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Afterwords: Stars Dominate Rangers and Barely Win, but That’s Okay

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Martin Hanzal returned, and had himself a game

NHL: FEB 05 Rangers at Stars Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

First, just a note that the Stars are on a three-game winning streak. This is something!

It’s always a treat to see a player get honored for hard work, and the Dan Hamhuis Silver Stick Ceremony was really a special way to start this one, especially with the whole Hamhuis clan (parents, sisters, wife and three daughters) on the ice as well. From my own rather brief interaction with Hamhuis, I can confirm that he is every bit as kind, genuine and professional as everyone says he is. You never get tired of seeing players like that get honored.

With the shots on goal sitting at 20-5 Dallas when the Rangers scored, it was hard not to think that this was going to be One of Those Games. We know the Stars aren’t built to come back, Lindy Ruff was sitting on the opposite bench, and Henrik Lundqvist was going full Minority Report on the Stars the minute they even thought about trying to score. After a couple of listless power plays, Devin Shore turns the puck over in the neutral zone, and boom. A dominant first period for Dallas turns into a deficit after an absurd little trickling goal gets tipped through Bishop and tapped home.

The Stars really did dominate this game, even if Ken Hitchcock was very moderate in his postgame comments. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin could have put up two goals apiece without anyone calling them especially lucky, but that’s not how things broke. Still, a 2-1 game is basically Hitch’s Platonic Form of a Good Hockey Win, so all’s well that ends well, and so forth.

The Stars probably should have had about five penalties in the first 25 minutes of the game, including yet another stupidly late hit by Cody McLeod, this time on Mattias Janmark (uncalled). However, the officials know The Referee Code, and that means Julius Honka had to get called for “slashing” in order to prevent the penalty disparity from getting too out of hand. I think I’ve railed against this idiotic axiom of NHL officiating before, so I’ll skip the reruns for now except to say that the Stars probably wouldn’t have cashed in anyway, given how their power play looked early in this one. It was a different hero that would done his cape on the power play tonight.

That said, Julius Honka was looking sassy as ever from the outset, for better and, once, for worse, but without anything to show for it early on. Radek Faksa couldn’t bury a great rebound in some brief time on the job after Mattias Janmark tried to score from his Backup Goalie spot along the goal line, and when all was said and done, the end result was a futile couple of power plays to start the game. Janmark would also get stymied by Lundqvist after the Stars’ third power play ended, just for poetry’s sake.

Poetry, yes. Jason Spezza has more or less been getting 4th-line minutes when Martin Hanzal is in the lineup, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all, as Spezza is someone still racking up primary assists despite secondary power play time and lesser teammates. Spezza’s 11 primary helpers are fourth on the Stars, even ahead of Jamie Benn. Spezza’s fastball has lost something this year, but it’s not like he’s disappeared altogether; far from it. You need players like this lower in your lineup, and Hitch has definitely not been afraid of the “lower” part of that particular proverb. Spezza has been giving what he can give, and often that’s been quite nice. He also has an identical faceoff winning percentage to Martin Hanzal, but that doesn’t get talked about much for whatever reason.

In terms of what Spezza gave, just ask Tyler Seguin, who in this case received a bit of a fluke pass and in turn gave a wonderful knucklepuck of a one-timer off the post. Broken play, sure; but well-deserved, if ever a goal were. The Stars played really well tonight, as one does against the Rangers these days.

Henrik Lundqvist was the story of the first period, and almost the game. He’s been a legendary goalie for a while now, and if you can forget about the fact that Dallas had said they would draft him and then changed their minds at the last second, it’s been a wonder what he’s accomplished in New York. These are the special players, and it’s a privilege to watch them at the top of their game, even if the defense in front of them was allowing Dallas to generate scoring chances and around the net like the crease was some sort of weird Scoring Chance Maypole.

Martin Hanzal is another player who could have potted a couple of goals tonight, as Remi Elie set Hanzal’s table right in front of Lundqvist just a few minutes into the second, but Hanzal couldn’t elevate the puck, and Lundqvist’s pad was there to do its routine duty. The puck was a bit in Hanzal’s skates, but it was a great play by Remi Elie to generate the chance at all. Dallas was all over New York in this one, and they were excavating scoring chances in the most unusual places, to put it lightly. I hope I’ve adequately communicated the fact that this should not have been a 2-1 game.

Another area where Hanzal deserves some credit is the penalty kill, where the Stars killed off three New York power plays. This club has badly needed some stability on the kill, at times, and Hanzal absolutely provides that in spades. It is good to have him back up and at ‘em.

The Stars’ top line was as dominant as ever, which you’d expect against a struggling team like New York, or also pretty much any other team, given how good Alexander Radulov, Seguin and Benn have been together this year. Jamie Benn was collecting scoring chances like Pepsi Points without result, but then the penalty-balancing egg timer went off, and Radulov went to the box for hooking (though this one was a pretty inarguable call), forcing Ben Bishop to come up with a sparkling stop shorthanded on Mats Zuccarello to keep the Stars close.

Julius Honka had a pretty bad moment about 12 minutes into the second when he attempted to split the forecheck and instead got stripped of the puck, forcing Ben Bishop to stand tall on David Desharnais in alone. It was one of those plays where, if Honka exits, the Stars can attack with numbers, but as he got puck jacked, the Rangers got a premium chance. Thankfully, Ken Hitchcock is totally fine with risky plays and high-event tactics, so it’s not like one mistake means you get pulled from the lineup or anything, ha ha ha.

After all the power play ineptitude, it was a delayed penalty that gave the Stars their first goal of the game. Seguin beat his man on the way into the zone, drew the call, and cashed it in, as we said, after a Jason Spezza pass bounced fortuitously to Seguin’s tape and subsequently beat Lundqvist, to the immense satisfaction of everyone in the AAC and, I assume, most of the hockey gods.

The Stars have not drawn a lot of penalties this year, and that has been understandable, at times. Their lower-event style doesn’t lend itself to as many calls in transition, as their rather deliberate play sometimes doesn’t forced the opposition to stop their quick plays up the ice via sinful responses. That said, Dallas should have been demolishing New York in the power play department, but the referees followed the example of far too many before them in This Wonderful League and kept the differential in check, buying a Brendan Smith stick-clamp on Janmark that was probably deserving of an even-up set of embellishment and hooking at the very least.

This isn’t to whine about penalties or whatever, though I guess that’s what it’s ending up as. And considering the Stars’ second goal came on the power play, I suppose we don’t have all that much to gripe about anyhow.

The Stars very willingly gave John Klingberg the Erik Karlsson Hall Pass with their power plays (almost 8! minutes of power play time), but it ended up being Julius Honka that catalyzed the Stars’ second goal (though Martin Hanzal drew the penalty as well). After a nice entry play between Janmark and Spezza, the puck was bumped back to the point, and a fadeaway Honka shot was tipped by Hanzal, as you know. It was a slick little play, the sort players try all the time on an empty net at practice. It’s tougher on a goalie, I’d guess.

One quibble: it was interesting that, during the replay of the goal, Craig Ludwig and Daryl Reaugh gave Martin Hanzal repeated praise for coming back into the lineup and scoring and winning eighty-six faceoffs, but they never even mentioned Honka’s name once (which the MSG broadcast did, for what it’s worth). I thought it was a very nice tip by Hanzal, for sure, but it would be nice to see the broadcasting team give Julius Honka some praise for a smart shot sent purposely wide so that it could be tipped in the first place, particularly after his gaffe earlier in the game. But then again, for anyone who’s watched this broadcast all year, I suppose it’s a surprise that Greg Pateryn and Brett Ritchie didn’t get lauded for creating that goal psychologically by looming at Lundqvist from the bench and intimidating him.

On a completely unrelated note, I thought Stephen Johns continued to look outstanding, overall. If the Johns-Honka pair can keep its mojo going, that’s a weapon, straight up. Both players can make great breakout passes, and while both have had their whoopsadoodles this year, lofty ceilings hold much more real estate value than secure basements, last time I checked. Honka only played nine minutes tonight, but that’s nothing new in tight games for Hitch this season. We know where Marc Methot’s going to slide in when he returns, and then we’ll get to have a whole different sort of conversation.

Anyhow, from that second goal onwards, the Stars locked this one down, and largely succeeded. The Rangers had a chance or two that Bishop had to stop, but this looked like a team whose season has all but slipped away in their own minds. It hasn’t, but surely the East isn’t so piddling that this is what passes for playoff-quality, right? I believe it is totally fair to judge a team’s season-long capability from one game, absolutely.

Radek Faksa and John Klingberg deserve some praise for their games, though Antoine Roussel and Tyler Pitlick made the third line a force tonight, for sure. But Faksa has become the sort of player teams dream about drafting—big, with some decent scoring, and a rather imposing hockeyness about him. Ken Hitchcock is surely itching for the chance to deploy Hanzal in the faceoffs, but Radek Faksa has been doing This Thing for a while now, and he’s every bit the player you want shutting down the other team’s guys and counterattacking.

As for John Klingberg, well, what is there left to say, except that he had one of his most effective games on a night where he didn’t record a point? Klingberg’s slick plays were too many to count tonight, from unreal keep-ins at the blue line to some effortless zone entries and passing plays. This is a next-level player, and the Stars appear wholly ready to hand him the keys to the whole deal. He’s earned it, and then some.

So the Stars now sit at 66 points in 54 games, on pace for 100 points exactly. There are some road trips left to be dealt with, and most every team trailing the Stars has games in hand. But when you play this New York team at home, you probably should get two points, and the Stars did that. Rick Nash might still be a player Jim Nill has his eye on (as we discussed many months ago), but the next couple of weeks will be as remarkable for what happens on the ice as what happens off it. Will Greg Pateryn and Dan Hamhuis be the go-to shutdown pairing in round one of the playoffs, should the Stars get there? All signs point to yes, and if nothing shakes Hitch’s confidence in the final 28 games, then probably we’d best get on board that train. But soundness and dominance are different things, and you could also go full Brad grumpypants and say that the Stars still haven’t really proven anything on a big scale just yet.

The Stars travel to Chicago now, and wow, it’s weird to think of that game as easy in any sense at all. Certainly the Stars wouldn’t dare to say that out loud, but this team has matched up well with the crumpling sandcastles of Stan Bowman this year, so if this run keeps a-runnin’, the Stars will keep answering more of our questions. How very nice of them to do so.