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Afterwords: Halfway There, Miro Answers Stars’ Prayers

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Jamie Benn left the game early in the second and did not return, so the next generation stepped up, big time

New Jersey Devils v Dallas Stars

When you lose Jamie Benn but win the game, how are you supposed to know how to feel?

***

We are 41 games into the season, and let’s just admit it: we have no idea what is even going on anymore. Dallas is somehow in 3rd place in the Central—the Avs have won two games in their last ten, which, whoa, crazy for a one-line team to slump so badly—and the only things you can really count on with this team is that Miro Heiskanen will be amazing, and that the Stars will continue to desperately need him to be amazing.

Tyler Seguin scored two goals in this one off two great shots from two great setups, and Jamie Benn put up another goal (off another great setup) to set the tone early. That’s some kind of answer to your CEO, or maybe it’s just what these players can do when the game is played and they are engaged. I’m well beyond pointing out that public verbal abuse should never be a recourse for a team executive, so any credit for the players’ performance is due to them and their coaches, full stop. It’s nice that Tom Gaglardi is in Dallas to try to mend some fences, but that the team would put itself in this spot on the eve of the Winter Classic announcement is unconscionable. Tyler Seguin is going to be scoring goals for a while, because that is what he does. Jamie Benn, meanwhile, is going to be battling and going to the front of the net, and goals will come from that, too. There’s a reason he’s the team-leader in goals, and it’s not because he’s firing BBs from the circles. If you’re unhappy with the fact that Benn isn’t 25 anymore or that shooting percentages fluctuate throughout a season, maybe next time just scream into your pillow or something.

Still, there’s no denying that Benn did look a bit more ferocious than usual in this one, which made it that much more unfortunate that Miles Wood chose to target him with a late hit. “Upper body injury” is the official language, but speaking as someone who was concussed by a hit to the chest myself, that hit looked all too clear in its implications. Now we just wait and see, but here’s hoping that Benn returns healthy and clear in the fullness of time.

Five minutes seems about right for that, even if it might have stemmed from Miles Wood’s fight with Jamie Benn in the previous game between the two. Kudos to John Klingberg for standing up for his captain (without injuring his own hand in the process), and kudos to Miro Heiskanen and Tyler Seguin for giving Miles Wood something to watch while he sat.

Zooming out a bit for a second, let’s just remember that shots on goal were like 23-2 at one point.

Getting a 3-1 lead was deserved after that emotional response, but what happened next re-framed this whole game in a big way.

At the end of a shift, Jason Spezza dumped it up the boards to Mattias Janmark, and the players began to head off for a change. Janmark, instead of dumping it in and heading off himself, instead Blake Comeaus the puck back towards the middle. He bobbles it for a second off the boards, and then feeds a streaking Honka, or at least he tries to.

Remember, this is right after Spezza has dumped the puck up to Janmark from behind the net. Now Janmark has turned and backhanded this puck to a streaking Honka. Nico Hischier easily gets to the pass, and what could have been a great setup to get offensive zone time for the next unit turns into a rush. Ben Bishop would make the save, but the puck bounced away from everyone except Jesper Bratt, who happily scooped it up in the slot and winged it past a nonplussed Bishop.

For the record, I am talking about this play because Razor said on the broadcast—on both goals where Honka was fed a bad pass when he was rushing up the ice—that Honka was Going the Wrong Way, and you can bet a lot of people have heard this, internalized it, and have now formed their very immutable opinions on the Stars’ only NHL asset to show from the 2014 draft. And since Honka has become the player Razor criticizes more than any other on the team this season, I think it’s more than fair that I offer at least some additional context for these two plays, if not outright refutation.

So, anyway. On this play, is Honka going the wrong way? It seems like a weird time to step up, but since I only have the benefit of seeing the whole rink for the handful of games I can afford to go see each year, I have to make some educated guesses. Here, since Fedun goes off for a change on the initial play by Spezza—and I’m sure Roman Polák was thrilled to eat a minus for stepping on the ice four seconds before that goal—I’m thinking Honka should have been staying back below the blue line to cover for the change. I wonder if Honka was also anticipating a simple relay to get the puck deep by Janmark, allowing Honka to get off the ice, and if he then veered back once he saw Janmark cut back, choosing to use his momentum. We don’t know the answer to everything, but my gut says here that Honka make a bad initial decision to keep skating forward, even if it could have turned out fine with a better pass (or just a simple dump-in for the change) by Janmark. But I really do resent the “wrong way” terminology by the team’s color analyst, as it doesn’t give the viewer the opportunity to understand why Honka might have been doing what he did. It’s a nitpick on some level, but I also think it’s unfair to the player on some level. Honka makes mistakes, but he also had some really, really nice plays in his own zone in the first period of this game (including a solid turnover generated along the wall in his own zone that led to Benn’s goal) that I’m too tired to GIF right now. Point is, when you’re constantly told to look for any player’s flaws, you’re going to see them. I got a bit overcritical of Cody Eakin two years ago, but the more I looked for flaws in his game, the more they started to drive me crazy. I needed a reset to see Eakin’s value outside of my frustration with his flaws. It’s a tough spot to be in, for sure.

For example, if I told you Blake Comeau was a lazy defensive forward, well, you’d watch the Devils’ first goal (starting at the replay at 0:20 below), you’d see him looping instead of starting and stopping at his own blue line, and you’d probably agree, no questions asked.

To that end, Razor’s reiterating that “wrong way” phrase on Honka’s last shift of the game was particularly grating, as Radek Faksa clearly laid a bad pass at the back of Honka’s skates. We see Klingberg make that step up all the time, but usually with more skilled players surrounding him. Honka, I think, can be the victim of his own confidence at times, expecting other players to make the proper corresponding plays that will justify his derring-do. But when you’re with one of the least productive forward lines in the NHL this season? Well, then you’re gonna get passes like these:

I know we beat the topic of Honka’s play to death on here some times, but honestly, why do you have a player like this if you’re gonna publicly berate him for trying to be what he was drafted to be, i.e. an offensive defenseman? He’s never going to be Roman Polák or even Darryl Sydor, and he’ll have even less than what little trade value he’s got left if the team just ostracizes him for trying to keep the attack moving in some bad spots. Either teach him to be wiser, or move on. But benching him until you have no choice, then burying him when he screws up after a rash of healthy scratches? Well, the Jamie Oleksiak Experiment is fresh in all our minds, so we know how this probably ends. Maybe the Stars could at least recoup the 2nd-round pick they spent on Marc Methot, but that might be a best-case scenario at this point.

In sum: Honka probably makes a bad decision on the first rush up the ice, but I want a smart defenseman stepping into open space on that second play up there every time. I just want the forward to see him a second sooner, lay the pass on his tape like any NHLer should be able to do, and keep the puck instead of just cycling into nothingness. Radek Faksa is a really important player for the Stars, and he’s a good enough one to expect more from than what he gave on this play. Anyway, Honka also left with an upper-body injury (this was his last shift), and whether that was related to his being tripped and falling right after the Bratt goal or something else, the Stars will have to hope that Connor Carrick has gotten some of that rust off by now. I don’t usually recommend filling the Gatorade bottles with WD-40, but these are desperate times.

Okay, well that’s already far more than I meant to say about this whole game, but Alex Radulov is probably another player worth mentioning here, assuming we’re going to gloss over Ben Bishop’s rather up-and-down performance, too. Radulov’s penalties are getting almost comical in how unnecessary they are, but when you’re as talented as Radulov at every other facet of the game, I don’t know what the coaches are supposed to do. You can only coach 30-year-olds so far on how and when they activate their Try, y’know? Good on Radulov for generating enough points to make his penalties look at least tolerable.

But we’ve spent enough time decrying, analyzing, or metabolizing the plays on the periphery. Miro Heiskanen is forcing everyone to recognize that the Stars have the real deal on the blue line, and I think it’s safe to say this isn’t a Tyler Myers thing. Heiskanen showed off his skills at both ends of the rink, and he victimized Sami Vatanen twice. Heiskanen easily could have had a hat trick in this game, and he just looked chock-full of icewater on the defensive side.

Moreover, Heiskanen has eight even-strength goals in 41 games so far this season as a 19-year-old defenseman. For comparison, Shayne Gostisbhere had nine in his entire, amazing rookie season at 22 years old, as did one John Klingberg. Aaron Ekblad had six in his (lol) Calder Trophy season at 18 years old. Rasmus Dahlin has two so far. Scott Niedermayer had six in 1992-93. I’m not trying to rave or anything, but Heiskanen is spinning straw into gold on a team struggling to generate offense for most of the season. We’re watching something special this season, and we’ve got a front-row seat. The All-Star Game should be fun, eh?

The lines got jumbled in Benn’s absence. Denis Gurianov looked a bit too tentative for the second game in a row. Val Nichushkin played well on the PK and the top line, and Tyler Pitlick’s assist on Miro Heiskanen’s goal was slick. Devin Shore is now 21 games removed from his last goal, and Blake Comeau is going to get top-six ice time until the Stars find another second line forward Jim Montgomery trusts more. Shopping doesn’t have to end just because the holidays are over, you know.