The more ordinary the Stars have looked in terms of process, the more heroic their results have been. This is a weird season.
How maddening would this game be if you were a Sharks fan?
Timo Meier hit the bottom of the crossbar early, missing a goal by the slimmest of margins. Ben Bishop saved another high-grade shot off a cross-ice pass early on. Then San Jose hit another post later in the game. Then there was the whole No Goal call because the puck was whistled dead while it was sitting on the line, despite never being really covered by Ben Bishop. Those all fell among 43 total shots, and only two of them end up beating Bishop.
Amid all that, the Stars sniped a couple of goals on odd-man rushes, including the second goal in as many games for Brett Ritchie, who had played himself out of the lineup until Blake Comeau’s third child was born the other day. The other goal came from a 19-year-old defender the Stars chose to keep rather than trading for Erik Karlsson.
For a team with Stanley Cup expectations coming into the season, that’s one rough regulation loss to eat.
The only thing worse than being outplayed is being outscored though, and the Stars managed to doggie paddle their way to victory in this one—or, more accurately, Bishop did the paddling while most of the skaters hung onto him for large stretches.
Ben Bishop was the first star of the game, and that’s as it should be. The Stars don’t win this game (and maybe even take a single point) without solidly above-average goaltending, and they got that and some great puckhandling from Bishop. As you can see above, the Sharks heavily outchanced Dallas, and while a lot of those additional chances came from the point, it’s a minor miracle that none of the shots below the circles beat Bishop.
If you’re inclined, you could paint this game as a perfect microcosm of the Stars’ season: some lumps taken early, but some improbable heroics and just-enough goal prevention gave them the opportunity to make something of this game, and that’s what they did.
I mean, look at where these goals came from: Janmark’s second of the year (from Polák’s first assist), and Miro Heiskanen’s fifth came from Pitlick (his second primary assist of the year) and Faksa (his first secondary). If you don’t have whiplash yet, then you’ll be pleased to know that Brett Ritchie’s second of the year at least came from, comparatively speaking some of the more likely scorers: Jason Spezza and Devin Shore, who sit 4th and 5th on the team in scoring, respectively.
That Janmark goal was really interesting, the more you watch it. It seems clear to me that Polák was just trying to clear the puck to center, perhaps to Pitlick. Instead, the puck goes all the way to Janmark, who rushes in and beats Martin Jones with a shot that embodies the whole “work smarter, not harder” philosophy: open up the blade, and beat the goalie far side. Janmark holds the puck out a ways from his body a little bit like Auston Matthews, which makes it a tad tougher for goalies to read the player’s load transference, and thus, the shot itself.
Anyway, the Stars capitalized on their chances, and the Sharks didn’t, on theirs. That’s usually why one team wins and the other doesn’t.
Martin Hanzal returned from a grueling recovery over the span of 10 months, and good for him. That’s some kind of dedication and work ethic, and it’s worth celebrating on a personal level.
As far as the game goes, Hanzal was not quite in peak form, though at least that helped him blend in with a lot of teammates. Hanzal sat a lot in the third period, and yet he still ended up playing more minutes than Spezza, who played a season-low 9:56 in this one. If you’re wondering where Hanzal’s minutes will come from, the answer so far seems to be: from Roope Hintz (who was sent to the AHL rather than the press box Friday, and scored the game-winner for Texas, to boot) and from Spezza. The Hanzal-Spezza-Shore line was Technically An Idea, at first, but after a couple of really rough shifts and a goal surrendered, the line started to look too porous to do Jim Montgomery much good, and things got shaken up in the final period.
The Evander Kane goal was a good example of where Hanzal and Spezza are at: Hanzal fumbled a puck (again, like so many other players did on what looked like possibly not-super ice conditions from my seat in the stands), and then Spezza, rather than just thwacking the puck deep, tried to make a play with it. He was overpowered and turned it over. Cue 4-on-2 rush, cue Taylor Fedun not quite cutting off the pass or the shot, and the Stars were in a hole. Overall, Spezza should probably take the majority of the blame for the minus, but there were not many clean hands in this game.
The other moment showing issues with Hanzal and Spezza’s chemistry at this point came when Spezza attempted a rush up the middle of the neutral zone, only to be foiled by Hanzal, who was more or less drifting at the blue line waiting to gain to the zone. Having two centers on the same line can lead to that, and I’m not sure how much patience Montgomery will show in letting that duo work out their living arrangements. There isn’t a lot of speed there to cover up for mistakes.
Esa Lindell played almost half the game, five minutes more than Karlsson and three more than Brent Burns (who, to my eyes, did not have his A-game tonight, either). For all the talk at the end of last year about how the top guys got worn down by Ken Hitchcock’s system, one wonders what Esa Lindell (and Miro Heiskanen, for that matter) will look like in late January. At least they’re getting a lot of the rougher parts of the schedule over with now, I suppose.
Brett Ritchie scored off a nice Devin Shore feed on the rush to get enough breathing room to survive. Miro Heiskanen’s goal came off a wonderful transition sequence (wonderful for Dallas, at least) where I think all five Stars’ skaters touched the puck in a row as they gained the neutral zone before Heiskanen’s shot beat Jones. It was pretty, and the Finnish finish really gave the Stars a lift. San Jose must have a “here we go again” sort of vibe in their room by this point, don’t you think? For goodness’ sake, the Sharks could be caught by Arizona, who have three games in hand. That’s a sobering thought for anyone.
Joel Hanley and Taylor Fedun are more or less cemented on the blue line until Santa brings John Klingberg back. The top line got favorable deployment at home, and the Stars got production from lower in the lineup. These things aren’t the way you draw it up, but the Capitals weren’t the best team in their division last year. We all want our team to be the best from start to finish, then sweep the playoffs. Anything else is failure, of a sort. That hurts, and we want to blame someone for making us hurt.
The Stars are winning games, somehow. They’re on a four-game kick. I remember seasons not too long ago when winning three in a row was too much for Dallas to muster, so you’d better believe I’m relishing ridiculous, undeserved wins like these. No, it’s not an optimal gameplan in any sense, is getting outplayed for much of the game. That first period was drawing a lot of dark humor out of us in the stands for this game, because what else can you do when confronted with Really Bad Hockey from the team you love? You keep cheering, and hoping, even when the odds are against you. The Stars can’t expect to play this way and win another four games in a row, but at least they are showing signs of understanding what they are, right now. They try to keep pucks outside, and while they didn’t even do that in the first period tonight, Ben Bishop picked them up, and the rest of the team, just barely, put themselves back in the win column.
All winning streaks are fun exactly because they’re improbable. Brian Boucher got five shutouts in a row, you know. Hockey exists mostly to prove us all wrong. Enjoy the ride, even as you analyze what still needs to be fixed. They’ll lose again, someday, and then we’ll get to dissect exactly why their losses were presaged with some of these wins. Getting 40+ saves from your goalie is like getting record-setting numbers of blocks of Kris Russell: it’s good, but also very disconcerting.
Stealing games is fun, but it’s outright laughable when the theft takes place in plain sight. Especially against the Sharks. If nothing else, just enjoy that the Stars found another way to break the Sharks’ hearts in AAC yet again.