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Afterwords: The Other Russians Beat Ovechkin and Company, Somehow

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The Stars have their issues this season, but goaltending is finally not one of them.

Washington Capitals v Dallas Stars Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Hard to argue that the Stars’ goalies have indeed been the perfect pair this year.

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Jamie Benn’s biggest response to Jim Lites may have taken place in his first missed game in a long time. With Pheonix Copley playing his 16th career game (remember when he was a hot young goalie prospect?) and the Capitals coming off a tough game the night before, the Stars were the ones to embodied Razor’s prediction about a team playing its second in as many nights.

After a huge push in the first period, Dallas more or less resorted to guerrilla warfare in the final 40 minutes, hiding behind trees and firing only the occasional shots at the enemy. In this case, the trees all had the same name on them: Anton Khudobin.

But to stick with the captain for a minute, Jim Montgomery’s comments after the game were quiet, but scathing. The bench was quiet, he said. Shifts were too long. Players weren’t digging in. And, at the end of the day, the Stars were led not into all-out battle, but to a sniper’s victory. It helps to have some trusty forests and an elite shooter or two. As Benn continues to transform more into a goal-scorer akin to late-career Modano than “lay out three guys and blow past everyone the next shift” Benn, we’ll see if the team’s psyche can find itself, or if Benn will keep having to draw the map for them (and himself).

An interesting note about Washington: The 18-goal gap between the Capitals’ first and second goal-scorers (Ovechkin and Vrana with 30 and 12 respectively) is larger than the Stars’ highest goal total (Benn, 17). One might say the Stars are less top-heavy than the Capitals, but it may also be true that the Stars are less middle- and bottom-heavy than Washington, too. Ovechkin is an all-time weapon, but that team isn’t a rotating cast behind him or anything.

Still, the Stars clearly circled number eight on the board, so much so that they shook up their defense pairings to come up with Lindell-Polák as a shutdown pair extraordinaire. I’m not sure I love that in principle, but it more or less survived and thrived last night, while Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg actually surrendered a bit more in shots to the Oshie/Backström/Vrana line. The Honka/Fedun pairing had itself an especially rough game, with Honka in particular making a couple of please-no plays that aren’t going to help his already waning case for ice time in Dallas. As much as Honka’s two turnovers in the prior match warranted a closer look, Honka’s game in this one was fairly straightforward: he wasn’t finding the best play often enough, sometimes because he rushed, and other times because he was too hesitant. But let’s move on, because we really ought to be talking about nothing else but the goaltender in this one.

I’ve exhausted my well of “actually he’s been great” paragraphs for Khudobin this season. The Stars play confident in front of him, which is something precious few backups have been able to do for this team in the last decade. That great Khudobin glove save on Backström early set the tone, and Khudobin harmonized purely with himself the rest of the way, with one exception.

In fact, only reason this was a tie game after 60 (and especially the final 40) instead of another Nashvilliean robbery was Khudobin giving up one of his very few weak goals this season on a screened short side backhand shot from the dot by Lars Eller. Yeah, there was some guesswork that burned him there, but give Khudobin all of the credit for bouncing back and sealing things off the rest of the way to ensure the Stars an all-important point in an Eastern Conference matchup. Goalies are all quirky, but ding-danged if Khudobin isn’t a joy to watch.

Khudobin saved the game once with huge stick save on Stephenson’s shorthanded bid, and then he did it again on Alex Ovechkin on a Washington power play with about nine minutes left. The third period was Anton Khudobin playing the part of Scott Pilgrim, and he nailed the role. The overtime glove save on Lars Eller’s cannonade was Khudobin’s landmark moment, in which he both earned and received all the adulation you have to give. You know the Capitals saw that moment and just deflated a bit, yeah? It’s like, “Okay, well if he’s gonna be doing that, what are we even bothering with here.”

I really like the Stars’ goaltending this year, and that’s a feeling I haven’t felt in a full decade. What a time for it, eh?

Tyler Seguin buried two great Alex Radulov efforts, so the offensive credit starts and ends with those two guys. Still, there were chances—oh, were there some other chances. Devin Shore tried to do his best Miro Heiskanen impression in a heroic effort in the final minute of regulation, but Kempny just did get his stick to the puck before Shore fired his backhand from the top of the crease. That’s been Shore’s season this year, hasn’t it? Lot of try, and some good elements to his game, but it’s all-too-clear that he is a Recent Stars Draft Pick, which is to say he will be solidly middle-six but not quite score-y enough to elevate the team to the next level.

It occurs to me that need some sort of award for whichever Stars’ depth player hits 15 goals in a random season and then regresses hard the next. From Cody Eakin to Mattias Janmark to Devin Shore, this is becoming a disturbing trend.

Blake Comeau embodied this trend all too well in a game where he had a couple of chances to be the hero in overtime, only to fail to beat a goaltender who is named after my early attempts at spelling the capital of Arizona. Paying for depth is fine if you need it, but the Stars have a glut of depth, which ironically has made them not a deep team. You can’t make a good cake if it’s all sponge and no icing, am I right? (...or perhaps the Stars have too much icing, now that I think about it.)

Anyway, all this is just to say: I’ll leave it to you to figure out how the “Deepest Stars Team Jim Nill Has Ever Assembled” features a second power play unit that includes Taylor Fedun and Erik Condra.

There were flashes of skill, as there often are. Julius Honka shot wide on a two-on-one, while Jason Spezza had a fun little reminder of his elite hands with a nutmeg on Matt “Pierre Calls Me Matty for Some Reason” Niskanen. Janmark would also split the axles of the NiskyMobile later in the match, much to my great joy. (Hey, Zubov didn’t teach you that one, Matt! Close the barn door!) It is hard for me to admit that Niskanen is all grown up.

You had to love the Wes McCauley call on Michael Kempny (and Radulov) for perhaps the most poorly executed dive after a stick foul I’ve seen in a long time, too. I love McCauley’s officiating when he doesn’t miss calls, and this game started out that way but ended with more or less prison rules. Hard to be upset about the result (especially if you escaped as egregious a penalty as Spezza’s uncalled trip), but the NHL, man. Box o’ chocolates rules these days.

With 40 games to go, Dallas is third in the Central. This is insane. The Islanders are out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference while sporting a (PDO-fueled) +13 goal differential, while the Stars are meekly +4 on the year. Goaltending is nice, and a struggling division (somehow) is likewise enjoyable. Make no mistake: this team hasn’t suddenly solved much of anything. We’ll see soon enough if Jamie Benn brings some new ideas back into the lineup with him. Pray For Goaltending Salvation In Spite Of Your Flaws is not a very robust theology. Alex Radulov is the second-oldest player in the lineup; he cannot be the only player capable of carrying a line. Or rather, he shouldn’t be. Somehow, he still is, thank heavens.