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Afterwords: Back to Backs Bring Stars Back to Basic Starsing

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The Stars scored five goals, so I don’t know what everyone’s complaining about.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no great way to spin these two games, or this road trip so far. Let’s just boil it all down to start, shall we?

  1. Casey DeSmith, Real NHL Goalie shuts down the Stars, and Jamie Oleksiak scores the game-winning goal in Pittsburgh.
  2. Antti Niemi, yes that one, the same guy, shuts down the Stars behind Jordie Benn and what’s left of the Montreal Canadiens. This win includes Montreal putting an exclamation mark on the thing by killing off the Stars’ desperate two-man advantage at the end of regulation
  3. Kari Lehtonen reminds us that he is mortal early, but the Stars storm back against a notoriously unsteady Maple Leafs defense to take a two-goal lead into the third period. The Stars then proceed to surrender three goals in the the third period, go oh-fer on an overtime power play, and lose in a shootout. Oh, and the latter half of that game was against Curtis McElhinney.

So, yeah, there aren’t a lot of positives there.

The Montreal debacle already feels like it was ages ago, and the Toronto collapse is all-too-fresh. Ottawa looms, which is a thing I didn’t know Ottawa could do, but wait until they put out some fourth-string goaltender named Trent Cludbutter and score nine goals. Then you’ll feel right loomed-over, yessir.

I’m running out of fresh ways to say “The Stars Did It Again,” but let’s at least try to keep a positive perspective as we look back at a wild, 6-5 shootout loss, eh?

Good: The Stars scored five whole goals! The offense exploded, the Stars got some secondary scoring, and they came back from an early deficit. The offense has returned!

Bad: Nothing is safe. Even the vaunted third period lead cannot be salvaged. The Stars’ shutdown system only shut down their own offense in the third period, and the Leafs cranked it up and made a tired team look tired, which is a good strategy when playing tired teams, it occurs to me. If the Stars can’t hold a two-goal lead, what is the point of a system that neuters their transition game so drastically?

Good: Tyler Seguin was a monster in this one, scoring a fantastic goal all of his own volition, and adding two primary assists amid six shots on goal and 23+ minutes of ice time. Your best players need to be your best players, and Seguin was that for Dallas.

Bad: Tyler Seguin exploded for three points—more than the entire Stars offense had totaled in each of the preceding five games—and the team found a way to rise to the occasion, so that they could collapse in the face of it. It would be impressive if it weren’t so ghastly to experience. I didn’t know I still remembered so acutely how 2014-15 felt until this game happened. Does that level of trauma ever heal, or is each Stars game now a mere exercise in the inherently recursive nature of history? Who can bear it?

Good: The Stars were on the second night of a back-to-back, fighting some injuries, and that meant Julius Honka got into the lineup. All right! Time to get this top prospect into a high-flying game with lots of space, see what he can do, and-

Bad: Ken Hitchcock and his coaching staff would not trust Honka to hold their coats while they used the restroom at this point. The Stars effectively played with five defensemen in the third period for the second game in as many nights, as the coaching staff refused to play Honka for more than a couple of shifts in the third period. This, of course, meant more minutes for players like Esa Lindell and John Klingberg, who were two of the three defensemen to be iced in overtime (Dan Hamhuis was the other).

Not to be obnoxious, but as this game went to overtime, and given how Hitch and Rick Wilson had been deploying the defense, I absolutely expected to see 2, 3, and 23 in overtime, and that’s what happened. No Stephen Johns (who yes, got absolutely walked to force a penalty that led to the Leafs’ fourth goal) and no Julius Honka, of course. This overtime was a perfect microcosm of this team’s player usage all year: Load up the top guys with minutes when you need goals and the safe players (definition TBD) when you don’t (as if a team never needs goals), and give the other guys whatever’s left in the intervals.

Good: Oh hey, you said the team was tired. Well, good thing they have a productive player like Gemel Smith, who can score and add speed and help the team find its legs! These are critical role players for coaches, as they can provide a boost at a key time when-

Bad: Gemel Smith apparently ran over Ken Hitchcock’s foot in the parking lot after opening night or something, because Manalive, that’s something right there.

I need to be careful, though. It’s easy to type a diatribe against someone who doesn’t seem to be heeding conventional wisdom (or measurable trends), but of course we don’t know everything. We don’t know all of the “why” for Smith and Honka’s relative outcast status, and that’s important to keep in mind. If you were a fan talking to Ken Hitchcock face to face, and he told you bluntly that he had some very good reasons for doing what he did, you would probably (if you’re a big old baby like I) defer to this famous and very smart coach, and accept his decision. To do otherwise would take some serious guts.

But here’s the thing: to not play players that have made the team better when they’ve played is maddening when no explanation is offered. To have turned a blue-chip prospect like Julius Honka into a safe-play-first! guy in hopes that he can someday unleash his inner Doug Lidster before he flips his offensive game back on? That has serious ramifications for an organization that is not exactly rich in prospects as it is. But we’re near the end o this season, and that’s what’s happened.

Oh, by the way: it doesn’t mean anything, given the context of last season, but I thought it was interesting to note the two forwards out there with Honka when he scored his first NHL goal against Arizona: Jason Spezza and Gemel Smith. Times have changed.

Good: The secondary scoring finally showed up! Devin Shore might be an elite passer, even if his shot isn’t quite as NHL-grade as we might have hoped, and his power play totals seem to back that up. Anyway, Brett Ritchie, Remi Elie and Radek Faksa found the net, and that’s big for a one-line team, presumptively.

Bad: Toronto is kind of the polar opposite of Hitchcock’s system, so yeah, they gives up summa da goals. Can Brett Ritchie keep scoring if fed pucks in the slot by the team’s best player? Well, he couldn’t not score forever, so I’ll say yes. That said, I don’t know how Brett Ritchie has earned the defensive trust to be on the ice late in the game with the net empty all of a sudden, but he (and Seguin and Janmark and Klingerg and Lindell) was caught on the ice for a while, and even icing the puck wasn’t working for the Stars. But honestly, that goal for Remi Elie probably was huge, and if the Greg Pateryn-Radek Faksa connection wants to become the new secret mind-meld that leads to goals, I think we can all get behind that. Whatever it takes, boys.

Good: Lindell and Klingberg played almost 30 minutes apiece (28 and 27, respectivelty) and were on-ice for three of the Stars’ five goals! Hey, that’s something, right there. The Stars’ transition game stems from Klingberg, and Wednesday just shows how-

Bad: Yeah, uh, this duo was on-ice for all five of Toronto’s goals, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they happened to be standing on the ice by the bench during the shootout, just to be extra thorough. Esa Lindell got caught up with boxing a Leaf out of the lane up high, leaving James van Riemsdyk approximately ten minutes to methodically surmount Kari’s left pad with the puck. John Klingberg, in another moment of regret, lost his man on the penalty kill in the third, allowing a pass to get through that should not get through, or at least not to a free stick.

This duo has done a lot of good this season, and that’s because they are good. But this game was not their best game (as a unit, that is—Klingberg really did have some dynamite moves in Toronto and Montreal, on both ends of the ice). Still, you have to move on from a game like this, both because it’s the healthy thing to do from a mental standpoint and because the Stars have no choice. This is their top defense pairing, and they had some mistakes tonight. Defensemen make those, and you live with them, and you love them for the good things they do. But this Toronto game was a three-for-one gutpunch, and I think that duo is feeling it as much as anyone today.

Good: Kari Lehtonen punched Leo Komarov and didn’t get a penalty. Catharsis!

Bad: Kari Lehtonen has not yet blocker-bludgeoned the other players on my List, and also he kind of borked up this whole game early on with an egregious gift goal to Nazem Kadri. Yeah, that was bad. Do not do those things.

Ben Bishop is still recovering from his lower body injury that could totally be anything and just not a knee, we don’t know, and while he seems likely to return sooner than my tentative (and uninformed) Game 78 prediction, this team is all kinds of lost right now. The defensive system can’t withstand a period of pressure without getting pinned in the zone multiple times, the power play is coughing and wheezing to life (which is good) only erratically (which is bad), and the penalty kill has been downright irrelevant.

The team is looking tired, though not despondent, but I don’t know where they’re going to find the wheels to do what needs to be done in these final 11 games right now. The schedule is brutal, the team is hurting, and even great efforts aren’t getting them the points they need. The breaks just aren’t coming, and they haven’t been consistent enough to deserve many of them, frankly.

However, we can at least end on a good note:

Good:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.