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Afterwords: A Game without a Pulse, a Team without an Identity

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Forgettable

Dallas Stars v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

“I’ve known a few [hockey] guys who thought they were pretty smart.”

***

A forgettable first period and a too-little push in the third? That’s your Dallas Stars, all right. But this time, just to switch things up, they decided to lose the second period, too. That’s something new and fresh!

I could dissect this game, but never have I wanted to pore over the remains of a 2-1 loss less. Every issue with this team was present, as were its only virtues. The top line scored despite not controlling the game for hardly any significant stretches; the penalty kill was great when it needed to be; and the goaltending, oh the goaltending was absurdly good. Anton Khudobin has stolen a few games for the Stars this season, and this one should have been up there alongside the Nashville and Washington thefts.

Unfortunately, The Deepest Team Ever can’t score goals, and hey, news flash: that’s not because Jamie Benn is on pace for “only” 33 goals, or because Seguin’s headed for 31-ish. It’s because the bottom nine is a morass of goal-scoring nothingness, and the team is playing a kind of hybrid system that evokes Hitchcock more in the Alfred sort of way, insofar as it disturbs, shocks and disillusions you more than it draws you into its admirable determination.

Honestly, it’s amazing they’ve been able to transform this team this quickly from a reckless offensive juggernaut into a popgun fortress of sorts. After pacing the Western Conference and NHL in goals in 2014-15 and 2015-16 respectively, the organization got impatient, and now we’re here:

Dallas is on pace this year to score a paltry 219 goals, which would be the team’s worst 82-game total since before the 2004 lockout. Six teams are below Dallas in goals scored this season (most with games in hand), and all six are Not Good.

How not-good? Well, put it this way: Arizona has played two fewer games than Dallas. The Coyotes have scored 112 and allowed 121 goals this year. Dallas have scored 120 and allowed 119. If your team’s identity is a stone’s throw from that of the future Houston Hyenas, you need to be looking long and hard at every decision you’ve made to re-shape that team since its heyday. Or maybe the Jim Lites Buncha Cuss-Swears Magic just ran its course. Who’s to say, really. Gotta buckle down, boys. Gotta try harder.

Look, the team isn’t rubbish or anything. They’ve had some good games, too. Heck, here’s a bright spot from one angle: Jason Spezza was the Stars’ best playmaker in Philadelphia, and while that’s Not Great when you have three guys and a defenseman who are all expected to drive that train a bit more, you should at least be grateful that they’re getting more out of Spezza’s last year than they are out of the final year of Methot’s contract or the second year of Hanzal’s deal. He’s giving them what he’s got, and that’s winning 59.5% of faceoffs (third in the NHL behind, coincidentally, Philly’s Claude Giroux and Scott Laughton) and leading the team’s secondary scorers. Is it Spezza’s fault the Stars’ Plan B for “second Line Center if the 36-year-old Isn’t Elite Anymore” is someone who was never more than a third-line center with some injury history?

As for the systemic play, we have at least been getting a lot of insight this year, and I’m grateful for that. Dallas knows they need more offense, and Montgomery isn’t afraid to talk about why it’s not coming. From Matt DeFranks’s great postgame read last night:

“If I have the puck and you’re the close to me, the open ice is behind me,” Montgomery said. “If I have the puck and you’re back there at the door, the open ice is in front of you and I should carry it. And we’re just not recognizing that before we get the puck, especially our forward, of when they have time to make plays and when we need to put it in behind, and we should have puck support coming and skating to maintain possession. That’s where we lack consistency offensively right now.”
-Matthew DeFranks, DMN

You could see Jim Montgomery leaning on Spezza (one of the few who, in my view, excels at reading the play like the team’s best players do) late in this one, as Spezza was one of the few players who seemed to have any real legs or hands in this one. (Ditto Roope Hintz, who looked great at times, but couldn’t turn it into anything.) The top line (which later saw Benn put with Spezza, and Janmark moved beside Seguin and Radulov) was lackluster for much of the night, though it put together some good stretches.

Jamie Benn scored a goal, but if you watched this game, you saw that goal as, charitably, against the run of his play. Tyler Seguin couldn’t drive things, and even Alex Radulov and John Klingberg were struggling to figure out how to make the power play Do Things. Other than give up great shorthanded chances, I mean. It did that just fine.

The Stars gave up loads of odd-man rushes all over the place, in fact—they failed in all five of Montgomery’s Process Points, by the way—as well as a 2-on-0 that Khudobin somehow stopped, too. In fact, that’s probably the best thing about this game, was Khudobin’s next-level goaltending. Watch the highlights, and you’ll see that, for a team trailing 2-0, its goaltender was probably its best player in the third period. That’s, let me check the index here, ah yes, “super duper not great.”

Jim Montgomery wants his team to make plays. They have been slowly improving since John Klingberg’s return. But this loss, to the worst of all the worst teams they’ve lost to this year, which by the way was also on an eight-game skid...well, this one hurts.

It’s kind of like the way kids tease each other, you know? I remember hurling absurd insults back and forth with a soccer teammate named Hans in U-12s just because it made us both laugh. “You kick like an elephant!” was my favorite jab, because, while mean and stupid, there was no truth to it, and Hans would either respond in kind or we would just laugh ourselves silly in the middle of practice until our bemused coach kicked us out of the drill.

Losses out of character are kind of like that. I don’t think anyone was scrambling over in Pittsburgh after they lost to Chicago the other night, you know? That’s a team that can brush off silly losses and move on. Players don’t love them, of course, but they know they aren’t true. Pittsburgh is perhaps past its peak, but they are still to be feared, and rightly.

Dallas has no such luxury. These sorts of losses hurt because there always seems to be a grain of truth in them. They lost to Toronto in game three this year because Toronto outskated and outshot them where it mattered, showing Dallas couldn’t keep up with an elite team. They lost to Chicago a little while back because Dallas got all out of sorts at a team stretching the neutral zone, which really is inexcusable for a group of leaders that should have remembered exactly what reckless transition offense was like. And in Philadelphia, the Stars lost because they couldn’t generate shots or rebound chances from the so-called Dirty Areas. As Matt DeFranks noted in his piece above, Montgomery isn’t just telling his guys to skate at the net and wait for magic goal time to occur; he’s pushing them to read off each other, to get to the strong post when a shot is about to come, to make the right plays at the right time. He would say he needs to do a better job of teaching this, and his players would likewise say (as Pitlick does) that they need to do a better job executing. You know how it goes.

For whatever reason—injuries to Klingberg and Radulov, a lagging period of system-adoption, or something else—Dallas hasn’t found its footing. And yet, because its goalies are saving pucks at an unhead-of (for the Jim Nill Era) rate, playoff hockey is still something we can hope for.

The goaltending is, no doubt, buoyed a bit by the defensive side of the system as well, so let’s not forget that. This game is probably a rotten one to use for emphasizing that point, though. Yes, the Stars have cleared the mid- and high-slot areas fairly well, but they really should be buying their goaltenders whatever gifts Dak Prescott is buying his offensive line this season. Roman Polák and Esa Lindell in particular (along with Miro Heiskanen, who lost his man on the first goal) have benefited from some stellar saves behind them even as they continue to struggle to exit the zone without icing the puck.

Honestly, I’m getting weary of trying to talk about how this guy needs to be better, or how that guy hasn’t been as good as his coaches seem to think he is. Scratch whoever, player whoever. This team should be able to make the playoffs with either Julius Honka or Roman Polák or both on the blue line, with either Brett Ritchie or Valeri Nichushkin or Tyler Pitlick getting ten minutes a night. You don’t learn much from blaming the rocks for not floating in a shallow pool. A rising tide floats all boats, but a deep team can at least cover up its anchors. When you don’t get good supervision from the school bus driver, you can’t blame the kids in the back for acting up, and so on. I think you get the point.

The road trip was a failure, as road trips go. Two points out of six isn’t good enough, but you can only redeem yourself in the next game. The big question now becomes, how many more games will Dallas play before something changes, whether in the team’s mindset, its personnel, or its results? One way or another, something’s gotta give. Let’s just hope Dallas’s rush defense isn’t the one doing the giving next time.