that gap? Right now, it seems like merely a matter of this season or next, but things can change.

Second-round pick Devin Shore also got into things, taking a few big punches from Darnell Nurse in the ensuing scrum. The whole “lay a lickin’ on ‘em” seemed right out of the Hitch Hockey playbook from last year, but the Stars really did exactly what they needed to do: absorb some punches, and hit the other team where it hurts.

I’m curious if anyone remembers what the earliest mark was for Hitch pulling the goaltender in Dallas last year, because he pulled Koskinen down 3-1 with 3:30 remaining in this one. Maybe Hitch is just trying to be avant-garde after all of those conversations he had with Jim Montgomery gave him the idea this season. Either way, it was fitting that Jim Montgomery’s number one defenseman would hit the Oilers in a tender spot one more time, as he cleared a puck into the Oilers’ empty net with the Stars defending a 6-on-4 power play.

Some wins are nice, and some are sweet. This was satisfying, as it ended the Oilers’ upswing for the moment while also launching the Stars into a three-game run of their own. You can see the benefits of Ken Hitchcock’s system even as you are loathe to admit it, but that doesn’t mean the guys on the Dallas bench don’t desperately want to exploit its flaws and extract its strengths for their own gain.

Time will tell whether Dallas can build on the low-event style they’ve used most of this year and turn it into something closer to the “relentless” system Jim Montgomery promised. Right now, it’s enough that Dallas isn’t collapsing when they’re sending out the lower lines. Dallas has spent too much of this year without John Klingberg, not to mention long stretches without Radulov or Ben Bishop. Seguin and Benn both had long droughts, and yet Dallas, lucky or otherwise, sits six points behind Nashville with the same number of games played. There are a few clear differences between Montgomery’s and Hitch’s systems, but one of them most certainly is that, when faced with adversity, Montgomery’s Stars have taken it in stride and followed whatever hero steps up: whether Dickinson, or Benn, or Khudobin, or Bishop, or Lindell, or Heiskanen, or even, marvelously, Gavin Bayreuther.

Divisional games are going to be huge, and those might be the biggest litmus test of all. Klingberg is due back around Christmas, nine games from now. The first eight of those matches are against the West. I always hated doing proofs in geometry, but if you want to know what kind of shape this team is really in, you’ll have to wait and see if the Stars really do make this a December to remember.