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Game 14 Afterwords: Ah, There They Are

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The Stars’ best period of the season came when they might have needed it most

Minnesota Wild v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I drove the coast just to see you

Why’d you take so long?

And I get that you know that I miss you

And I, I know something’s wrong

***

For someone fighting off illness, I’d say Tyler Seguin had a pretty decent night:

Give Micah a couple bucks a month so we can keep seeing these charts.

Seguin, along with Heiskanen and Radulov(!!!), was on the ice for five Stars goals. Given that the Stars hadn’t scored more than four goals in a game all year, that’s a pretty enormous bit of work. And Seguin wasn’t the only one fighting off disease. This whole team, really, has been battling some sort of sickness since that Brett Ritchie death knell back on opening night. After a third period against Pittsburgh that was about as hapless and hopeless a 20 minutes of hockey as you will see, the Dallas Stars were getting loaded up onto a gurney, and the specifics of the fallout were as unknown as they were likely going to be severe.

Still, when you then consider that all six Stars goals were scored in the final 21 minutes of the game...well, it’s safe to say this was the biggest period of the season for the Stars. Or at least, the biggest in a positive sense.

This game was feeling outright toxic about halfway through. I know Jim Montgomery said after the game that he liked a lot of things he saw through the first period, but the booing fans, the zero in the Stars’ goal column, and the benched Ben Bishop to start the second period suggested otherwise. Things were bad, the team looked bad, and the record to that point (and this) said that they were bad. This third period wasn’t a panacea by any means; we may still see significant changes unless the Stars can play 110-point hockey down the stretch. That’s not all that likely, but at least the Stars proved they still remember what that can look like, if only for a short burst. Eric Staal was dominating them despite sloppy play on both sides, but then Stars tightened things up before releasing the bowstrings six times. It was pretty satisfying, even if it came with some serious whiplash after so many scoreless, pointless periods of hockey preceding it.

Earlier in the season (and even late in the playoffs last year), the only things really working for the Stars with any consistency were the penalty kill, Roope Hintz, and perhaps Ben Bishop, at times. In this one, all three of those were non-factors at best. Sometimes sticking to your identity as a team is the key to success, but sometimes you just have to throw on a garish outfit and start singing at the top of your lungs in a crowded room, you know? After Radulov’s superhero goal to put the team on the board—is there a bigger sort of goal you could imagine going into the second intermission?—the Stars cranked up the car stereo, rolled the windows down, and screamed out the lyrics to whatever terrible/wonderful music is on hockey players’ Spotify accounts nowadays. It was a team we haven’t seen since probably that second period against Anaheim almost exactly a year ago.

Anger is a powerful force. Entire movie, television, and video game franchises are built on the concept of revenge, retribution, and punishment. Anger cranks up our ego and puts us into a state of hyperfocus--there’s a reason it’s called “blind” rage--and sometimes that results in a whole lot of stuff getting done in an unstoppable-looking way. “Why don’t they play like that all the time?” is a question I’m sure plenty of fans were asking, but I think the simple answer is that humans are fragile creatures, and that we can’t sustain confident, even arrogant performances when the results bruise our egos. Hockey players (and coaches) know when they’re failing, and they take it personally. These are people whose entire lives have revolved around performing at the top of human ability and usually winning since they were children. Bad seasons, especially unexpected ones, can do a lot of damage if you’re not prepared to deal with them.

Anton Khudobin played a part in keeping that rage-fuel going, I think. Ben Bishop wasn’t the only problem in the first period, but for all the spite flying around harping on how Montgomery was just grasping at straws by pulling his starter—a move every NHL coach has done at some point—Anton Khudobin came in and settled things down, and kept the Stars on the beam when they really started to get going. I’m not sure you can ask for much more than that from a backup goalie.

Both goals Bishop allowed were bad defensive looks, no question. That’s where I would quibble with the Stars’ purported good start, in addition to the whole “not scoring any goals for six periods straight” thing. But I think these Stars could reasonably ask Bishop to save that second goal on the power play, one that slid along the ice and went five-hole after a power-play entry almost laughably simple in its effectiveness. Seeing a teammate get benched—and one that players instinctively protect to the degree they do their goaltender—wounds a player’s pride. And even if it didn’t have an effect in the second period (or at least, for most of it), I think it’s fair to give Montgomery as much nebulous credit for the move as so many fans were giving baseless criticism at the time. Hintz’s power play goal early in the third was a bit fortunate, but you also have to give the whole team credit for being a position to have a fortunate bounce in the first place, which is something the power play hasn’t done for far too much of the season.

Fans have screamed for change, for Gurianov, for Dowling to be benched, for the power play to be changed, and so, so many other things. Going into Tuesday, Jim Montgomery took over the power play (per Razor on the broadcast) from Todd Nelson, and suddenly the Stars were utilizing the old, reliable (and loathed by some) drop pass to, of course, Roope Hintz. It worked. They got clean entries, and they eventually scored a power play goal. It didn’t solve everything, but it added a bit of belief, just like Anton Khudobin’s solid play did. The players started to feel it, and when you look back, I think it’s a bit easier to see that monstrous third period germinating during the second.

This may have ended up being the final straw, but not for the team (or coach) that we would have thought, halfway through. Bruce Boudreau is a top-tier bench boss, but even he was helpless against the “runaway train” that was the Dallas Stars in the third period.

You may remember seeing this before, but from the other end. Remember that crushing goal the other night that went in off Klingberg’s skate on a wrap-around attempt? Sure, it was some bad luck, but you tend to make your own luck in this league, and the Stars were operating an industrial-sized printing press in the Wild’s heads and hearts for the final 20 minutes.

Jim Montgomery mentioned the Stars’ lack of fortunate bounces early in the season--he has wisely eschewed doing so more recently--but they did come, eventually. Whether off Greenway or Brodin or some interdimensional bureau of balance, pucks were finding their way into the Wild net after doing the exact opposite for Dallas in the first 13 games.

Joe Pavelski was also a force in this one, and you could see him thriving in the third-period atmosphere right along with his teammates. He is built for intense games with tons of emotion, and I think any player would struggle to adjust to the not-that sort of play the Stars have been putting forth in the first 13 games. Pavelski might be able to brute-force this team back into playoff contention if they can at least meet some bare minimum requirements. That shouldn’t be too much to ask, but of course it is still a lot more to ask at this point in the season than it should have been. 5-8-1 is not a good start.

By the way, Mats Zuccarello has no goals and three assists in his eight games with the Wild so far. Just thought I’d mention that.

Mental factors aside, the Stars utilized a pretty straightforward approach in their comeback stomping of Minnesota. The 14-91-47 line looked angry and determined, and they scored goals. Miro Heiskanen was dominant again, but then we’ve seen that a lot this season. It’s absurd how easily we can take that for granted, at his age. But with some key defensive plays as well as some even more impressive offensive playmaking, Heiskanen was on the same page as the rest of Dallas’s big guys, and the tide turned like something out of a disaster movie filmed in Minnesota and set in Dallas.

John Klingberg was perhaps an even bigger story, in context. Heiskanen was the better player in this game on the whole, but seeing Klingberg look like John Klingberg again was reassuring in a way that’s hard to overemphasize. The whole team feeds off him just as much as they did Radulov, I think. And when those two are going well, the Stars can, well, get going.

That first goal by Radulov, I mean, you want to write an classical ballad about it. His puck radar was blaring furiously, and he clambered past/over/through everyone in his way to dive at the puck, swatting into the top(!) of the net before even a player like Ryan Suter could figure out the situation. I think it’s fair to say Radulov would have, ahem, bitten someone’s arm off to get to that puck, had it been necessary. It wasn’t the moment to celebrate, but looking back, that sure seems like the one that loosened up the ketchup bottle. For one game, at least.

They head to Colorado next, so I think it’s fair to bet against the good vibes continuing. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them now, shouldn’t revel in a bad team playing well and ripping the fragile heart out of a Wild organization who still has a Dallas-sized complex in their mental makeup. If the Stars do manage to pull off an upset in the Rockies, goodness knows you’ll start to read about “___ points back of the playoffs” and all that, so just be prepared either way, I guess is what I’m saying.

***

The Jamie Benn assist to Tyler Seguin was fortunate, but moreso symbolic. That connection is what led this franchise out of the dark sweaters of bankruptcy and futility, and seeing it fire again is a deeply rooted bit of encouragement or consolation. Hopefully both, especially when one considers that Seguin was playing at less than 100%. Sure, most of their recent wins have been against not-good teams, but you can only win the next game, right? Tuesday night, even that seemed impossible, but the Stars spun gold out of 39 minutes of something decidedly less aromatic than straw. There’s no need to declare them elite or anything, but a proof of concept is integral to any sound design. Combine their boring but steady first two periods with the onslaught against Minnesota, and you have something at least resembling a decent hockey game. They’ll take that, all things considered.

Jamie Benn’s big hit was followed by Denis Gurianov (of all people) laying one on Mikko Koivu (of all people) by the bench. Nick Caamano laid out a man, and even Roope Hintz trucked Matt Dumba after getting to the crease, though that was admittedly more a consequence than intention on Hintz’s part. The guy is big and strong, turns out. Radek Faksa tried to get into the act too, but this was not his night, as he spent time in the box instead, with a tripping call. The Stars will still need to figure out what’s going on there before too long. Faksa hasn’t looked right in a full season now,

The depth was decent enough, too. Jamie Oleksiak had some confident moments in the second period, which was nice after some recent struggles. Even Joel Hanley and Taylor Fedun (who looked rough early) settled down later on, with Fedun contributing a shot that turned into a goal once things started ramping up. Janmark was hit and miss, but overall he was still driving the puck in the right direction when it mattered, and that’s what you need when your top guys are going bonkers. Five goals from Radulov, Seguin and Pavelski. That’s pretty good. It felt good, too.

You’re still going to get upset, even angry, at this team. Even the Blues didn’t make their historic turnaround without some bumps in the road, and the Stars certainly haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt in recent memory. They will probably not replicate St. Louis’s renaissance, or even come close to it. But if they can just be good enough in a Central that certainly looks bad enough, then you can look at this period, re-watch it, and release that anger. At least for a little while.