clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Game 4 Afterwords: First Goals and Last Shots

New, comments

Sometimes, you just have to weather the storm. Even if it’s of your own making.

Dallas Stars v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Wait for the sign on the hill to read

It’s OK to proceed

Just go ahead and lose your mind

Everyone will do it all the time

***

We spend all summer worrying or hoping what the team will do in October. So much so that it’s almost impossible not to have confirmation bias creeping in the minute something goes wrong, or right.

The Stars aren’t scoring? They didn’t solve anything, the preseason showed us their flaws and nothing is going to help them. The young players that might help aren’t trusted, and the players who are trusted won’t get it done.

The Stars weather a Capitals onslaught and then take over the game in the third period after the penalty kill keeps them alive against one of the best power play goal-scorers of all time? This is a team that can win in the playoffs, just like they did last year.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The Stars’ offense isn’t not concerning, but hey, I think we can officially discard that “is Roope Hintz for real?” question some people were asking. Heiskanen looks better than ever, and the Stars’ fourth line last night ended up giving them—wait for it—depth scoring that was sorely lacking last year.

Jim Montgomery perfectly encapsulated my thoughts with his first quote in the postgame scrum: “It’s funny how games work. That was our worst game of the year, and we got a result.”

Three-game losing streaks will bring out the Nasty in all of us, and maybe it was my imagination, but Jim Montgomery looked a bit worn out on the bench at times during this one. You can understand it if he felt that way, what with the pressure of heightened expectations and the heartbreak of their last couple of losses.

But his point stands, for all that. If the goal against the Blues hadn’t been challenged for being offside, if that Radulov stuff attempt in Detroit had gone over the line, or hey, just if Anthony Mantha hadn’t been all hopped up on All Sport, the Stars could easily be 3-1 on the season. Four one-goal games make for a very pliable narrative, until you look at the rocky underlying numbers.

Once the Stars went to overtime in Washington tied 3-3, we really should have known they’d pull it out. After all, the Stars had scored one, two, and then three goals in their first three games. Four, and I have double-checked this, absolutely comes after the number three. This is an undeniable and irreversible trend, if I know how statistics work.

The Stars’ fourth and game-winning goal was a great representation of what the team had been looking for in their first three matches: two of their top-line, top-dollar forwards hit the gas, beat their men, and won the game. Radulov grabbed a puck from the erstwhile Ovechkin—who just skated into Seguin and friends and got stripped fairly easily—and then Radulov shot up the ice with everything he had, forcing John Carlson to eventually lie down to block the pass. But Radulov had just enough left to take a step more and feed Seguin, who had likewise left the recently reinstated Evgeny Kuznetsov in his wake. It was a good feeling to see a win, as it usually is. But this one felt like more than that. One is infinitely more than zero.

Look, the Stars were never going to lose 82 games. But they weren’t looking like they deserved to win in their first three contests, and that’s the problematic part. Shoot, they didn’t deserve to win this game through 40 minutes, and then they brought the heat in the final period, and a couple of players stepped up at both ends of the ice, as they say in athletic parlance.

A couple of good plays off the rush don’t negate the concerning play on the whole. But the Stars need to get more guys pitching in, and if that means starting with four opportunistic goals (but earned ones), then you start there. I will take four goals, as should you.

***

The specifics: Roope Hintz is an unstoppable force right now. I remember when we first started hearing whispers of how good Hintz might be a couple years back, but even those quiet hopes were nowhere near this level. At this rate, Roope Hintz could end up being the Stars’ best drafted forward in a decade. Granted, the competition is essentially Reilly Smith and then maybe Radek Faksa, but I’m not sure there’s a challenge in the world I would bet on Hintz not being up for right now. He looks that good.

I think it’s fair to point out that even great players only have to have a small lapse to look thoroughly human, though. Hintz lost his man on a goal against, and it’s worth being honest when players miss a beat. He’ll learn to do more shoulder checks in the future, but we’re not about glancing over mistakes in this space, unless we just, like, forget.

Special teams were a huge story in the last one, and they were a huge non-story in Washington. The penalty kill: fantastic. The power play: it is definitely something the Stars get to do at least a couple of times per game. Obviously the Stars won’t make the playoffs if they never score a power play goal, so I suspect they will keep tweaking things until things click, then tweak them again when they slow again. It is ever so long a season.

Jamie Oleksiak had his best game of the season from what I saw, and from what you heard on the broadcast. I will say only two things, for now: One, that Oleksiak really took care of details and made a simple pass at the end of a solid play to feed Hintz; Two, that I do not trust myself to be objective about Oleksiak right now after being thoroughly conditioned for the better part of a decade to mistrust his actual ceiling (yeah, yeah). If he can keep being a solid defenseman, the Stars will benefit greatly from that. I am taking a very cautious approach, and I would gently suggest you do the same. Or not. He’s a player worth rooting for, as most are.

John Klingberg had one of his rougher games, which means there were still great moments mixed in with the risks that drive casual fans crazy. Esa Lindell also had a couple of not-great moments, and hey, even Miro got outright walked around in this one, which has happened before. The defensemen aren’t immune to whatever contagion has beset the Stars’ dressing room to start the year, is the point.

Ovechkin and Tom Wilson’s collision was a good representation of the Capitals in this one: they almost spent so much energy firing on Dallas that, for lack of a net to put more goals in, they ended up hurting themselves. Certainly I would say Ovechkin is not overjoyed with his 61 minutes of play in this one, but generational talents will have their ebbs. Still love watching the guy.

In terms of more worrisome contact, Joel L’Esperance took an Andrej Sekera puck to the head, but unlike the last player Sekera’s stick sent a puck at by accident, L’Esperance would return, which was great to see. L’Esperance had a quietly fine game drawing in for Denis Gurianov, but he’s not the bottom-sixer we’re talking about tonight, is he?

A word on Gurianov: I get that fans want him in over some of the other bottom-six players with more established ceilings. The hope of offensive potential on a team as offensively challenged as this one makes fans salivate, and rightly so. But just because Hintz went from up-and-down guy last year to world-beater down the stretch does not mean Gurianov will be anywhere near as good. I hope he figures it out, but after going back and watching his shifts from the first four games, there are a lot—a lot—of details that need to be cleaned up in his game. Maybe his tentative and indecisive play are exacerbated by knowing he could get scratched for mistakes, I don’t know. But it’s a vicious cycle right now: the game looks too fast for him, and coaches aren’t going to play a guy that isn’t helping them win every night when the team is losing. He will get more chances, but I think it’s important to be grounded about where his game is at. This isn’t a player who ever looked unstoppable in the AHL. I’m rooting for him, but the nuts and bolts have to be in place before you rev the engine, and his game needs some adjustments right now, as 22-year-old players’ games often do.

Nick Caamano looks like a guy born and bred to play some tough minutes and earn some hard-fought points in the NHL, so it’s appropriate that his first NHL biscuit came while another hardworking player in Andrew Cogliano drove hard to the far side of the net, taking his guy with him and leaving room for Caamano to go wickets on Braden Holtby.

It was a weird sequence, starting with an Oleksiak feed up the boards that Jamie Benn turned into a nice backhand feed to Seguin, after which the puck got volleyed around by the Caps until Seguin finally corralled it and dropped it off for Cogliano, who was coming with Caamano on his wing.

If I’m guessing, Cogliano was probably busting far post hoping for a goal similar to Seguin’s in overtime. Instead, Caamano walked right around John Carlson (who had a goal of his own tonight but featured rather prominently in two of the Stars’) and then beat Holtby. It was a special moment for Caamano, who really could end up being this year’s low-key surprise. Certainly he has looked good to rather good in his role thus far.

As for Carlson’s goal, though, it’s a little disappointing, if not outright worrisome. Ben Bishop had one of those nights where he was great for long stretches, but then sabotaged his own oil painting with another soft goal that just shouldn’t go in. Even Mozart can’t get away with a huge ugly streak right in the middle of one of his masterful watercolor landscapes, am I right folks. Bishop certainly did some yeoman’s work early, including stops in the first two periods on Ovechkin, Ovechkin, and a lot of other Good Players. Maybe he was just fatigued after being asked to save so many medium- to high-grade shots? Certainly we can sympathize with the excessive difficulty of playing goal for this team without eliding his faults thus far in the young season.

Mattias Janmark continued to look like a skilled hunter shooting rubber bullets, earning another wonderful chance on Holtby, and even elevating the puck! But Holtby has a Cup ring that says he was at least one of two goalies to do some good things recently, and he flashed a wonderful blocker to crush Janmark’s dreams early.

Early in the third period, I was starting to note for myself that Radulov was looking fairly brutal, losing handles on pucks on the power play, then taking a great chance three minutes into the third on the power play...and burying it in the bread basket of Holtby. But as we always must remember, great players are great because they can remain great even after falling short. Radulov finally would get a rebound and stuff it through Holtby just as the broadcast was talking about the lack of second chances. I enjoyed watching Jamie Benn on that goal, too, as he got down to the corner to retrieve the puck, fed it to the point for Lindell, and then took Orlov with him as he hauled to the net, battling with Orlov all the way.

I’m not saying Benn has been amazing or anything this season, but I really do have what I guess you would call a good feeling about his game so far. He looks engaged more often than he did in his bad stretches last year, he looks healthy, and as the team finds its legs, I’d expect Benn to hit a hot streak before long. This is assuming the legs are there to be found, but that third period wasn’t a total mirage, I am hoping.

All told, this game felt there to be had midway through the third, and even though the Caps would clamber into overtime, the Stars found a way to get up off the mat after an exceedingly rough 40 minutes. If you’re going to criticize the team when they look bad, then you ought to recognize the small victories, too. Especially when they feel this big.

The penalty fest really threatened to undo all of the good, though. After the Caps had gotten three power plays to Dallas’s one, the third period saw five more penalties, two of them on the Stars. It was the last three that really puzzled me, as first Klingberg got nailed for a hold on Lars Eller that looked like more like a product of Eller getting position and grabbing Klingberg’s stick than Klingberg doing anything truly out of bounds. You see players draw calls like that a fair bit when shorthanded, so it wasn’t exactly unprecedented. But the next one on Seguin was the dangerous one, giving the Caps a 4-on-3 and then a 5-on-3 for a bit. It was a call which I am comfortable describing as something that would never get called in the playoffs, but I suppose that’s no great criticism. Tyler Seguin, for the record also did not love the call.

Anyway, the Stars and Ben Bishop came up big on the kill, with a huge block on Ovechkin by Sekera (who also had a quietly good night, I thought) leading the charge. Appropriately enough, the whole fest would wrap up with another iffy penalty on Kuznetsov (drawn by, of course, Janmark) to even things back up just as the 5-on-3 expired. Officials like to balance things out.

And so, generally speaking, do the hockey-playing folks. Shots were 27-11 Capitals through 40 minutes, and the game ended 32-26, which is a fairly respectable line. I think we sometimes forget just how many swings the season has, and how much of that volatility is represented even within a single game. Yes, the Stars were getting rag-dolled for much of the game. And yes, the Stars still won. It’s cool, it happens. We get to move onto the next game with them, but if the same issues recur, the rope will be shorter each time.

***

On the other end of the stylistic spectrum, the Caps can score goals, and one of their measly five shots in the third period did go in when they got back to level with 30 seconds left after a desperate shot bumped right from Carlson and off Tom Wilson (I think it hit him, if just barely) before Nicklas Backstrom happily dunked the backdoor chance.

It could have been another heartbreaker, a crushing point to drop if the Stars hadn’t rallied in overtime; that OTL would have been a symbol of futility, how the Stars couldn’t even get two points when they gave their best effort and got some rewards. No, a third period shouldn’t erase the broader trends that concern us, but the good things are sometimes so very good that we would be doing ourselves a great injustice if we didn’t enjoy them. Revelry is too rare to ignore when it shows up at your door.

The Stars get to start afresh when they return to AAC on Thursday. We’ll still be looking for improvement, hoping for more. But what the team got in Washington was much more than two points. Belief is the mentality that something can happen, while confidence is the mentality that something will happen. I think the Stars are halfway to confidence right now. Maybe a bit closer, or maybe just two points closer. But two points are the absolute most points they could have gotten out of this game, and they got them. Any way you look at it, it’s progress. You take that. You take that and fly back home, and hug the ones you love when you get there.