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Afterwords: Ben Bishop Comes Up Big, Which Was Apparently His Team’s Plan All Along

The power play finally showed up, but Ben Bishop showed everyone up last night.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Stars’ five-game winning streak ended earlier this month, they have won three games. All three of those victories (and all but one of their losses) saw the Stars score just two or fewer goals. Tuesday was almost the exact reverse of the Anaheim game, in which the Stars gave up the best chances (including a power play goal), but received outstanding goaltending to paper it over. Again, the Stars found a way to win with two goals.

And more than anything, that’s what you have to take away from this game. The Stars desperately needed a win to stay atop the bubble teams, and they got it. This time, it took a huge performance from Ben Bishop, but you generally need a player or two (or more) to step up in any given game, so no one’s complaining that it happened to be Bishop on a night when the Stars hung him out to dry against another desperate team in the Calgary Flames. You take these two points and stash them just the same as any others, and you deal with the shaky nature of the victory in piecemeal fashion. The Stars needed a win in a big game, and they got a shutout. That’s fanastic, and something to be happy about—particularly for anyone who had to sit through last season’s utter dearth of happy moments.

That said, Ken Hitchcock certainly wasn’t happy about this game, though:

What did we give up 30 scoring chances? I find it really pisses me off. Ben (Bishop) was great and did an outstanding job. He held us together and it’s two points and we’ve got to move ahead quickly. We need a lot better play from a lot more people. (Radek) Faksa’s line did it again and that’s getting to be a broken record. We have to seriously look at the way we’re playing our lines to get better because it’s not working. We’ve got 24 hours to get ready for one of the best teams, if not the best team in the National Hockey League coming in here and we can’t play like this. The players know that.

(Emphasis mine)

To drive the point home, this game really was the exact opposite of the loss in Anaheim, even down to the score. Like Dallas in Anaheim, Calgary in the AAC couldn’t capitalize on a lengthy 5-on-3 or a couple of breakaway chances; they surrendered a power play goal and severely outchanced the other team down the stretch; and they ended up with absolutely nothing to show for it thanks to a hot goalie and good-enough defense on the other side. So if you’re inclined, you might just say, “Yep, that’s hockey.” Things don’t always even out so quickly, but then again, sometimes they do.

Clearly Hitch isn’t viewing things that way though, and he saw the power play (which went one for six) as a prime example of what Dallas did (and has been doing) wrong:

We’re just being outworked. It’s not technical, we’re just being outworked. We’re being outworked at the puck. When we do it, like the first two, we’re good and we scored. When you’re outworked at the puck then you’re outraced up the ice and beat on the boards. We don’t have any traffic at the net on a consistent basis. All the things a good power play has, we’ve stopped doing it. We tried to play an easier game and it’s fallen into our five-on-five play too and we need to clean that up. We’ll get better at it. We’re trying to trust the same people out there. We’re trying to show them that we trust them and they can get the job done and turn it around. Eventually when it falls on my plate and we have to make a change, it’s going to be dramatic. We’re going to make a dramatic change where people who have played all year on it, won’t go out. Right now we’re trying to stay with them to see if we can turn this thing around collectively as a group.

(Emphasis mine, still)

Now, the natural conclusion to make is that Hitch is calling out some unproductive players on the power play, which was how I read his tone in the postgame press conference. Given that the Stars let the Flames pile up half a dozen shots shorthanded, you can understand Hitchcock’s frustration.

As for specifics, this season, when Hitch issues a veiled criticism about top players not performing, I’ve instinctively assumed that he is talking about Spezza, given the (mostly) 4th-line minutes and healthy scratch he’s handed the veteran center. And while Spezza did only get 5:47 of even-strength ice-time, I attribute that more to the penalty-fest that was this game than any sort of discipline. Spezza got almost four minutes of power play time Tuesday, in fact.

More to the point, Spezza has actually been one of the Stars’ most productive players on the power play, trailing only Tyler Seguin in Goals and Primary Assists per 60 minutes of power play time. Jamie Benn, meanwhile, has six power play goals and just two primary assists (which, yes, includes his helper on Tuesday) in just under 200 minutes of power play time this year. If I had to guess at whom Hitch’s ire is directed in terms of unproductive power play time, the captain (who had a slick feed to Seguin on the power play Tuesday) would be my assumption, but of course we will have to wait and see for that answer, if it’s even directed at a specific person at all (which it may not be). The other most unproductive candidates for a demotion off the power play, Devin Shore and Brett Ritchie, both have just one power play goal apiece all year, but Hitchcock also gave each of them some praise in his postgame comments, so you figure it out.

To that point, Devin Shore had a very good game, scoring on a great (5v5) chance in front and hitting a post on another. It was the sort of capitalizing Shore hasn’t been able to do for much of the year, and it was exactly what Dallas needed tonight. In watching the play, I’m still not sure where Flames goalie Jon Gillies was going, but I think he froze because he bought Shore’s fake behind a partial screen, and so that left a gaping net for Shore to hit after moving around the scrappy Hamilton, who threw away his shot at blocking Shore by going down to one knee.

Brett Ritchie also had some chances, even finding the post on one of his now-familiar spinaround shots, but it’s fair to say the Ritchie of last year is still not wholly present in terms of production and game-to-game impact. He did get a secondary assist on the Tyler Seguin power play goal to find the scoresheet though, and every little bit helps at this point.

As for the offense as a whole, the brutal fact of the matter is that Dallas just hasn’t been productive enough at even-strength or the power play lately, so it’s hard to single out one or the other as any sort of root cause. The Dallas defensive system is sound enough in its own right, but it needs some goal support to really look its best, and recent losses have highlighted the Stars’ inability to funnel that system into goal-scoring when they trail as the game goes on. Alex Radulov and Mattias Janmark are two bright spots, as they have been for much of the year, but the Stars will need more help down the stretch.

It’s worth highlighting just how fabulous Bishop was in this one, including jaw-dropping stops on a shorthanded rush by Calgary and another in-tight miracle save late in the 3rd period. He was just lights-out, and absolutely deserved his first-star honors, swallowing up pucks with little chance for rebounds, and staying in great position even through traffic. Goaltending requires so much confidence and concentration that nights like this can make you shake your head and just say “he was on tonight.” As with all professional sports, there are usually some minor adjustments behind a great performance, but only Bishop knows for sure what those adjustments were, and how many of them were mental, positional, or something else entirely. They worked, undoubtedly.

The lines got shuffled later in the game, but I have a hard time reading into late-game shuffles like that, particularly with the Stars defending a lead. Antoine Roussel got some time with Jamie Benn before Mattias Janmark was moved alongside him opposite Alex Radulov, but ultimately, things shook out as you’d’ve expected: Hamhuis and Pateryn got the bulk of the PK minutes and shutdown duties at 5v5 while Methot played only a Honka-sized 15 minutes; Gemel Smith played only 4:17, which shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point, while Remi Elie played 7:05. The Faksa line was more or less the second line again, if you disregard the massive distributions of penalty kill and power play time, and they did their usual bit of fantastic work.

Well, perhaps a caveat is warranted, as five of the Stars’ six penalties were also taken by the Faksa-Pitlick-Roussel trio (with Methot’s delay of game to put the Stars down two men being the other). I suppose Pitlick’s four penalties are the real story here (though Craig Ludwig demurred when Razor asked him about it on the broadcast), but it’s noteworthy that the team (well, one member of the team, at least) was able to kill off every penalty taken by players who are all known for their penalty-killing prowess. In fact, Faksa even took a matching roughing minor against Brett Kulak, which, along with Antoine Roussel’s interference call in the first, meant that the entire line got some time in the penalty box tonight. It’s nice when you don’t have to make that long skate back to the bench, eh?

If Radek Faksa ever does end up getting a chance to contribute on the power play, I’d say it’s about time. One of things about Hitch’s approach that I’ve had a tough time reconciling myself to is that he compartmentalizes players a lot without a lot of obvious performance to back it up. Lindy Ruff was more prone, for better or for worse, to tweak lines, power play units, and defense pairs when things got a little rocky, but Hitch and his coaching staff have largely adhered to their plan from early in the season without big changes, even in the face of unfortunate results. Sometimes, that consistency can be really good, long-term. Other times, changes are needed, and coaches need to adapt. Who among us can say which is which? I am guessing those of you in the comments are willing to fulfill this noble duty.

Certainly Dallas has not changed nothing, as a quick look at the forward combinations reveals, but we can, at the same time, see a team wherein Pateryn and Hamhuis is the shutdown pair ad infinitum, Martin Hanzal Is a Perennial Net-Front Power Play Presence whenever he’s healthy, Gemel Smith is Not a Special Teams Player despite scoring as much as possible in his limited 5v5 time, Brett Ritchie and Devin Shore Are Primary Power Play Options on a withering power play, and Jason Spezza Will Not Sniff Top Six Time Barring Disaster. The coaches see the same results we do (and with, it bears repeating, much more extensive analytical tools for their use, when they employ them), but they don’t make the same changes we might want. It’s frustrating, but hey, welcome to life as a sports fan. These coaches have a plan, and you can’t fault them for abandoning it too quickly, that’s for certain.

So, I guess you can look at things with a really positive lens this way: the penalty kill was perfect (thanks to Ben Bishop), the power play chipped in positively (thanks to Ben Bishop, who shut down shorthanded chances), and the Stars withstood an even-strength onslaught for two periods, thanks to Ben Bishop. You may have sensed a theme by this point. Here is a final illustration of Ben Bishop’s performance on special teams:

The Stars did not exactly keep Calgary to the perimeter on special teams.

That’s what you pay your number one goaltender for, right there.

As a last note, Jack Campbell picked up his first NHL win against Vegas Tuesday night, putting up 41 saves to defeat his fellow Stars alumnus Maxime Lagace at the other end. We are living in a world where Lagace is a goalie for the 2nd-best team in the West, and Jack Campbell’s own playoff team just beat them. That’s about right for this season, I think.