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Afterwords: The Best Worst Outcome in a While

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Losing is bad. Losing like this isn’t *so* bad.

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NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The power play, for good teams, exists to punish the other team for cheating to keep better teams in check. The Stars failed in regulation, at regulation.

***

It’s weird to say about the third regulation loss in a row, but this 2-0 defeat was a really great sign for Dallas.

To paraphrase something once said of Jamie Benn: “We’re not sure if the team is really that slow, or if they just refuse to move.” Well, the Stars were finally ready for the game to start, and it made for as fun a first period as we’ve seen in some time. Perhaps the team really does just wake up more against the better teams in the league.

The entertainment value is a plus, but overall, the Stars really did stand up and push the Bolts around more than a few times in this game. It felt a lot more like two teams leaning on each other than one team fighting for its life against the class of the salary cap NHL, and that’s something wonderful, indeed.

But overall, this game was lost the way the Stars have lost too many games this season: not by giving up a goal or two—although, I guess yeah, technically—but by failing to score.

For instance, here’s what the Stars generated by way of shots out of six power plays:

If you’re Tampa, that’s a near-perfect penalty kill, and Spezza and Condra’s misses just cap things off. Jamie Benn had his own choice words for the power play, and while there’s nothing wrong with generating chances from some distance—the Lightning’s thread-the-needle second goal says as much—the Stars never did find a way to get the tap-in goal they were generating early in the season. Tampa is good, and the Stars couldn’t find a way to break them, or Andrei Vasilevskiy (who was good when he had to be).

So, the Stars decided to skate, to move. Jamie Benn was looking viciously vintage in the first period with a nice little under-the-stick puck move to create a high wrist shot for himself that Andrei Vasilevskiy swallowed. I haven’t seen Benn creating chances to use his wrister much at all this season, so let’s call this a hopeful sign of something, for now.

Less hopeful were Benn’s two penalties taken along with his walkie-talkie failure with the goaltender to seal things for Tampa late. Still, I’m viewing Benn’s game in this one the same way I’m viewing the team as a whole: the good signs far outweight the bad results.

Dallas has, on the backs of their goaltenders and top line to an alarmingly disproportionate degree, found themselves with a sliver of breathing room. So much so that, despite a three-game losing streak, this specific team is still in the playoffs. They’re cashing in some chips already, and that’s not ideal for a team that has seen too many January swoons to number in recent memory. Still, they got to a point this year where, with 35 games left, they have the luxury (and likely won’t again for a while) of taking a good loss and moving on.

They got some luck, and they didn’t get some of their own. John Klingberg’s shot off the pipe came after a move reminiscent of his debut almost five seasons ago, and the Stars were finally a good possession team who didn’t get massively outshot and out-skated. Dallas hung with the league’s best, and that’s something the team can, just barely, afford.

So long as it’s a sign of things to come, at least. It goes without saying that the team will need to finish more of the opportunities they earn if they want to see playoff action again, but “don’t score zero goals” is hardly brilliance in writing.

***

The Stars’ best chance in the first was probably a two-on-one with Radulov and Seguin where Seguin just couldn’t quite direct the hot cross from Radulov. I really though Radulov should have shot on this one, but I think the Stars are all a bit second-guessy these days. Hard to blame them; even Radulov.

As for the first Tampa goal, it came after a nifty bump entry that made the Stars’ efforts to traverse the neutral zone this season look like kid stuff.

Razor and Taylor both focused primarily on Julius Honka in analyzing this goal, and he obviously deserves some blame here. However, the entire sequence is a deliberate carving-up of Dallas’s structure, and it deserves a bit more of a look:

This is a basic stretch pass to Yanni Gourde, who is positioned at the far blue line with Taylor Fedun guarding him. First of all, it’s noteworthy that this is the Lightning’s second line, which has scored 42 goals for them this season. The Stars have countered in the on-the-fly change with their third defense pairing and the top forward line. In theory, this would not lead to Tampa Bay getting an odd-man rush. In theory.

Anyway, Jamie Benn here is guarding the easy outlet from Brayden Coburn to Steven Stamkos, and so the pass is forced up the wall, since Seguin is guarding the more direct outlet to Gourde, at the far blue line. But the puck is put off the wall beyond Seguin’s reach and goes right to Gourde anyway.

Now we see the cause for concern. Fedun is on the right side of his man (Gourde), but the Stars’ rather pentagonal structure—look at it up there, being all pentagonal—is clearly vulnerable to the bump-pass back to center should he be streaking into the zone. Fortunately, they have a winger in Alex Radulov (lower left of screencap) whose duty is, presumably, to take any puck carrier on the left of the ice, whether Stamkos or Ondrej Palat. That means Honka (who was playing on the left side this game, and whose head you can just barely see at the bottom of the screencap) would take the other forward, since Seguin has already found himself out of the play thanks to a nice stretch pass.

Fedun did actually get a tiny piece of the bump pass to Stamkos, but it doesn’t change things at all. Tampa gains the blueline with the puck on Stamkos’s tape, which was what the Stars were attempting to avoid at the beginning with Benn’s positing on Brayden Coburn.

This is a textbook way to slice up a 1-2-2 forecheck here (though it’s surely supposed to be more of a 1-3-1 in theory). The stretch pass has easily gotten by Seguin, who can’t guard that big of a lane by himself in any case, and Fedun is far enough off Gourde (who is standing still and not a threat to burn past him) that the long pass would normally just result in a tip into the zone with the weak-side forechecker (Palat) heading down behind the net to retrieve it.

Instead, Gourde bumps the puck back to a streaking Stamkos (who is, unlike Gourde, moving too fast for a stationary Fedun to do much). Stamkos has been more or less wide open this entire time, floating at center ice until the stretch pass activated him (perhaps on a set play). Now Radulov is coming to cover up for Seguin’s man, but will he get there in time? If he does, then Honka would switch off to cover Palat on the left side, but there’s no guarantee that happens yet.

If you want Honka to have stepped up on Stamkos, this is the moment he would have had to commit, with Radulov leaving Palat on the other side as he comes to help, and both Stars players really, really hoping Stamkos doesn’t just dish it off to Palat the moment Honka takes a step towards the blue line. That’s the risk.

Honka, instead, backs off a bit to match Stamkos’s rush down the gut. He’s going to protect the net here, though he is aware of Palat lurking behind him. It obviously does not end up helping.

Less important: It also occurs to me that the Lightning have multiple Braydens on their team. In fact, the Bolts have two-thirds of all NHL Braydens. The other Brayden is Mr. McNabb, who plays for Vegas, while the only NHL Braden (that is, without the “Y”) is Braden Holtby, whose team played Vegas in the Stanley Cup Final last year. So, I guess, get ready for Tampa to trade Brayden Coburn next month to whoever their eventual Cup Final opponent turns out to be.

(And I hope you are all ready for Cayden Primeau to dominate the league in a few years.)

(Have I mentioned that I’ve had to do the majority of my writing this year after midnight? If you know of any paid day jobs that involve blathering, please send me a fax.)

Right, yes. The hockey. Stamkos, who is a great player, has gotten past Fedun and has inside position on Radulov. This is where Honka’s indecision deserves some criticism, though it still irks me to no end that his name was the only one mentioned on the broadcast (Razor, in breaking down the play, appended a “Honka, who was in between, got no one” after not mentioning any other Stars by name) in dissecting this breakdown. I wonder sometimes if the broadcast feels a need to counter the #freehonka movement from last season (such as it was) with what the team sees as a reality-check perspective sometimes. I can sort of see why someone like Razor might feel the need to do so, particularly as a former NHL player himself. It’s his prerogative, of course, and he’s also a team employee, so it wouldn’t shock me if he knows which players the org would prefer to see pumped up (or not). It’s a tough job, to be sure. And Honka did, indeed, get no one.

So anyway, in a perfect world, Honka would have read this play and been two steps closer to Stamkos to shut things down before Stamkos had time to pass around Radulov to Palat. But this play develops so fast, and Honka goes from last-man to only-man so quickly, that his read is somewhat understandable here. Look back up a couple screenshots ago. If Radulov actually gets to the puck-carrier (as is his duty as F3), then Palat is still wide-open for a pass as he streaks towards the net. Honka’s hesitation in joining the fruitless mob attending Stamkos is, to my thinking, not irrational in a vacuum; Honka saw that Fedun wasn’t going to be of any use at this point, and that Radulov was not a guarantee to even get to Stamkos at all. To that end, hindsight tells us that he was probably better served attacking Stamkos sooner rather than later, as the extra time affords Stamkos a more deadly pass from which the Stars can’t recover. Honka is there to keep Stamkos from shooting a shot he never has to take.

I mean, put your thumb over Honka in this picture and imagine him over covering Palat. There’s a good chance Stamkos gets to the net while bodying off Radulov, right? Then we’d have the whole “Honka just abandons the net-front for some reason” thing to discuss, unless he and Radulov perfectly communicated a switch-off the other way ‘round to begin with and Honka had just shifted over to Palat early on. But there’s no guarantee that such an exchange was ever going to happen (and it never did), so Honka is in a bit of a pickle here.

To be clear: Honka didn’t do anything to help himself. No question. I’m not saying this wasn’t a bad read. But then again, Alex Radulov never got anyone here either and got caught in between, and he is kind of one of the people you’d like helping out in the neutral zone, being a forward and all. It’s a really tough read on a bad breakdown, is all I’m saying. It’s not like Honka is just sitting there refusing to make a choice; he just ended up making the wrong one.

On this play, Honka looks, to me, like a player trying to avoid the worst choice. This play reminded me of how Honka and Jason Dickinson (and Stephen Johns under Lindy Ruff in 2016-17) looked for much of last season. When you’re trying to play it safe, you might just end up giving the other team some more time and space to make a better play. And in this case, Honka’s sitting back instead of taking the risk and attacking the puck carrier right away gave a world-class player like Stamkos enough time to make a slick pass to the open man for the game-winning goal.

(And it goes without saying that I could be off on some or all of this; it’s just my read of a play that gets way too messy way too quickly thanks to a way too easy zone entry for Tampa.)

***

Miscellaneous Thoughts

  • Aside from the rush defense, the Stars’ defensive zone play in general might prevent them from even stealing a round in the playoffs if they don’t get it fixed. There is way too much chasing the puck when things get dire, and that means far too much Randy Carlyle Swarm Defense going on. Dallas needs to be shutting down cycles, not just pushing pucks to the outside of the most dangerous areas. I get the appeal behind turning every team into basically the Carolina Hurricanes, ceding some possession time to guard the dangerous areas; but this shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. To the Stars’ credit, they seemed to make some good adjustments later in the game to minimize a lot of that, and it was reflected in their possession and breakouts to a great degree.
  • Esa Lindell made a beautiful subtle little fake to lose Brayden Point and get a clean breakout, which I began GIFing before the broadcast went back and Razor pointed it out at a stoppage. So now I feel less cool pointing it out knowing that everyone has already seen this, but still, it’s worth admiring:
  • Andrew Cogliano: great with his stick-lifts and puck battles, as you’d expect with a new acquisition. He had a great one-timer down low that missed (or maybe caught a piece of Vasilevskiy’s blocker), but he went down to one knee to shoot it, so he’s basically the next Brett Hull in my book.
  • Victor Hedman created a bit of a potential mess when he reached with the free hand on Val Nichushkin to put his team on the kill, then whined a bit too demonstratively on his way off to get another two minutes from Dan O’Halloran. It’s rare to see a top player get put in timeout like that, so we can only assume he said some of the magic words a bit too loudly.
  • However, there’s no mess this year’s Stars haven’t been able to match at times, and Jamie Benn would put a bow on the squandered double-minor when he negated a potential 5-on-3 opportunity with a foolhardy goaltender interference penalty.
  • Though, to be fair, I’ve no idea why the Stars didn’t immediately hand the puck over when Jamie Benn initially drew a delayed penalty call after being tripped. You should take a 5-on-3 right away in that situation, but the Stars instead just kept right on running the power play, and after about 30 seconds of no results, Jamie Benn’s penalty would cancel out the one he drew. Let’s hope this is a teaching moment akin to the Anton Khudobin Lost His Stick situation from earlier in the season: take the 5-on-3, guys. Always.
  • Nikita Kucherov took a pretty amusing interference penalty when he just flat cut off Radek Faksa after the latter had blocked a puck at the blue line and created a race—my read of it was that Kucherov wasn’t expecting Faksa to be as neck-and-neck with him as he was, and so Kucherov’s attempt to gain position turned into a collision. In any case, the Stars once again failed to score on the power play, and also every play in this game.
  • But maybe you can just blame Andrei Vasilevskiy. Certainly his save on Radek Faksa was the game-saver, if you’re Jon Cooper. Does that save mean something other than just “the puck happened to hit him”? I don’t think so, personally.
  • Klingberg hit the pipe in the final minute of the second after the Stars had another great push in Tampa’s zone, which was a pretty great encapsulation of the middle frame as a whole: lots of positives for the Stars, none of which show up on the scoreboard. As Rick Bowness (who continues to be my favorite coach interview since I began watching Stars broadcasts regularly 12 years ago) told Josh and Razor, the Stars had 14 great minutes in the second period, and then they had the six minutes on the power play. Honestly, this game really was there for the Stars, but they just couldn’t find that killer play. Still, I can take losses like this (to far better teams) knowing that the Stars put themselves in a good position to win. I think they win this game seven times out of ten. Also, Todd Nelson probably needs to assign some extra power play homework or something.
  • A word about those power plays, though. All of them (putting aside the extra minor Hedman took for barking) were earned by Dallas, which has been a too-rare occurrence this season. It was good to see Dallas skating well, moving fast, and giving a team all they could handle. That’s how you earn power plays. Maybe do that, uh, more. Look at me, an NHL coach.
  • Jason Spezza continued to look like the Stars’ best player at carrying the puck down the ice for most of this one, creating a couple of nice chances after dancing through the Lightning’s neutral zone defense.
  • After the Stars’ fourth unsuccessful power play, Tyler Seguin attempted to emphasize Dallas’s struggles with a foolhardy backhand pass into a well-guarded slot just as Steven Stamkos was leaving the box. Thankfully, the resulting pass was right into Stamkos’s skates, and he couldn’t do anything but topple over as the puck met him. Still, it was a reminder that this game could have been a bit worse for Dallas, too.
  • As for the second Tampa goal: Spezza loses a faceoff, a Mikhail Sergachev point shot threads the needle, and there you go. It’s exactly the stupid type of goal that elite teams get over the course of a great season.
  • Jim Montgomery decided not to pull the goaltender with the Stars on the power play and four minutes remaining, and that’s probably my biggest criticism of the Stars’ head coach in this one (though I really am starting to wonder about the defensive zone scheme, in case I haven’t mentioned it enough). I get the whole “if we score then we can pull Khudobin after that” thing, but you gotta shoot your shot, and the Stars spent 90+ seconds in the Tampa zone without ever quite getting the kill shot they were looking for. Hindsight, I suppose, but Montgomery seems to be getting a bit more gunshy himself these days. The Stars will need to regain their killer instinct as a whole if they’re going to pull out of this malaise and steer into happier days. Sooner rather than later, ideally.