Around 10 years ago, I was driving back from a friend’s house down in Dana Point. It was around 2 am, and as I drove back, I remember feeling as tired as I have ever felt. It was one of those times where, even though I hadn’t been drinking or anything, I probably should not have been driving. But I was stupid and overconfident in my abilities, and I don’t think my brain will ever lose the acute feeling of terror I experienced upon being jolted awake by the bumps on the shoulder of the road under my tires. I was that close to harming or killing myself or others, just because I hadn’t been sleeping much.
Exhaustion is a killer even in less-than-athletic contexts. As for hockey, until you have those hits of adrenaline the body saves up for extreme measures, your muscles can only handle so much lactic acid buildup as the oxygen levels get depleted over time. Playing their second game in two nights (and third in four), the Stars had tapped the well of extremity quite a bit. Overtime heroics—either just getting there or, once, completing the comeback after arriving—come at a cost, and even Alexander Radulov is only a mortal, it turns out.
Tuesday night, Kari Lehtonen gamely gave the Stars everything you could ask of a goalie in his situation. It was almost enough to get a point out of things, but after escaping from a few tired mistakes through the first couple of periods, a Tyler Seguin pass from behind the net (where you’d usually see a defenseman doing that job) went awry, and the Stars couldn’t clean up their own mess. Kari got screened just as the backhand whistled over his shoulder, and there you go. All it takes is one lapse in execution or judgment, and if no one’s there to jolt you back awake, that could be it. For the Stars on Tuesday, it’s little surprise that’s all it took.
You could charitably say the Stars mounted an attack in this one, but they never got much in the way of an extended push. When your energy is low and your opponent is just as stingy as you are, it’s little wonder that the Stars couldn’t check their way to chances of much import as this one progressed. The Preds held their blue line like a defending conference champion, forcing the Stars to write a lot of rough dump-and-chase checks that their legs were never going to cash. When you keep everyone cheating towards the “right side of the puck” all the time, it makes it really tough to solve a neutral zone clogged with good forwards and a great defense group, and only late in the third did the Stars really try to stretch the neutral zone out much at all.
Mattias Janmark, birdcage and all, led the Stars forwards in ice time tonight, and little wonder that he kept getting the minutes, as he seemed to be just about the only forward consistently testing the tensile strength of the Perds’ defense. Radulov and Benn looked gassed for most of this one, and while Spezza also had the puck a lot tonight, the Stars never quite got a grade-A chance to parallel the half-dozen or so they handed out to the home guys. In a weird way, you’d almost rather play a tight, defensive system when you’re a step behind like this, but then again, you’re always going to need goals, eventually. No system doesn’t need goals.
To Ken Hitchcock’s credit, he certainly tried to mix lines to find something that would work, even putting Spezza on the first power play unit and Benn down on the second for one crack at the man-advantage. But with the abundance of special teams, some of the younger, higher-energy players like Jason Dickinson and Gemel Smith never really got a chance to influence the game, while Julius Honka’s most noticeable moments in his whopping 10 minutes of ice time were either a bad breakout pass attempt early that led to a great chance against, or a retaliatory penalty against the just-freed Ryan Hartman after a hit on Spezza—who was fed a hospitable pass by Honka just prior.
Honka had some good moves and passes in this game too, though. There’s no question he was one of the most effective players in traversing the ice with the puck, so I’d still say he came out on the positive side of the ledger, but this coaching staff does math differently, and unforced errors are anathema. At some point, you need to play the hand you’re dealt, I guess.
The power play was, without question, the biggest missed opportunity of the game for Dallas. While Brett Ritchie continued to log top minutes with the big boys, he may have taken a step back tonight from some of his recent improvement, and that was tough to see in a game where the Stars needed someone, anyone to give them a little light.
Well, okay, Kari Lehtonen was that someone, but he doesn’t score goals. And, as you may have noticed, neither did anyone else. Lehtonen had a couple of game-saving stops in this one, including an unreal glove stop late in the third, but Nashville is not on a nine-game tear for nothing, it turns out. The Stars brought everything they had, and their goaltender kept them hanging around in this one, but asking for a fourth late-game comeback in a row, and this one against perhaps the best blue line in the league? Well, it felt a little greedy, to be honest. To Kari’s immense credit, he exhibited a voracious appetite. That is an encouraging sign when one ponders the (as-yet uncertain) possibility of Ben Bishop’s extended absence.
Radek Faksa can’t get back soon enough, I think it’s fair to say. You can see just how little space that Pitlick-Roussel-[guy] line is able to create for themselves without Faksa in the middle, though they still managed to generate some chances here and there with Spezza and company taking turns in that spot. With the Stars’ thin forward depth these days, losing a linchpin like Faksa makes things snowball a bit too fast.
For that matter, Marc Methot really illustrates just how good Esa Lindell has become next to John Klingberg this year. Methot had some nice plays Tuesday, even helping to keep a good shift alive earlier on with a deep pinch in the offensive zone, but there’s no doubt that Esa Lindell is better-suited to take those big minutes. Hitchcock seemed to agree, as Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn were more of the go-to pair at even-strength in this one, and with the trust issues the coaches still have with Honka, that means there are a lot of crucial minutes that players like Johns and Pateryn have to soak up.
You could probably have a spirited debate about which defenseman had the least impressive game Tuesday, and surely some of a certain segment of fans crowed at Klingberg’s misstep to surrender the empty-netter in twilight time as evidence of his unreliability, or something similarly specious. But Methot had his own shaky moments, Johns whiffed on a couple pucks, and Pateryn almost did damage to Kari’s hand with a too-tight pass around the net. Hamhuis likewise got caught for a near-breakaway and had to take a penalty (though it’s hard to pin that solely on him), Things were sloppy all over the place tonight, and when you have John Klingberg and Tyler Seguin exhibiting less-than-ideal puck security, you’re probably going to have a tough go of it.
For what it’s worth, the ice also seemed pretty rubbish in this one, with a few pucks stopping on players near the defensive faceoff dots or just eluding their grasp. Klingberg could give a five-minute testimonial on this, I’d wager, after his late misstep eclipsed his earlier fumble right in front of Lehtonen, who got his pad down just in time to prevent what would have been the most embarrassing Stars’ goal since (checks ledger), uh, well, last year, it turns out. Oh yeah, right, that season.
This game was what it looks like when two teams try to out-defense each other, and one of them blinks. This game was one Ankylosaurus circling another, until one of them finally looked the wrong way and got a rock-tail thing right in the jaw.
You can wish for a more dynamic attacking system, or you can look at the Stars’ injuries and schedule and say that yeah, this one probably wasn’t going to end wonderfully without some wonderful performances no matter who was on the bench, or behind it. Dallas got a great performance in net, but not much of one anywhere else. Road teams like to preach keeping games close and capitalizing on opportunities, but the Stars’ power play is, well, not capitalizing on much of anything lately. Their zone entries were as sussed out as they’ve been all year, and so the Stars were left begging for their top guys to gut out another miracle performance late. There was none to be had, and it’s kind of hard to blame them for that.
Nashville didn’t get to the top of the Division by accident. The Stars are not a wild card team by accident either. They’ll need to find some purpose in their game soon though, no matter who’s playing it.