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Afterwords: Even-Strength Scoring Still AWOL for Everyone Except Jamie Oleksiak

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Another tired team outworks a fresh Stars team in front of another backup goalie.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, universe. We get it. You’re into irony, storylines, and all that stuff. Blah blah blah, the Stars send another one of their highly touted defensemen to Pittsburgh after he struggles in Dallas for a few years, and blah blah blah now he’s magically magical playing with two of the best players in the world in front of an outstanding goalie. Yeah, okay. Har har. That’s enough.

But no, of course it’s not enough, because Jamie Oleksiak had to score the game-winning goal against the Stars. The Penguins had a miserable start to the season, even prompting articles about how they might miss the playoffs, let alone fail to defend their two titles in the playoffs. They have since turned on the jets, Evgeni Malkin has morphed into a Megasaurus, and they’re looking once again like a team you really don’t want to face in the playoffs.

Speaking of Malkin, that hit on Klingberg probably gets a look by DoPS if the names are reversed (as would many other hits every night), but I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for it. Malkin is A Big Guy, and Not That Kind of Player, and so on and so forth. If anyone manages to get Facebook Friended by Colin Campbell though, I’d love to hear his unfiltered opinion on that one (which we’ll probably still have to censor anyway). Please contact me at the listed information once you have conducted this Very Important Operation.

By way of contrast to the Vaunted Two-Time Champion Penguins, Dallas is looking more like a team no casual fan would want to watch in the playoffs, as their quiet offense and listless power play was completely shut down by the Penguins (and the aggressive Pittsburgh PK, which the Stars were not remotely ready for) until Jason Spezza finally found Radulov on what would have been another disastrous, momentum-killing 5-on-3 had the Stars not converted. But they did, and the game looked different heading into the third. I’d love to write more about how the Stars prefer Spezza over Shore or Ritchie on two-man advantage power plays but not 5v4, but this is too long already (as you’ll see), so we’ll skip it for now.

So with a new one-goal margin to open the third, a now-close game then looked less good off another power play goal by the league’s best power play (and we needn’t go on about the weird officiating in this one), but Kelly Forbes is a brilliant human being who has saved the Stars at least five or six goals in the last couple of years, by my count, and Dallas got a new lease on life, though they never managed to do much with it. (Aside: how pressure-packed must it be to frantically review potential offside challenges as the arena is rocking and the coaches are asking whether they should taking a penalty? That’s a tough job, right there.)

The third period saw little in the way of Dallas chances, as DeSmith never really got tested. The Pens’ defensive structure was good, and the Stars just couldn’t find their way into the slot to save their lives. Hitchcock was adamant that this was due to some passivity and “waiting to go on the power play” by the Stars, but it’s also true that the Stars’ best couple of looks at evens came off the rush, and this system is notoriously detrimental to generating rush chances. (This is, by the way, a Pens team whose defense is hardly circumspect, at times, but the Stars rarely leaned on them.) Credit to the Penguins (and DeSmith) for withstanding those few chances, and sure, criticize the Stars for not really going to the dirty areas and all those truisms that ticked-off coaches usually go to. It’s not like they’re wrong about the events; it’s the cause behind those events where debates tend to diverge. Seguin can hardly will himself into the low slot with the puck in a shooting position. It’s all connected.

Yes, the Stars had some looks in this one through 40 minutes, but you know the drill. Tyler Pitlick got in on Casey DeSmith, Actual Penguins Goaltender, off a change in the second period, but couldn’t beat the blocker. Radulov likewise had a great chance all alone in the first, but the Stars once again couldn’t beat a goalie on a breakaway, stop me if I’ve played this song already. The Radulov look came off a nice counterattack sequence from a Lindell outlet pass to Seguin, who relayed up to Radulov as he split the defense at the opposing blue line.

The reunited top-line also sent Jamie Benn in with a good rush chance late in the second, but his confidence still seemed lacking, and he chose to turn away from the net and eventually set up a long Seguin one-timer from the top of the circle, which DeSmith swallowed up. I suspect that a different Jamie Benn goes to the house there or tries to draw another player to him, but we’re all speculating at this point, so I could be seeing something that’s not there. Maybe it was Benn’s best option, I don’t know. If so, that’s pretty telling about how good the Penguins’ defense was Sunday.

I did think it was curious that Hitchcock went away from that top line combination for the third period, as Brett Ritchie was still getting reps with Benn and Seguin with the Stars trailing late, while Radulov was playing with Janmark and Faksa. It seemed like an effort to get away from Mike Sullivan’s matchups, but it never seemed to matter too much, outside of a couple of decent shifts by the Janmark line midway through the third. All told, the big guys ended up getting a huge chunk of minutes tonight, with Benn (23), Radulov (23) and Seguin (25!) all being leaned on heavily. I wonder if those minutes took their toll as the game wound down, with the Stars looking just a bit too slow and weary to do much with Lehtonen pulled. But hey, if you’re Ken Hitchcock, what choice do you have with this lineup other than begging your top guys to score? This team has meticulously eliminated that “41 Thunder****” gear that Ruff’s Stars could so easily slip into (albeit not always in the most ideal times), but we’ve been spoiled with late comebacks lately, so it’s easy to forget that.

In the “whoopsie” category, Dan Hamhuis copied John Klingberg’s effort from the other night (which sounds good!) against his own goaltender (oh), but once again, Kari Lehtonen’s reflexes kept the team from embarrassing itself. Greg Pateryn also had trouble finding the handle on the puck a few times tonight, so I wonder if there was a broader ice issue, or if the Pair Formerly Known As Shutdown Defensemen are being exposed a bit. For my money, Greg Pateryn is looking more and more like the seventh defenseman the Stars thought he was to start the season, as he had the puck taken away from him multiple times in the defensive zone and had trouble clearing the puck when he didn’t lose it. That’s hardly a surprise, of course, given the top talent the Penguins were icing, but if the Stars are really married to these six blueliners with the season winding down, it’s hard to feel all that confident about the choice the coaching staff has made. Perhaps they will be vindicated in the remaining 15 games (Assuming Marc Methot’s knee doesn’t bother him any more, of course), and certainly there’s no guarantee that the FREE HONKA sign behind the net in Pittsburgh points to the solution to Dallas’s scuffling. Maybe this is just life in Ken Hitchcock’s system, and you’ll have some feast or famine stretches depending on some secondary factors, so trying to change the script with one or two tweaks isn’t going to divert the locomotive from its proverbial path.

(This logic, by the way, conflicts heavily with coaches’ dedication to faceoff wins, which have a much smaller impact on the game than most any personnel improvement—even on the fourth line—might have. But this is NHL wisdom, and hardly unique to this coaching staff, so I’ll spare us all from retreading the same discussions that 25 other teams could have right now.)

It occurred to me tonight that it’s fitting for Ken Hitchcock’s former top-four-by-design guy in Oleksiak to beat this team with a goal at 5v5 from the low slot. The whole idea behind Hitch’s coaching of Oleksiak was to mold him into a defensively responsible player who could handle tough minutes, but Oleksiak’s trust slowly evaporated among the coaches, and Hitchcock eventually looked elsewhere for a reliable shutdown pairing. Tonight, Oleksiak broke up a 3-on-1 and scored a goal while playing second-pairing minutes. I still wouldn’t bet on Oleksiak turning into the next Matt Niskanen (or even Trevor Daley), but it’s nice that even a new Stars coach gets to bask in the glow of the Stars’ struggles to develop their top defensemen while other teams can take most of those same guys and go full plug-and-play with just-fine results. Hey, don’t worry though, I’m sure they know what they’re doing with Julius Honka.

Kari Lehtonen, who we ought to have talked about more before now, had a great stop on Conor Sheary after another mistake from Dallas, this time a pass to the opponent’s tape by Remi Elie. I don’t think you can ask much more of your backup goalie than what Kari gave tonight, as both the Hornqvist goal (a ripped one-timer off a great cycle) and the Oleksiak shot (another one-timer that went into the utter top corner from the low slot with traffic in front) were just flat-out fantastic work by Pittsburgh to beat a chasing Stars team. The Stars, if they could score, would really have a lot of smiles for Kari given his recent play, but smiles are kind of sparse right now, so weak thanks are all they had tonight.

Speaking of the lack of smiles, the offense has not provided many at all lately, as Sean Shapiro succinctly said in his postgame 20/20:

Five-on-five goals are rarity for the Stars. They have now gone four straight games without a five-on-five goal.

The team’s last five-on-five goal came against the St. Louis Blues when Radulov tied the game at 2-2 with 2:56 remaining in an eventual 3-2 overtime win.

Yeah, I don’t think the skaters have much cause to look askance at their goalie these days. But that’s not the whole story.

*WARNING: Incoming stat dump*

If we use February 1st (the day the Stars beat Arizona to kick off what would be a five-game winning streak) as an arbitrary cut-off date (so at least we’re not purposely omitting the Stars’ best stretch of play recently), the Stars’ identity begins to materialize. Since 2/1, the Stars are dead-last in NHL 5v5 goal scoring, with 23 tallies. (Though they’re tied with New York and Carolina for only 2nd-last in all situations, so, hooray!)

However, they are also 2nd-best in the NHL in 5v5 goals allowed, with 27.

Since that five-game winning streak began, the Stars have 23 goals scored at 5v5 with 27 allowed. Their record in that time? A kind of absurd 11-6-2, despite a mid-pack power play (14th in that time, albeit with two shorthanded goals allowed). Their penalty kill was fantastic, as you know, allowing only seven goals (2nd in the league), but it’s not like the Stars have just been destroying teams at special teams over the last 40 days. If you’ve been scoring at home, you by now realize that this team only has a +2 goal differential at special teams to go along with their -4 differential at 5v5. That this performance has resulted in an 11-6-2 record is fortunate, to say the least.

Here’s some more blunt honesty for you: since February 1st, the Stars are 26th in the NHL in goals-for percentage, 26th in Scoring Chances generated, and 28th in high-danger goals for. The defense has been stout, and good thing, because it’s been all they’ve had, most nights. Those breakaways aren’t being converted, and the good chances are far from plentiful.

But again, and even crazier, they’re 1st in the NHL in high-danger save percentage, meaning their goalies have bowed up on the tough shots...while they’re last in the league in high-danger shooting percentage, meaning this team has made every other goalie (including seemingly every backup goalie imaginable) look like, well, a Dallas Stars goalie on shots from the prime areas. The Stars are not capitalizing on their chances, when they get them (which isn’t often). But the defense keeps things slow when it can, and the goalies have been largely fantastic lately. More often than not lately, the Stars have fallen onto the better side of the razor’s edge, but they’re certainly walking along it.

Here’s something you probably already knew: the Stars have amassed four goals in exactly one of their last 13 games: the 5-4 OT loss to Tampa Bay. This team’s scoring has dried up, Jim Nill and those around him didn’t want to pay the steep prices to get help at the deadline, and the coaches seem dead-set against making any lineup changes to fix that unless injuries compel them to. Ken Hitchcock thinks a lineup sans Smith and Honka is the Stars’ best hope right now against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That tells you where he’s at, like it or not. I suspect he has some good reasons for that preference, so it’s tough to argue against them without knowing what they are.

But back to the scoring drought: Yes, elite players can score in any system, and they have. But the Stars’ depth scoring isn’t miles beneath the rest of the league or something. Mattias Janmark, Tyler Pitlick and Radek Faksa are perfectly solid players in the middle six. Antoine Roussel and Brett Ritchie have been less productive this year, to put it lightly, but it’s not like they’ve been useless on the ice or anything. Devin Shore has produced on the power play, and Stephen Johns has even chipped in quite a bit.

So, okay: the Stars’ 5v5 scoring, since February 1st, looks like this:

Goals:

(5) - Seguin

(4) - Pitlick

(3) - Radulov, Johns

(2) - Shore, Hamhuis

(1) - Ritchie, Janmark, Klingberg, Smith

Yes, Jamie Benn isn’t on that list, which is certainly the biggest problem here. But he does have 36 shots in that timespan (2nd on the team), which is good, though most of those shots aren’t from dangerous areas, which is not good. The bottom line is, the goals do seem to break down according to the overall patterns this season in general, at even-strength, outside of Benn’s recent dry spell. All of the names up there (aside from Ritchie and Hamhuis) are also top-10 in the Stars’ 5v5 goal-scoring over the whole season. (Yes, even Gemel Smith, who has five goals at 5v5 in 30 fewer games than Brett Ritchie, who has four.)

But this is just not a team that is going to score a lot at evens, it seems, and that’s the way Hitch wants it, unless the other team serves up some pizzas. The Stars are bottom-10 in goals scored at 5v5 over the whole season and top-5 in goals allowed; keep it tight, get those OT points, and trust your top guys to come through enough to stay well above .500.

The real difference between this and the earlier Stars? The shooting percentage is down, and the power play isn’t tearing it up like it did early in the season. At this point, the only thing the Stars can do to tilt things at 5v5 towards more goal-scoring is to put in players like Julius Honka and Gemel Smith and risk being less stout defensively (as the team clearly sees it), or to tell the top guys to player better and harder while hoping for the power play to heat up. Hitch, for now, is choosing the latter. We’ve said all season that playing low-risk games is, in fact, its own sort of gamble, as one or two mistakes can put your behind and render your team’s greatest strength (locking things down) a moot point. It would be great if nobody made mistakes.

It would be great if Jamie Benn could start scoring again, but hey, you know what? Benn, with zero 5v5 goals since the end of January, is still tied with Tyler Seguin for the team lead, with 15. Jamie Benn did a lot of his work earlier in the season, and now the rest of the team is struggling to pick him up (if 11-6-2 counts as struggling). This is life in the Central Division, where 11-6-2 is only just barely enough to stay on the bubble.

Anyway, I’ll see you all in Montreal, where Antti Niemi sits waiting for the Stars, who are going to be paying him through the end of next season. Hey, you thought the Oleksiak goal was a gutpunch? Well, let’s just wait and see what Tuesday has in store.

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick.