Fan Appreciation Night is a special little Stars vignette. There have been some doozies in the last decade, including Mike Modano’s farewell and Jamie Benn’s Art Ross Miracle, but most of them have been less Johnny Oduya T-Shirt Gun than one would hope.
This year was no exception, as the celebration was mixed, to put it lightly. The Mike Modano commemoration was a nice bit of comfort in the twilight of a tough season, and I’ll never get tired of seeing Modano get his due in Dallas. And to cap things off, Tyler Seguin hit 40 goals. Thankfully, Seguin’s empty-netter didn’t come on Brett Hull appreciation night, as I’m pretty sure Hull can still choose to void one empty-net goal per season as part of a legacy Ambassador of Fun contract termination clause. I’ll have to research that more.
Still, we’re here to be thankful for hockey for one night, so let no one say I gripe when the time ain’t ripe. Here are, in no particular order, some things to appreciate about this game:
- Julius Honka got to play hockey, which is always nice; better yet, Honka was allowed to play almost 17 minutes, and with a stable, left-handed partner. Honka and Stephen Johns have been good together this year, but Esa Lindell feels like a much more natural partner for him than Johns has been most of this year. That, of course, has a trickle-down (or trickle-up?) effect on John Klingerg, but never fear! He is next. For tonight, let’s just recognize that Honka was allowed to skate with the puck, make some good stretch passes, and even occasionally defend in his own zone (unless Ken Hitchcock had the chance to do otherwise, which he had and did periodically). Even though it would have been nice to have more than 38 games for Honka in what’s become a lost season (and he also should hit 40 by season’s end), it was a joy to watch the Stars have some fun on the ice tonight.
- Klingberg scored a beautiful goal tonight off a sapient Jamie Benn pass, and I will never not enjoy watching the Stars score on Devan Dubnyk. Klingberg is right there for the NHL lead in defenseman scoring this year, and even though it would hardly approach the Benn Art Ross feat, I’m very much rooting for Klingberg to put up a bunch of points, which will then be used as an argument for why Klingberg Isn’t an Elite Defenseman by some trolls or something down the line. You know how it goes. Debate is healthy!
- Marc Methot perhaps hasn’t looked like someone who can really sustain top-pairing duties this season, but he and Klingberg did manage to do their respective jobs quite well on what Stars brass initially hoped would be a solid pairing back in the summer. It occurred to me yesterday that Methot and Hamhuis were both acquired by Dallas after seasons where each suffered grisly injuries (Hamhuis took a shot to the face, as you may recall; Methot got his finger sliced up by Sidney Crosby’s stick blade). If you’re looking for a veteran the Stars might acquire for the blueline next season, check the local ER?
- On that sordid note, best wishes to Ryan Suter, who may have a fractured fibula. That’s a really tough blow to the Wild. It reminds me of the Zach Parise injury back in 2015-16, and how the Wild still pushed the Stars to six games in that opening series despite getting mostly overrun. The playoffs show no mercy.
- Gemel Smith has been great this season, which you surely know by now. He hit his second post in as many games tonight (and also nearly slipped a shot through Dubnyk later on), and I finally got to see a line I’ve longed to see all season: Mattias Janmark, Jason Spezza and Gemel Smith. To my eyes and memory (I was watching for zone entries specifically), I think this line carried the puck into the offensive zone with possession in all but three or four cases all night long. Smith and Janmark’s speed combined with Spezza’s passing and vision really gave the Stars a second (well, third in terms of TOI) line that threatened to score, which is something hockey teams need, I believe. In the (sadly) unlikely event that Spezza returns to Dallas next season, this is a line I would pencil in from day one.
- Jason Spezza, by the way, was having none of Scott Burnside’s question about his future after this season after the game. It was a worthwhile question, and Kari Lehtonen’s answer to the same one was a bit more interesting than Spezza’s flat “I am not thinking about this” response. The context is very different for each player—Spezza’s in particular, as he still has a year remaining on his contract—but there has been a growing sense that the Stars aren’t keen on trying this whole Ken Hitchcock and His Buddy Jason thing again next year, so Burnside’s question was warranted, if not welcomed by the player. All that to say that it was very sweet to see Spezza cash in on yet another scoring chance, at long last.
- Remember: Spezza is playing through painful back spasms right now, and Sean Shapiro mentioned on his Carcast the other night that Spezza has gotten injections for the pain as well. Say what you will about Spezza’s salary and production this season, but to come back way ahead of schedule to gut out the last of this season speaks volumes about his Competitiveness and Desire to Do That Hockey; I’m betting that Spezza carries the same chip on his shoulder that’s been there lately with him next season, and has himself a nice rebound year. We’ll see what happens, of course. I have personally enjoyed watching Jason Spezza for the last four years, even if this one has been especially tough, and it was lovely to have a nice farewell to the fans in Dallas for him. (Be on the lookout for my new collection of poetry this summer: The May Spezza’s Gum Forever Stick in Klingberg’s Collar chapbook.)
- The Stars’ top line was fantastic for 40 minutes, though the whole team sagged noticeably under pressure from Minnesota in the third period (with the exception, I would say, of the Spezza line, which still looked dangerous in the third). This was the second game in a row where the Wild didn’t really have an answer to the Stars’ top line aside from “Help us, Devan; you’re our only hope.” Dubnyk did keep the Wild in the game, to his credit, but the Stars still have one of the best top lines in the game. If they can get just one or two more solid pieces over the summer to complement the Faksa line (and I think Valeri Nichushkin is one of those), then next year could be a lot more fun no matter who’s calling the shots.
- The Stars may have been a little looser than Hitchcock would have preferred, but to their credit, they cleaned things up. Kari Lehtonen had some very nice stops up until the no-chance power play tip; Remi Elie had a wonderful bit of backchecking that led to a great scoring chance for; and Mattias Janmark’s great defensive play (as Bob Sturm pointed out on the intermission report) to create the Radulov-to-Spezza goal as well. I don’t know if you say that this is something Lindy Ruff teams (or any other team, for that matter) didn’t do as much, but give the Stars full marks for some key defensive plays in this one.
- Esa Lindell had perhaps the most important such moment of all skaters, as he cleared a dangerous chance off the goal line. I’ll say it just once more, for now: Esa Lindell is one of the best stories of this season. He was skating more tonight (maybe that was Honka rubbing off on him a bit?) and even making some great transition plays. This is a third-round draft pick from 2012, and the Stars are getting something quite legitimate out of their system. If this team can start manufacturing some top-six forwards as well as they’ve drafted and/or developed top-four defensemen, things will get a lot rosier in the long term, especially with some good goaltending prospects finally in the pipeline as well.
This season has been tough, and you’ve read a lot of my wrestling with it since October. For personal reasons and the constraints of the time/space continuum, I haven’t been able to write about it as much as I’ve wanted to (and, sometimes, not wanted to). But know this: Tyler Seguin just had a career year, and y’all were here to see it. Jamie Benn just went through maybe the toughest season of his captaincy, and y’all got to see him racking up numbers and feeding Klingberg in the slot with perfect, no-look passes like it’s nothing at all. Alex Radulov gave Jim Nill the Stars’ best bang-and-wow!-for-buck season of any UFA in the last five years, and Tyler Pitlick’s relative value isn’t that far behind him. For all the frustrations and failures that occluded the optimism we hope to find in sports, there were bright spots. There are still bright spots on the horizon.
The Stars get to go on a California road trip for what is basically the 3:30-5:00pm Friday shift of their work week (or year or whatever), and we get to enjoy whatever those moments hold. That’s not a bad way to run out the clock.