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Game 8 Afterwords: Still Fighting It, Still Fighting It

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Hey, at least Corey Perry helped the Stars, which is a sentence I am typing for real

Dallas Stars v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Everybody knows It hurts to grow up

And everybody does

It’s so weird to be back here

Let me tell you what

The years go on and

We’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it

And you’re so much like me

I’m sorry

***

When things are great, there’s a very specific mood that fans tend to participate in. People primarily want to re-live the goals, watch the highlights, and revel in how good the team made them feel, how amazing certain players are. The details are fun to dig into, but it’s the events themselves that tend to get recirculated. That rush is what fans live for.

When things are bad, no one wants to watch the highlights or listen to people talk about the team. They want to talk to you about the team, to tell you what’s wrong. When the car stops running, everyone becomes an amateur mechanic. You either want to yell at the people responsible, or listen to someone else ranting in your stead. Externalize the rage, however it happens.

The Stars are in a dire situation now, in case you are just joining us. Five games below .500, zero regulation wins through 10% of the year, and a power play that looks haunted by the ghosts that plagued Nashville last year? Yeah, you can understand why people are ready to pronounce effects’ causes and tear it all down. It ain’t good.

The last season this bad was 2016-17, and those Stars never dropped worse than five games below .500, which is where these 1-6-1 Stars are now. You’d have to go back to the nightmare year of 1995-96 (that ended up effecting a lot of eventually championship-caliber change in a much different era) to find a team that ever had six more regulation losses than wins. and that team ended up having Bob Gainey booting himself upstairs to bring in Ken Hitchcock shortly after the team reached that disastrous six games (and more) below .500 threshold.

So, yeah. If this road trip doesn’t get better, I don’t know how this team can chug along as-is. They’re strapped for cap space, so you’re basically on a one-in, one-out policy right now. This group is what they’ve got, and I don’t know that they have the ammo for a trade that would pull them out of this funk, or at least not one that mortgages the future to kingdom come. Truth be told, I’m almost scared of what they would pay just to make such a trade. They’re not exactly sitting on top of a big ol’ pile of leverage, you know? Anchors instead of life preservers.

You really just need a win though, and those shouldn’t ever be this hard to come by. It’s cruel that they haven’t gotten more of them, it really is. Dreadful teams win all the time! Ottawa has beaten Tampa Bay multiple times in recent memory, and that should never, never, never happen, right? But the same randomness that makes Hockey so crazy come playoff time can also hide rakes all over the yard for you to step on, and hoo boy, did the Stars ever tread on a doozy of rake tonight.

At the end of all things, the Stars lost on a game-winning goal that will be on top-five reels at season’s end. Sonny Milano is a fine player, and sometimes a 16th-overall pick will remind you why he’s so good. The Stars’ pick in that draft came two selections earlier. He had a nice assist for Karpdart in the Liigaen Haaeno today. I was going to look up the Finnish team and league name, but I just guessed because it is late and I am already getting like five hours of sleep max tonight, so you are stuck with Karpdart. I’m sure someone will correct me in the comments.

The rake in that Milano equation was gifted to Denis Gurianov, who had just been given a chance to continue a strong game by being elevated up to a line with Roope Hintz and Mattias Janmark, perhaps the best duo on the team so far this season. What happened? Gurianov ended up eating a minus because the Stars’ best forward this year got completely undressed on the rush, nearly recovered, then saw Milano go back between his legs with both Lindell and Hintz stick-checking him at top speed. That’s the sort of thing Crosby or McDavid* or whoever should be doing once a year to the Coyotes, not on this night, and absolutely not to the Stars. Please, can you just let them get up again before you keep kicking, hockey gods?

*Or against the Flyers, right after I wrote that sentence. Good job, Connor.

Taylor Fedun stepped on a rake too, this one more of his own making, by ending a rather ignominious shift by bumping into Ben Bishop—and, let’s be clear, Fedun did so while trying to help. That’s the really unfair part of this whole ordeal. It’s not like the Stars are freewheeling all over and getting burned for their irresponsible play, as so many pundits said the 2014-15 Stars were doing when they were actually being sabotaged by the pipe-dwellers. This was a smart defenseman just trying to play safe, only to end up fouling his own goalie at the worst possible time. I guess he didn’t go full Dan Hamhuis on Bishop this time, though, so hey, bright side? I am saying that counts as a positive, in this season.

Rake number $Texas belongs to Jamie Oleksiak, who turned the puck over to Alex Wennberg after doing another great thing—blocking a shot!—and then Bishop waved an ineffective glove hand at the ripped wrister from Wennberg. Again, you could see the universe smirking at how Oleksiak, who again had a nice game until he didn’t, got himself into the biggest of trouble through the most minor of good intentions. No one was trying to abdicate responsibility. This wasn’t Jamie Benn forgetting where he was against Calgary, giving up the game-tying goal rush with a toe drag. This was just a night of stupid, stupid hockey. It was a night where the Stars lost a game they probably should have won. You can shake those off a bit more easily when you have more than three points in the bank.

Now we are left to comb through the ashes of eight sordid games, looking for signs of this team’s former life. Of course they were never this bad, and of course they will win again. But it’s so hard to envision the dawn when you’re surrounded by nothing but quiet, hopeless stars. And this team isn’t going to find hope until the wins start visiting them again. Hey, maybe the team with two championships in the last four years will be just what the doctor ordered! The Penguins took a trip to KMart a couple of years ago and got Guentzel for $12.95, and it turns out he had 40 goals a year inside of his battery compartment. Neato! Good for Pittsburgh, who really needed a break.

All right, let’s review the action before I finish thinking aloud.

***

Considering that both coaches are running teams that have looked more afraid of losing the game by what their team does wrong than by what it doesn’t do right, there were some really good chances early in this one.

The Stars worked on their erstwhile power play in morning skate, and John Klingberg drew a chance for it with an aggressive turn up the ice just two minutes in. Joe Pavelski found a rebound off a Radulov shot from the right circle, but he poked it just wide. So close, you know. It could have gone in! It did not go in.

Then Denis Gurianov got a shake of the head from the universe (one step below a rake) when Corey Perry fed him a sumptuous chance on the second power play unit, only to have Joonas Korpisalo rob him stone blind with the glove hand.

Ben Bishop had to make a huge save after a less fruitful bit of aggression from Klingberg that led to a 2-on-1 as Sonny Milano stepped out of the penalty box to join Cam Atkinson, but Bishop kept things even for the moment. Hooray for Ben Bishop, also known as Hector.

Taylor Fedun would end up creating the genesis of a goal later on, but he also had a shift or two to forget. To start this one, he fanned on a puck deep in his own zone, then bumped into Bishop to throw him off just as Werenski shot the puck after a too-easy cross-slot pass set him up.

Pierre-Luc Dubois then reminded the Stars just how things we’re gonna go, laying a dangerous, borderline filthy cross check in the numbers to send Miro Heiskanen (who wasn’t even the one playing the puck) into the corner bords. Heiskanen looked shaken up, but he continued with no apparent ill effects. Jack Edwards has not returned my text message requesting comment.

Jamie Oleksiak then had the good block, bad decision that we mentioned, and kablammo. 2-0.

Miro Heiskanen made it 2-1 late in the first on a delayed penalty drawn by Denis Gurianov, and it’s hard to overstate just how huge that felt. The goal also came off a smart delay by Fedun at the blue line that gave Radulov time to arrive as the extra attacker. Radulov then found Heiskanen wide open on the left side, and Korpisalo had no prayer.

As for the rest of it, Joe Pavelski was stoned again by Korpisalo in the final seconds, but would score in the final ticks of the final period, because at least then the universe could still maintain its collision course with whatever barge transports Dallas Stars fans’ dreams these days.

If you had told me five years ago that Corey Perry would one day play for the Stars, I would probably have told you that Dallas must have sold its soul in exchange for a Cup or something. Instead, Corey Perry ended up looking like the most impactful of the three summer additions, at least in the first half of the game. Aside from the catharsis of having a forward who could muscle players off pucks behind the net, Perry also created a bit of offense, both with the power play pass to Gurianov that fate downvoted, and then a puck off the outside of the post. There was also a pretty “great if you’re on his team” hit on Nick Foligno moment, not to mention a 2-on-1 that rocked Korpisalo’s mask.

Of course, Pavelski would end up with the goal—and you can bet that goal will mean something to him, if only a tiny bit in the midst of this quagmire. Fate is cruel, but it strings you along, too. That Pavelski’s goal came in the midst of playing out the string was, I suppose, poetic. I don’t like all poetry the same.

Fate can also hurt you on the outside, just for good measure. Heiskanen winced a fair bit after blocking a shot with his leg, then Faksa got nailed in the hand by an Oleksiak slapshot (one of many in this game). Somehow it didn’t get any worse, but honestly, I was surprised it didn’t. You’d almost expect a giant safe to fall on top of the power play at any given moment, but then again, that might create enough havoc for the power play to score, and goodness knows fate won’t be having that.

Late in the second period, we saw the pinnacle of the universe’s performance on this night, when the Stars finally sustained some offensive zone time for a solid minute, but didn’t get a single decent shot out of it. The result? Columbus got a pair of 2-on-1s and almost scored on a delayed penalty call, but Miro Heiskanen was standing in the empty net after Bishop had gone out to defend the other angle, miraculously saving a goal to preserve the Stars’ chances, we all thought in our naïvete.

Ben Bishop would repeat the performance again early in the third, after a host of chances by Dallas were stopped by Korpisalo. Bishop was asked to save a breakaway early on to keep the game close, and he did it. But Bishop wasn’t perfect against Milano, or against Wennberg, and the Stars are playing hockey on the equivalent of Rainbow Road right now, where the slightest twitch of the steering wheel means a trip to Lakitu’s graveyard. It can’t go on like this, surely. But it might have gone on long enough—to sink their hopes, or to drive those who can to change the team in a significant way.

***

Maybe we’re wrong to call the universe cruel, though. Maybe Dallas is getting exactly what they deserve for not playing by the rules of the new NHL, where tanking is rewarded, or where teams have to draft exceedingly well if they don’t. Dallas’s prospect pool withered on the vine right when the team’s core started to age out of elite status. Even as we can still see some help coming in another year or two, the Stars just don’t have enough solid forward prospects to Billy Goats Gruff their way across the bridge to Thomas Harley and company as Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin stop being able to turn games around at will.

Stephen Johns still hurts. It’s tragic, even as we hope for his recovery and healthy life, but you can’t look at this lineup and not ache for someone who could take those PK minutes, who could hold down the right side of the ice on the second pairing. Jamie Oleksiak, for all his aesthetic progress this year, still can’t be that guy, as far as the coaches are concerned. I can’t say I blame them for their skepticism, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow. The last great Jim Nill trade came four years ago, and the real gem of that deal is isolated in pain when the Stars need him the most.

This is what being a fan is, you know. It’s not continual hope with speed bumps and maybe a loss in the second or third round every year, not for most of us. It’s this sort of suffering, this sort of insane malevolence of the hockey gods raining down upon you. To love a team is to hate what they do to you, to hate that you love them because of how much their pain can become your own.

Have you ever talked a friend through a breakup? It’s impossible, really. You can comfort them and listen, but you can’t make it all go away. You can only be there to absorb or join in with their rage, eventually collapsing into laughter, tears, or both. Time will help memories fade, but it doesn’t really heal. Only love can do that, and isn’t that how we got into this whole mess?

Or how about talking a friend through an ex who dumped them a long time ago, someone they never quite got over? I think that’s what sports teams really are. They hurt us every year, and we try and try to forget how much we cared, all the while secretly hoping they’ll come calling, asking us to join them in bliss and ecstasy again, all but guaranteeing a painful outcome. And we poor sods, we believe them. A bit more cautiously each time, perhaps, but willingly for all that. We want to be hurt, we want to play this perverse game. But we cannot play the game with the same people. We cannot put the Stanley Cup in a 27-year-old Jamie Benn’s hands, tell him that we’re proud of him, grateful for what he’s done for us, for this city, for himself. And besides, that specific task of handing over the Cup? It is most fittingly reserved for the commissioner we loathe. Really, we should know better than to entrust this system with our heart by now.

So it’s the Penguins next, ah yes. Remember Jamie Benn, white-hot with vindictive rage as the Stars scored an “up yours” goal to tie the game against the Penguins after a goal was called off? That seems like forever ago. But once the puck drops, once my heart starts aching for this team again, I’m sure I’ll still be fighting it. What else are we supposed to do, anyway?