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Afterwords: How Much Do You Trust These Stars?

After getting stomped by Vancouver at home, the Stars are still in a Wild Card position. That’s an accomplishment, but will it be enough?

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In games that are no fun to watch, dissecting the corpse is almost unthinkable. Still, here are some of the brutal facts: The Canucks’ fourth line scored three goals, and another tally was put home by Bo Horvat, who used to be a nice person to look at back in 2013-14, when the Stars could say, “Ha! We have Valeri Nichushkin instead!” That looks like it will be the case again next year, but when successes of other players remind you of your own team’s difficulties, they go down even more bitterly than usual. Val is not back yet.

It’s also kind of widely assumed that Tom Gaglardi has some less-than-great feelings about Vancouver, given his attempts to purchase the team a while back. So, it probably stings a bit more than usual to lose a game like this one, to this team, of all teams. But the Stars couldn’t keep beating them forever, right? It’s a league of parity, after all. Let us all genuflect towards the NHL crest now.

The result of Sunday’s game was understandable in the context of recent games, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one unsurprised by a listless team in Victory Green. That has a kind of sing-songy lilt to it, eh? “A listless team in Victory Green.” I will write some sort of limerick with this line, some day later. Anyway, the Stars emptied the tank against Chicago and Pittsburgh, and those wins were quite impressive. Gutting things out against good teams is admirable (and a joy to watch), but again, there is some weird psychological thing that makes a team’s physical exhaustion seem to manifest more against lesser teams. Or maybe it’s all confirmation bias and this isn’t actually a thing, I don’t know. The Stars were bad, and got decimated by a bad team. And Loui Eriksson didn’t even score. Come on, Loui. We needed you.

There were a couple interesting things about this game, though. First, that Thomas Vanek goal was pretty disappointing, as Stephen Johns pinched deep on offense, leaving plenty of time and space for a forward to cover for him, and what happened? Antoine Roussel sort of stepped up in the neutral zone and gave a wave as Vanek passed by, only to turn around and realize that it was a two-on-one, and that Daniel Sedin had just passed to a streaking Vanek. Boom. Johns gave Roussel a little “Uh, what the what, dude?” right after the goal, and you can see what he’s thinking there. Hitch’s system is, like all systems, quite dependent on everyone transitioning between roles as needed, and on the relatively rare occasion (now) that a defender goes deep into the offensive zone, the forward is supposed to take his place. Roussel (or anyone else) did not do that, and it cost them. That seems like a mental error, and exhaustion breeds those like rabbits, as you must have noticed.

Aside: This metaphor is uncomfortably accurate, as I can attest after a childhood incident involving two female rabbits and another “female” rabbit acquired from the pet store, and lots of disturbing noises outside my bedroom the next night. Long story short, at our family’s low (high?) point, we had over 30 rabbits. Responsible pet ownership is very important.

/end aside

After two great goaltending performances (mostly), neither Kari Lehtonen nor Ben Bishop showed up to save their team Sunday. Not that there was much to save, of course, but there was little doubt which direction this game was going, and the netminders didn’t change that. Que sera, sera.

Remi Elie was the only Stars players without a minus Sunday, which must mean something, surely. Elie and Jason Spezza had some flashes in this one, but of the course the biggest moment was the no-goal call that Spezza said was, ah, a goal. A cruel irony of sorts, that the referee tasked to determine whether a goal had occurred was the visual obstacle for Toronto in agreeing with Spezza’s judgment. Would that goal have changed things early? Well, no, I highly doubt it. But it stings to see Spezza get a bit jobbed in a game where he showed up when few others did; it also stings to see Spezza getting only 10 minutes in a game the Stars were trailing for over 50 minutes, but Ken Hitchcock’s consistent/obstinate (take your pick) approach to ice time this season is well-documented, so I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that he didn’t crank up some Offense Super Turbo Boost or something and let Julius Honka lead the forecheck.

In that vein, Greg Pateryn and Dan Hamhuis led the defense comfortably in ice time, and while that was perhaps to be expected given John Klingberg’s absence while he got his lip repaired (ouch ouch ouch), I don’t understand the logic behind approaching a four-goal deficit like it’s a hill you have all day to climb. Maybe it’s more of a philosophical thing and Hitchcock doesn’t want his team abandoning their core principles even in moments of extremity; I suspect that’s a big part of it, actually. Or maybe he simply didn’t see any point in juggling lines or his preferred ice distruction among a group of guys who just plain hadn’t woken up for the matinee game. I get the idea of “check for your chances” and all that, but my goodness, if you’re digging and you hit a giant rock, you might want to trade the shovel for a jackhammer when you only have a few dozen minutes to get past it. But cute analogies wouldn’t hold up to the decades of logic Hitch has behind his ways (and that he isn’t going to reveal any time soon), so all we can do is speculate, and grow mildly frustrated when we would try something different. Perhaps Hitch was just sending his boys a message today.

Mattias Janmark’s gaffe near the blue line was pretty uncharacteristic, though I was kind of shocked Spezza was able to hit him with that pass in the first place. Maybe Janmark was likewise startled by the unexpected turn of events, and that contributed to his lack of speed in dishing the pill before getting caught. We can, again, only speculate. Errors are eminently understandable for us all, but you still have to suffer for them. I suspect that a fresh Ben Bishop would have jumped out and beaten Jake Virtanen to that puck below the blue line, but like the skaters in front of him, Bishop was a bit too slow to do what needed to be done.

The Canucks got some breaks, and the Stars didn’t. Ben Bishop was just unprepared for Reid Boucher’s first goal (and Dan Hamhuis got pretty soundly beaten to that puck, by the way), and Bishop was almost completely stationary for Bo Horvat’s goal, after the puck seemed to go awry from Brock Boeser’s intentions. Martin Hanzal and Greg Pateryn seemed like they had Reid Boucher’s stick tied down on the fifth goal, but Boucher got free at just the perfect time, because of course he did.

As for the sixth goal, Craig Ludwig mentioned that it was the perfect way to summarize this game, and Kari Lehtonen would probably agree. It was a Charmin-soft goal that you can’t have, but what did it matter at that point? It’s hard to grade goals on a curve, but that one doesn’t particularly worry me. It seems like the type of thing that happens to teams having terrible days. I am pretending to be a person who did not exist during the St. Louis series two years ago.

Anyway, what do you do with this last stretch? The Stars keep chasing that 3rd-place carrot, but Sunday, they got clubbed with the stick it was hanging from, and right on the nose. You can use this game to devalue the five-game winning streak that preceded it, saying it proves the Stars only have so much to give. (And really, don’t we all?) You could bring up the Toronto and Los Angeles losses that bookended the break and try to construct a pattern of disappointment, if you’re inclined.

For my part, this team is about where they belong, and I mean that both ways. They deserve to be in a wild care spot, and they deserve to be in a wild card spot. They are a team that sticks to their approach, but it’s an approach that asks a lot of the forwards and relies on transition play from only a couple of players on the defense. When those defensemen don’t blow the doors off the game, and when the forwards are a little lackluster, the system’s effectiveness wanes pretty danged quickly. The goaltending has been there to drag them along here and there, but the Guys in the Gear generally look about as good as the defense in front of them, with the odd stolen game here and there. (I might have described like every goalie there, so just ignore that sentence.) When odd-man rushes and great chances are leaking out of the USS Stars left and right (or port and starboard, I guess), the team gets what it deserves.

It’s not fair to draw long-lasting conclusions from this sort of game, but I don’t think it’s out-of-your-gourd, full banana sandwich to say the Stars don’t quite look like a Cup team yet, either. Hitch broke up the Faksa trio pretty quickly in this one, which he’s rarely done this year at all, moving Roussel to Hanzal’s line and Shore to Faksa’s wing. That was interesting, but what does it profit a team if they check the whole world, but lose by a goal or six? The Stars are a systematically counterattacking team, and when you can’t find a way to, well, counter the other team’s attack, you just sort of sit there and try to withstand the barrage until you can expose a weakness or draw a power play. I don’t know if I trust these Stars to be able to counter Tampa Bay in the Final (oh, blessed thought!) or even Nashville or Winnipeg in the earlier rounds. You’d like to see their weapons functioning a bit more autonomously at times, but just about everyone looked like they were dragging a piano around the ice during this one. If it’s as simple as “low energy,” well, how will this team look five games into a playoff series against any of the top three teams in the Central? Adrenaline changes things, though.

So I guess I trust the Stars to keep being the Stars: a team that can stifle shots and chances most of the time, and who can capitalize on mistakes enough of the time to win more often than they lose. But I don’t trust the Stars, yet, to become something more. Maybe that time is approaching, and maybe that five-game streak was enough Adversity: Overcome! to silence foolish doubts like mine. It’s all in what lens you look through at this team, and right now, my vision is stubbornly refusing any rose-colored tint. The trade deadline approaches.