Winning is always good enough.
One might have been expecting some rust from both teams after a long layoff, but the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres managed to accomplish something more interesting: a fast-paced game between two middling teams that somehow resulted in only one goal.
The Dahlin vs. Heiskanen bill might have been oversold, but that’s not to say both players didn’t show you a thing or two. Rasmus Dahlin decided to open by showing the Stars a bit of why Miro Heiskanen is often touted as the more “complete” defenseman of the two, giving a puck away on his first shift that led to Roope Hintz’s wonderful chance. Dahlin was credited with four giveaways in this game, more than any other player. That said, Dahlin is a wonder, and a year younger to boot. There’s no real reason to get caught up in a King James Vs. His Airness battle. Not yet, anyway.
Also noteworthy from the Buffalo side: Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner all played about 22 minutes in this one. At first I figured it was some sort of aberration, but all three do average 18-20 minutes as it is, so consider this a bit of a bump after all the rest from the break, I guess. And you thought Dallas was the one-line team in this one.
Ben Bishop earned his shutout, though it’s a shame that he had to do so without more than a one-goal margin the entire time. Bishop put forth some extremely solid positional work to stay upright and make some vital saves, a couple of the “right spot, right time” variety. But he also did have some nice grabs, including a couple of slick saves down the stretch. Dallas has finally got themselves some pitching up in here, in case you missed the first 49 games of the year.
Yeah, so a 1-0 game should have been 2-0 or 3-0 at least, but these are the 2018-19 Dallas Stars!, remember. Three bad mistakes by the Buffalo defense led to one nice save, one goal, and one crossbar from Tyler Seguin, who surely hopes we aren’t going to be doing this again in the final push here.
But as for the goal-scorer, let us take heart: There is something different about Jamie Benn’s game lately. Maybe it’s just an extended push to prove a point, but as has been written in this space before, we might be seeing Jamie Benn warming up for the playoffs. One key indicator? His wrister, which he unleashed from more than, ahem, five feet out at least two or three times. It gave Ullmark trouble even when he got a piece of it, and I can’t help but wonder if Benn has decided to start Making More Things Happen. Certainly if his stick continues to keep up with his mouth, we should be in for a treat in the next 32 games.
But for how much Jamie Benn was using his wrist shot in this one, it was his go-to breakaway move of the last few seasons that beat Ullmark: a deke and a backhand slipped five-hole. It’s a lot easier to enjoy that move when it 1) goes in, and 2) isn’t the only move in Benn’s arsenal. After all, Jamie Benn is still Jamie Benn. He knows where the puck is supposed to go.
(I think we could all stand to watch that video, these days.)
Taylor Fedun, by the way, deserves your love and admiration. Not only has he become a quality regular for the Dallas defense, and not only did he create the Jamie Benn goal with a wonderful pinch at the perfect time, but he also has an indirect tie with the Dallas Stars, as his grisly leg injury in his rookie season led to the Oilers trading for Mark Fistric back in 2013 (for a third-round pick, no less). For Fedun to be back in the NHL at the age of 30, and to be playing with enough confidence to make a play like that at the blue line against his former team? That’s just cool. I love hockey sometimes.
Jamie Oleksiak nearly scored in his re-debut off a Janmark feed, but he was robbed by Ullmark on the doorstep. Oleksiak did elevate the puck, though. Just a great save by the goaltender. Also, here we are, casually talking about Jamie Oleksiak’s game as a Dallas Star, which just happened. I believe I have mentioned that this season is Some Kind Of Something? Here, for no reason other than to marvel at what the past hath wrought, are some Random Oleksiak Tweets of Yore:
Hitch had more praise for Oleksiak tonight. Said he's very happy with Oleksiak, makes the defense better.— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) September 26, 2017
Ken Hitchcock on why he is playing Jamie Oleksiak over Julius Honka against Nashville tonight:— Mike Heika (@MikeHeika) December 5, 2017
“We just feel like this is going to be competitive. They’ve got a lot of firepower up front, and we’ve got to find a way to negate it.”
Oleksiak did not like playing for Hitchcock. So at least he won’t have to worry about that in Dallas upon his return. There is untapped potential there. We saw it last season at times. Hopefully he puts it all together. Nice man.— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) January 28, 2019
Per Hitchcock: Martin Hanzal will be in the lineup tonight.— Bruce LeVine (@BruceLeVinePuck) November 6, 2017
Jamie Oleksiak will play wing most likely on the line with Hanzal
Oleksiak’s acquisition seems to have been not about size as such, but about what the Stars seem to think his size allows them to do. The obvious thing is, of course, to manage the net front. Oleksiak didn’t play on special teams at all, but it’s clear from all of the comments from Jims, Inc. that Dallas sees him as a trustworthy player in their system. Comfort level means a lot to a coaching staff, and clearly they don’t care about the same things we can see and measure from over here.
The move for more size on defense squares with the team’s pursuit of and usage of Martin Hanzal, whom Hitch and Montgomery more or less stapled to the top of the offensive crease on the power play and in late-game situations when trailing. Dallas clearly subscribes to the Hockey Truth© that goals are created by net-front presence (one of Montgomery’s process points, you remember) and traffic. I would argue that this is one way to create goals, but that it should not be the primary goal-scoring apparatus around which a team is constructed. So, while I’m not saying Oleksiak is peanut butter to Hanzal’s chocolate, I’m also not not saying that, either.
We’ll see how it shakes out. Oleksiak seemed fine-ish if a bit tentative in moments, but you’d expect that in his first game back in Dallas. He had a nice pass or two, and that’s something to appreciate. Confidence is one heck of a PED, and you have to give Jim Nill some credit, after a fashion, for re-acquiring Oleksiak knowing full well how it looks for Dallas’s development of its prospects. But then again, Nill also had his first-round picks from 2013 and 2014 watching this game along with us as healthy scratches, so give the man some credit for not being consumed by vanity, I guess.
Speaking of first-rounders, Jason Dickinson opened the third period with a beautiful move in the neutral zone to create a 2-on-1 with Jason Spezza, but Dickinson showed his deferential hand early, and the pass never was able to make it to Spezza for the back-door chance. Dickinson left the game in some pain midway through the third period, and angrily, with what Montgomery later described as a tweak of the lower body. Dance move jokes aside, that sounds like a groin pull sort of injury to me, but it’s pointless to speculate.
Alex Radulov had a couple of great chances from the slot, but Ullmark held onto the puck both times. Credit to Ullmark for turning what could have been a boring loss into a goalie duel, of sorts. Except, like, the sort of duel where each gunfighter gets four wild shots and then the two participants go grab a sandwich and talk trash for a bit in between each round.
Trash talk wrote itself in the third period after a Bishop got bumped into by Nathan Beaulieu, negating a goal by Marco Scandella. As I watched it on replay, I initially thought that Oleksiak had totally shoved Beaulieu into Bishop, and my mind immediately went to Oleksiak’s hit on Nick Bjugstad that sent him careening right into Kari Lehtonen, giving him a concussion at the outset of the 2014-15 season. But upon further reflection, Beaulieu really did skate into Bishop, who was in the crease, and Bishop responded to the contact in the way that goalie know they need to nowadays in order to get calls: he fell down. Good on Oleksiak for not shoving his man into Bishop, and good on the Stars’ netminder to make the smart play there. Good try by Buffalo in, well, generally just sports. You folks up there sure do try.
Tyler Seguin looked a bit sore after a collision by the net, but he is fine, according to Jim Montgomery’s postgame presser. Interestingly, Montgomery also noted that Seguin had been dealing with some pain for the last three games before the break, but the issue there is all healed up now. So, good news, then scary news followed by relief. We’re in shape for February, folks.
If you want reassurance that the Stars weren’t totally turtling, then you did get it when the top line had a solid 45-second chunk of offensive-zone possession with around 1:30 left int he third, when the Sabres desperately wanted to pull their goaltender. That’s about right for this game, I think. Dallas, as they have for much of the year, seemed to enjoy preventing the other team from scoring, but rarely were they able to do much scoring themselves. If people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, then maybe the Stars have the right idea by only shooting a couple pebbles at the net per game. Tonight, one was good enough.