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Game 21 Afterwords: The Captain Comes Back to Cap the Comeback

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Pretty great road trip, eh?

NHL: NOV 16 Stars at Oilers

I just can’t imagine that you’ve ever been gone

It’s not starting over, it’s just going on

***

The Stars are rolling in ways we really haven’t seen. It’s still so surreal that the team has done what it’s done, this season, without any real personnel changes to point to.

For perspective: the Stars are not riding a huge PDO bender or anything like that. Yes, their save percentage is 5th in the league, but that’s right where they were last year, too. Their expected goals-against rate is 2nd in the NHL, and their overall expected goals share is also 2nd in the NHL, at 54.26% at 5v5.

The power play is 5th in the NHL in xGF/60, while their actual GF/60 rate is 28th in the league. So you’d also expect them to improve that over time too—albeit slowly, considering their rather turtley pace of drawing calls. That pace, by the way, is currently producing the 4th-fewest power plays per game, per HockeyViz.

But none of those metrics matters when you’re watching this team score an overtime winner after being down 4-2 in the third period against the division-leading Oilers. All you’re going to remember about this game is how Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin did exactly what their coach was begging for them to do after the Winnipeg overtime loss. They pushed hard, and they made a difference.

In fact, Connor McDavid found himself in Seguin’s shoes after this one. McDavid stayed out for the entirety of overtime, and he ended up watching from the cheap seats after Esa Lindell was having none of his move in the defensive zone. The rather low-probability turnover late in a shift led to Benn gaining the line and executing a nice give-and-go with Seguin, and eventually reaching past Darnell Nurse—who went fishing for the puck and got rather badly embarrassed—to beat Mikko Koskinen, and the rest of the Oilers.

McDavid was also caught at the blue line on Seguin’s tying goal late in the third, as he made a feeble attempt to stop Miro Heiskanen, and then didn’t quite recover quickly enough to get a stick on Seguin’s one-timer.

Close

You can’t empty the tank on every play, of course. Players have to pick and choose where they use their extra gear, even ones as fast as McDavid. But here, you can see just how much of a different the tiniest bit of extra effort might have made. Perhaps it’s the result of playing 27 minutes—more than any other Oilers player—and being leaned on like crazy by Dave Tippet for the entire season. But credit the Stars for using that extra bit of time and space to capitalize.

As Razor said on the broadcast, this game would have been such an easy one to punt on in the third period. It was going to be a successful road trip regardless, and everyone knows the points streak will have to end before April. But the Stars found ways to push back hard at the right times, and Anton Khudobin steadied the ship to enable them to do so—the one power play goal that beat him was hardly his fault, certainly.

They’ve had some great team wins lately, that’s for sure. And this game doesn’t ever get near overtime without huge goals from Blake Comeau and Jason Dickinson. The Oilers have two players with over 40 points already this year, and the Stars’ leading scorer has 16 points. It isn’t scoring by committee, but the depth has filled in the gaps just about perfectly for most of the year. When the Stars’ best players are rolling, this team looks like a team at the top of the league in expected goal differential.

A further word on Jason Dickinson: he not only took the “score goals while playing with Benn and Seguin” torch from Justin Dowling, but he also did a pretty great job against the Oilers’ top line, which was Montgomery’s intention. Well, he did great, that is, except for that one Leon Draisaitl goal on which he rather ill-advisedly followed McDavid (who was already contesting with Sekera and Polak) to the net, leaving Draisaitl wide open to convert the rebound. A quick shoulder check would have served him well there, but I guess you’re allowed one biff if you score a goal (as Blake Comeau can also attest after his boarding penalty on Sam Gagner resulted in a power play goal for Edmonton).

Actually, Miro Heiskanen can join that club too, as he ended up getting beaten on Jujhar Khaira’s first goal on a failed clearance and bad recovery, only to score a wonderful goal later on thanks to a beautiful assist from Jamie Benn from behind the net. Benn is tied for 3rd on the team in assists, by the way. Again, just get that power play going, and the boats will all start to float. Here we are, hoping for improvement from a team that’s won 10 of their last 12 games. Greedy, greedy fans, shame on you all.

As you’d expect, Esa Lindell played half the game, and was on the ice for zero goals against. As you might also expect, Roman Polak was on the ice for 18 minutes, during which he witnessed all three even-strength Edmonton goals, although his keep-in contributed to Dickinson’s goal, and I don’t think you’d pin any of the Oilers’ goals directly on him, anyhow.

One other blue line choice of Rick Bowness’s that continues to intrigue me is the usage of Jamie Oleksiak, who skated with both Heiskanen and Fedun at evens, but was 5th on the depth chart in PK time. I don’t think I would expect Sekera to get more PK time than him in a vacuum, but clearly the coaches prefer the veterans (and the one superstar kid) on the kill, and it’s hard to argue with the results so far. The Stars’ have the 7th-best xGA (expected goals against) on the penalty kill. Keep doing what you’re doing, I guess.

But we can talk about tactics and personnel decisions for days. This game was all about Jamie Benn’s relief (and near-disbelief) at scoring again, at last. He tends to take the brunt of the criticism every time the team stumbles these days, and on a strictly points-to-dollars basis, it’s not undeserved. But in a historical context, fans also remember how many games in those dark days saw Jamie Benn toiling away thanklessly, providing us moments of joy and pride that belied the underpinnings of the franchise at the time. Jamie Benn earned every bit of that “C” on his jersey before 2013, and he also has the only individual trophy for the Dallas Stars since Jere Lehtinen’s last Selke.

Tyler Seguin finally got back on track the other night, and seeing Benn get such a marvelous goal at such a dramatic juncture was just special. These moments are why you endure 1-7-1, why you get up when it’s dark to stand in a parking garage so that you can have the privilege of paying a couple hundred bucks for a sweater. This game made you happy, and that’s a priceless commodity these days, especially. And it was only fitting that one of the players who has worked the hardest this season finally got to reap the real-time hugs that he’s deserved.

Benn isn’t perfect, and nor is Seguin, or anyone else. We don’t have to idealize players or demonize them in order to wrestle with the reality of joy and disappointment that the medium of sports provides to us. But if you’re going to stand and weep with those who weep (or tweet with those who tweet angrily, we might say), then you can for dang sure high-five a couple of folks when the captain scores the game-winning goal in overtime to cap a massive comeback against the best player in the league. If you’re going to watch 82 games of prologue, then you might as well celebrate the brightest spots they have to offer, and this was undoubtedly one of the brightest, so far.

All stats via Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise stated.

***

Oh, one last thing: I was going to do a post reviewing the Stars’ new Winter Classic sweaters after picking mine up yesterday, but I ended up just Tweeting out some thoughts and photos instead. If you’re curious, feel free to give it a look. January 1st is looking like it’s going to be a lot of fun.