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Afterwords: No Such Thing As a Meaningless Game

A Jamie Benn hat trick (and a Gemel Smith game-tying goal) gave Mike McKenna a wonderful, unexpected late-season win.

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NHL: Dallas Stars at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

This three-game road trip to California to close out the year is not exactly riveting television for Dallas Stars fans. You’d be forgiven for taking a pass on what promised to be low-event, low-stakes (for the Stars) hockey in order to get some sleep. Staying up until midnight to watch Ken Hitchcock hockey after being eliminated from the playoffs is not a great marketing pitch, in other words.

But human beings are creatures who look for narrative, and Tuesday night offered a couple of pretty sweet moments near the end of a tough season.

The Stars are 24-16-4 with Gemel Smith in the lineup this year, but his game-tying tally late in the third period was probably his biggest moment of the season on an individual level. The Stars had been leaning on San Jose all period, but with about five minutes left to play, they still hadn’t managed to scrape a goal out of their efforts in the third.

Smith played his first 17 NHL games of his career last year, and he looked like a very solid bottom-six player when he was in, scoring 3+3=6 in those contests. He broke out of training camp on the NHL roster looking to follow it up, but this season has been a tough one for him, at times. He played in the Stars’ opening loss to Vegas, then sat for three weeks straight. He played pretty regularly for the rest of 2017, then got only three games spread out in two-week intervals January (1/2, 1/15 and 1/30). Ken Hitchcock has not valued Smith as a key player for much of 2018 despite Smith’s team-leading goals-per-minute numbers, and Hitch’s quote about Smith after practice Monday about how NHL players need to give 100% effort no matter how many minutes they get seems to hint that Hitch hasn’t seen Smith going all-out at times this season, but maybe I’m reading into that too much.

In any case, for a player who was sent to the ECHL just two years ago, this game was really special for Smith, and that tying goal (off a great net-drive with the puck by Devin Shore) was one of the rare moments this season when the Stars managed to make a third-period comeback. That’s just a cool story for a player who has really looked like he’s out to prove something down the stretch here. Smith has six even-strength goals this season in just 44 games, which ties him with John Klingberg and Devin Shore, and puts him ahead of Jason Spezza, Remi Elie, Brett Ritchie and Antoine Roussel.

Speaking of players out to prove something, Jamie Benn continued to remind everyone that maybe all of your asinine tweets and Facebook comments about how the Stars need to re-evaluate the captaincy because Benn is at fault for the Stars’ collapse or whatever are a bit off the mark. Scoring a hat trick against a playoff team is always sweet, but it’s especially sweet to do it against the only team whose recent playoff history contains a collapse to rival that of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

John Klingberg, by the way, continued his career season with a superb assist to Benn for the Stars’ first goal. Did Klingberg purposely nutmeg Marc-Edouard Vlasic to find Benn on the back post for the beautiful tally? We’ll say yes, just like we’ll also say that the Stars intentionally waited to score until the final minute of the second period, just to see what all those teams who beat the Stars this year felt like. Turns out, scoring late goals feels pretty good.

Benn’s second goal, of course, was just pure Alpha, as the captain saw an opportunity and took it. This was Jamie Benn going JAMIE BENN, and even though Benn has had some inconsistent stretches this season, it’s good to be reminded that that player is still there, just where you thought he’d be. Benn’s 32 goals ties him with some guy named Vladimir Tarasenko for 19th in the NHL, but please, go ahead about how some nebulous lack of leadership means the Stars need to take drastic action right now.

That empty-net goal from the other end of the ice deserves a lithograph of Benn’s freshly shorn face watching the puck make the long journey down the rink. Yes, 2015-16 is two long years in the past, but as that puck bounced its way into a net that has been too rarely emptied by a desperate opponent this year, don’t think the captain doesn’t wake up every day determined to do whatever it takes to drag his team back to that level again.

Jamie Benn is a human being, and he’s not been flawless this season. Being the captain means you shoulder the garbage when your team is dragging, and he’s had to take out the trash far more than any of us thought would be necessary this year. But at the end of the year, Jamie Benn should be one of the last people this team looks at when asking what went wrong.

Then again, the Bruins traded Tyler Seguin because he didn’t fit their culture, so who knows what can happen when a bunch of good old hockey boys get together in a conference room and try to solve the world’s problems.

A couple of game-specific asides before we get to Mike McKenna, just because you can read about Mike McKenna everywhere right now, and rightfully so.

  • Mattias Janmark had a rough game tonight. It might be related to his knee (which he’s said has had its ups and downs) or not, but Janmark has had some clunkers this year (as every player does). Through 40 minutes, I was thinking how unfortunate it was that one of the Stars’ better players in so many tough games this year wasn’t really impacting things. And then, of course, the Stars pull this one out anyway. It’s not only goalies that need to get picked up every now and then, and Janmark’s had a great season by any reasonable standard this year.
  • Jason Spezza had a couple of great scoring chances in tight. Say what you will about him (and how it’s his fault that he’s the Stars’ oldest forward making $7.5 million and not producing and blah blah blah), but to come back way early from back spasms and play out the string like this speaks volumes about who he is. The Stars don’t seem to have interest in bringing him back for his final season, and that’s as may be. But no one’s been more frustrated about Spezza’s season than Jason Spezza. Good to see him still driving the net. Players care a lot.
  • Greg Pateryn also had a pretty good game, even activating a couple of times in the offensive zone and wisely joining a rush late in his shift as well. I say that simply to note that he jumped out to me tonight in a good way, and that’s nice to see. I’ve wondered lately whether there would be as much frustration around Julius Honka and Greg Pateryn if Stephen Johns had been the go-to shutdown defenseman with Dan Hamhuis, and if Pateryn instead had rotated in on a pairing with Honka at times. I guess we’ll never know.
  • The Methot-Klingberg pairing still doesn’t look great to me, but the Stars are probably dead-set on trying it out again next season. It’s been In The Plan since the summer, so I guess let’s consider this a belated preview, or something? It’s tough to judge anyone on this team through those first 40 minutes of wandering through the hockey desert Tuesday night, but Klingberg is probably the best judge at this point of whom he’s better-suited to play with. Let’s hope the coaching staff agrees with him.

Okay, let’s wrap up with this:

I can’t really say it any better than Sean Shapiro has this season in this piece or in his podcast where he interviewed McKenna, but just take a step back for a moment, if you can. The McKennas have moved all over the country for Mike’s career, and lately they’ve done it with two young girls (ages 2 and 4) in the family. Now, my older sister also has two daughters at those same ages, and I’ve helped babysit them a couple of times during the work day. And honestly, I love every minute I get to spend with my nieces, but I am totally exhausted by the end of the day.

The thought of having even one kid 24/7 is kind of mind-boggling to me, let alone having two and maintaining the crazy professional hockey life McKenna has done. To say that Rachel McKenna is “supportive” of her husband is a gross understatement, surely; her tears of joy at Mike’s win Tuesday night are surely precious in a way very few of us can ever comprehend.

And full credit to Mike McKenna: this was a feel-good story, sure, but this wasn’t Scott Foster or anything. McKenna faced some high-quality chances right off the bat, and even with the Sharks getting outplayed heavily in the third, McKenna had his work cut out for him. I have a hunch he took home a puck from this game that he won’t be trading away any time soon.

But then again, you don’t get to be an almost 35-year-old professional goalie on his 19th team by getting too attached to one moment or one plae. Maybe that puck will get shot into the snow next to a lake someday by one of his daughters, and McKenna will never miss it. There are some memories that outlast a memento.

This season, for Dallas, may not be itself a great memory except in terms of the success we may hope it ends up preceding. But hockey seasons are unique stories for those who want to read them closely, and this one has had some great twists. Even if the ending has been pretty clear for some time now, it’s always worth finishing the book.