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Game 9 Afterwords: We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are

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This game might have done some real harm to the team. It definitely hurt my heart.

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

That shy smile’s sweet, that’s a fact

Go ahead, I don’t mind the act

Here you come all dressed up for a date

Well one more step and it’ll be too late

Blue blue ribbon in your hair

Like you’re so sure I’ll be standing here

***

***

I’ve been thinking that eight or nine losses might be the breaking point for whatever this malignancy is, but it’s hard not to feel like something broke tonight. In the coaches, in the players, and in the Dallas Stars Collective we all dwell within or around. This whole ickiness officially metastasized into a disease, and we’re on that uniquely sportsy precipice where you don’t know whether to fear the fall more, or whatever is going to come out of your parachute pack when you (or ownership) pull the ripcord.

It sounds crazy to say, but I still don’t believe that the Dallas Stars, this assemblage of players, is a lousy team, even as they are playing lousily. This would be so, so much easier to take if they were inherently bad. Mediocre Stars teams have been assembled before, and we lived through them.

I remember walking out of a Stars game in Anaheim (I think it was) back in 2010 at the end of the season, with Dallas firmly out of a playoff spot. They lost the game, if memory serves, and I saw another Stars fan walking out of the arena nearby. We exchanged short pleasantries, and after that “oh, well” you give in hostile territory, I distinctly remember a gleam of hope shining in his eyes as he said, “Well, next year will be better. They got Lehtonen, and that’s gonna be a good trade.”

He was right, of course. The Vishnevskiy-for-Lehtonen trade was one of the best deals in Dallas Stars history in terms of cost and benefit. Consider what the Stars have (or haven’t) gotten for their first-round busts of the last decade, and it seems like downright robbery that the Stars got Kari for what they did.

That hope was something real, and it was the right time for it. Two years removed from a Western Conference Final, Kari Lehtonen would come to Dallas and lead this roster to a 95-point season, which is still the second-best performance since 2008, if you can believe that. Loui Eriksson was still underrated, Jamie Benn was unstoppable, and Brad Richards was still around. It made the hockey watchable, and that was all I cared about then if the teams weren’t making the playoffs. Even if the cold, heartless economics of sports dictate that our present-day selves might have been better-served by fewer wins back then, there were things to hope for in every one of those bankruptcy-ridden seasons and its sunsetting hopes of Brenden Morrow carrying the Cup. The illusion stayed over a few extra nights, and it was nice while it lasted.

Right now, with a team that has been spending to cap for a good few years now, I’m not sure what there is to hope for, in grand terms. The Stars just lost to yet another recent Stanley Cup Champion--sure have been a lot of those on the docket lately, eh?--and you wonder how many more bad breaks, bad losses, or bad decisions this team is away from at least partial dissolution. We do know that they are closer now to major upheaval than they were yesterday. We do not know anything more than that.

We can hope that Roope Hintz and Miro Heiskanen will continue to be fun to watch. Whether we can even hope that they will be fun to watch in the playoffs any time soon is, at this point, uncertain. That’s an incredibly sad thing to write, and it gives me no joy, I assure you.

This is a really sad time to have been excited about the Stars. Grief is complex, but in the midst of tears and alexithymia, we also know that losing makes people angry. And when those angry people are responsible for making decisions or are the ones paying the people who make decisions, it’s tough to bet on patience and perseverance as the virtues that will win the day. There is a twisted sort of logic for why we throw the Nintendo controllers.

***

Anton Khudobin, man. What more can you say about him? I’ve always loved backup goalies, but this guy put the team on his back right up until two of the Stars’ best players went down on their stomachs and let Kris Letang score the second SportsCenter Goal in two nights for a Stars’ opponent. He wasn’t perfect, but he saved them more than they deserved, and then some, including a couple of penalty kills that fully deserved to take a minus.

Posts? Sure, both teams hit posts, but the Penguins also missed empty nets, until they sealed this one by hitting one. Regarding posts, I believe a wise old hockey man once said, “wah wah.”

The Stars, in other words, deserved to lose this one, and lose they did. And have done. And quite possibly will do again tomorrow, with a back-to-back against the red-hot Flyers sitting there like a ripe coconut, ready to cartoonishly conk them on the noggin at first breeze. Dallas continued to struggle to get up the ice and into the zone outside of some dogged stretches that showed too few results. They earned only a single power play, a meager total which was again deserved, though maybe you say that a team getting outplayed with a power play this lost deserves to play the entire 60 minutes on the job, just to see if they might somehow lose the game anyway, thus making their own humiliation into an epic poem for the generations we will never see. It feels like the universe has decided to teach the Stars a Lesson, and we’re the ones stuck doing the homework.

Dallas is still averaging under two goals a game, and that just shouldn’t be. Even in the stingiest of stingy systems, this team has players who know how to score goals. Take the Stars’ second goal, for example: Miro Heiskanen gains the zone with an effortless play that only tantalizes those of us who watch so many more failed entries by other players. Heiskanen rims the puck to Klingberg, who flashes some of his classically deft handiwork, and the puck is wafted into the top of the net. It isn’t that hard, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Good players make good plays. Sometimes they are rewarded for it.

Like Roope Hintz, for instance. Roope Hintz! He scored another lovely goal off the rush--the Stars don’t really know how to score right now once the defense has settled into the zone, whether down a man or not--after Klingberg and Jamie Benn combined to turn the puck up ice, but even that pass ticked off a stick on its way to Hintz. The bounces were there in this game, a fair number of them. But you have to stick the landing.

I mean, it’s old hat by now. The game started with the Stars surrendering a grade-A chance. Pre-redemption Klingberg made a bad pinch, and suddenly Sidney Crosby was on a 2-on-0.5 before the foam had settled. Khudobin stopped him, of course, because Anton Khudobin will be damned if he is going to give up on anything or anyone right now.

That wasn’t quite as bad as the 2-on-0 Dallas also gave up right after their power play ended, but both chances somehow resulted in the puck not being in the net. If the Penguins had lost this game, you know their refrain would have been, “Well, we have to score on our chances. We have to finish.” Except, they don’t have to say that, because they did this crazy thing I’m still researching where a team generates more scoring chances, consistently and repeatedly, with eventual results on the scoreboard. More to come on that front, so stay tuned. It’s news to me, too.

***

Jamie Oleksiak returned to Pittsburgh, and you’d be hard-pressed to say they miss him. He’s a third-pairing defenseman who looked like a tradeable third-pairing defenseman in this one, taking an ugly penalty that wasn’t really that egregious but for the lost positioning that amplified it. He also got beat on a slick bank pass up the boards by the Pens’ defenseman they were desperately trying to trade last month, so I’d say things are going quite well on all fronts for the Penguins’ blue line these days. Or well enough, at least.

Klingberg had a two-point night and some really admirable defensive play that might be the sort of thing that gets him going again, if this were the sort of season where that were the biggest concern. But when you hear your television praising the team’s effort in this game as maybe its best of the year, you know there are far too many holes in the lifeboat to count.

It would be great if it were just one thing, wouldn’t it? I think that’s why fans clamor to fire someone, to trade someone, to do something. If there is one big problem, then there could be one big solution. How very, very nice that would be.

That’s why Jim Montgomery talks about passion and effort, why Anton Khudobin says the team isn’t angry enough, why Tyler Seguin took this loss so hard. The team knows there isn’t one magic button to press, so the only thing they can really do is to try to overclock the processor a bit more and just churn out more, more, more. Whatever they aren’t doing enough of, they’re long past being able to hover over a futuristic map and say Zoom, Enhance. They have a brutal schedule to start the season, and that means there isn’t time for a deep breath and a Socratic dialogue. They have to dig deep and muscle up, because nine games into a season is long past time for reconfiguring this matrix. Find a way or make a way, but the discovery phase is no place for a team at 1-7-1, unless it’s the only place.

Jim Montgomery played Jamie Benn for only 15 minutes tonight, the same amount of time as Corey Perry got. Perry looked slower and less effective than in Columbus in this one, which is not unexpected given where he’s at right now. Benn looked angry at times, but Miro Heiskanen was the one stepping up and challenging Sidney Crosby to beat him. Some of that is coverage, but a lot of it is the fact of the matter. Benn is not the go-to guy for this coach anymore, and while I’ve seen a lot of positives in Benn’s game this year, he isn’t going to change hearts and minds without getting hot on the score sheet. That assist to Klingberg helps, but this team needed a big goal, and instead they got one from their one productive forward, then sat back while Pittsburgh stormed out and took over the lead. It is a long season, but fans have short memories, and the highest-paid forwards are not doing enough to fill those memories with joy, right now.

Ice time is deceiving, though. Mattias Janmark and Joe Pavelski played more minutes than Roope Hintz (14:58, though he was kept off the PK), and I’m not sure anyone should be playing more minutes at forward than Hintz right now. But I can hardly blame the head coach for juggling things when things aren’t working. If he hadn’t changed lines, fans would just as quickly be all over him for not switching what wasn’t working. Every coach wants consistency, but it’s hard to find consistency when you’re losing. Or maybe they’re losing because of all the changes, at least in part. I don’t know, and neither do you. I promise you that Montgomery would pay handsomely for someone who did have some answers, right now.

Tactics are always a discussion during losing streaks, and sure, I’d still love to see the Stars stretch the neutral zone a bit more instead of having all five guys circle back to break out together, just like I did last year. But Jim Montgomery didn’t get an NHL coaching job by being a younger version of Lindy Ruff, and it’s probably not reasonable to expect him to abandon major philosophical pillars before the team has even played ten games. The NHL, of course, doesn’t care about what’s reasonable. Once your grace period ends, you either succeed get churned up and spit out. Montgomery isn’t telling the power play to enter the zone like Cowboys fans crushing through the doors of Jerryworld with Standing Room Only tickets. Jim Nill didn’t get perhaps the highest-scoring player available in free agency on a deal that was largely applauded in hopes that he would tip the puck just wide tonight. He didn’t draft Denis Gurianov and recall him from Texas so that he could hit a post and continue to not-quite his way through games. Nobody every plans a disaster, but when they come, you can usually tell who is better prepared for them.

I’m sad tonight. Empathy for the Stars is in bountiful supply, even as frustrations accumulate like barnacles on a sunken ship. It is hard to see them lose, but it is harder to see them feeling the losses. They do not deserve this, even if the game they played deserved the loss that it got. These players can look unbeatable, but they are not impervious to pain, disappointment, and doubt. Right now, this team doesn’t have answers, and it’s haunting them in the worst way. We are never as strong as we think we are in our best moments, but neither are we as weak as we fear ourselves to be at our worst. There is always something you did not expect.

***

I can offer you only this consolation: the Stars aren’t dropping points against the worst teams they could be dropping them to, which is to say Western Conference teams. They are shanking their Jengaship, yes, but at least they aren’t filling the Central Division’s coffers with treasure while they do so.

Here’s one more thing: the Flyers they are facing on Saturday are pretty great evidence that winning and losing streaks can come out of nowhere. So if they’re looking for a city of redemption, why not good old Santa Clause battery town? It’s a lovely little place.