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Game 23 Afterwords: Captain’s Orders

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If the NHL ever creates a Canadian Division, the Stars would like to formally request a spot

Winnipeg Jets v Dallas Stars Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

Don’t ask you why, when, where or how

You look at the world with a smiling eye

And laugh at the devil as his train rolls by

Give you a song and a one night stand

You’ll be looking at a happy man ‘cause

You’re the lucky one

***

Leadership doesn’t mean perfection. Most of us have probably worked for someone, at some point, who couldn’t bear to admit a mistake. In many ways, that was the Ken Hitchcock Revisited experience for these Dallas Stars two years ago. Perhaps that tough year planted some good seeds, and disabused the team of the notion that defense wasn’t that important, if you believe Lindy Ruff to have inculcated such a message. Perhaps Hitchcock was the perfect coach at the perfect time, who spent a rough year that ended in failure in order to help the organization in the long term.

But when a team is going through a rough stretch, they usually aren’t going to dig their way out of it by just Grinding It Out, no matter what a gold medal-winning coach says. You need honesty and humility to work together. I think that’s what Jim Montgomery showed in his recent criticism of Benn and Seguin, in fact, where he expressed the (very true) belief that the Stars needed more goals from them than the amount they had been getting, which was pretty much none goals. But then Montgomery backed off his statement, saying not only that the two players were doing all right, but that he in fact was wrong to have called them out the way he did, calling his criticism a mistake borne out of the emotion of the overtime loss in Winnipeg after a Tyler Seguin giveaway.

The players brushed it off, you may recall, saying that such things were the coach’s prerogative. It was a far cry from how they responded to Jim Lites’s “comments” last year, ranging from more or less “yeah, whatever” to “I don’t play for him, I play for the guys in the room.” There is some trust there, in other words, and the Stars’ November invulnerability is surely a byproduct of that, as well as other things.

Yes, the Stars are playing a bit differently now than they were in early October, but it’s not as if Montgomery revamped his whole system in that one practice they were finally able to squeeze in. I hate giving these sorts of opinions without data—oh, for better tactical data!—but the Stars’ forecheck has become so much more targeted and fast-paced lately, looking a lot more like a two-man press than the 1-3-1 so many teams use nowadays. They’re not afraid to risk a 4-on-3 in the neutral zone, because their defense has been keeping pretty solid gaps at the blue line and forcing more dump-ins, which gives their forecheckers time to recover. Again, this is purely anecdotal, and I’m sure any coach would scoff at this, but they say write what you know. Or, failing that, what you don’t.

But anyway, the team isn’t suddenly playing rodeo hockey or anything (though you could see a bit of that creeping into their game on the power play out of frustration last night). They know what they’re supposed to do and when, and the success is following. There is belief and obedience, much as you saw that in the Hitchcock season, brutal as that sort of hockey was to watch. The team was doing What They Were Supposed To Do with the puck and without, and it was effective, right up until it wasn’t. Then the team lost, and lost faith in its coach. And finally, the GM lost interest in putting up with a coach who was alienating the roster he had built.

For these Stars, this year, they’re gorging themselves on the bounty of what they’ve sown, whoever you credit as having planted and watered the seeds. They can blow a 3-0 lead and still get back off the mat, because they have a giant hammer in their tool belt for Such a Time As This. On Thursday, Jamie Benn was that hammer, leveling Mark Scheifele in the defensive zone before seizing his opportunity up the ice. He grabbed the puck like a running back takes a reverse pitch, and did the things he knows he can do. Those are moments that reinforce the trust that’s already been built, insulating it from the certain trials ahead. Assuming the Stars do lose again at some point in living memory.

As this team has made peace with its defensive identity, it’s also gotten some hilariously Lindy Ruffish results. The team has scored at least four goals in seven of their last ten games, including recent 5-3 and 5-4 wins. So much for boring hockey, eh?

***

Jamie Benn is flawed, too. The fanbase knows that over-well these days, thanks in part to ownership’s heavy criticism of him last year. Like so many elite players as they age, Benn isn’t what he once was, and everyone has a tough time dealing with that. But if Jamie Benn can keep this sort of “you always get another at-bat” mentality, then I’m fine with him taking a few extra walks (and even some strikeouts looking), so long as he still swings away once in a while. Real success, and real leadership, means going for the home run when prudence dictates, even if you’re 0-for-3, and perhaps even moreso if you’re 1-7-1.

Just like Mike Modano after he had peaked, so also is Jamie Benn in that sweet autumn (or maybe still late summer, if you’re optimistic) of his career where he will still delight you, still evoke what he was, and can still be. That game-winning goal was bedtime story quality, capping a perfect month so far with the most perfect of rebounds.

He also had some turnovers in this one, including one that led to a Winnipeg goal (thanks also to Miro Heiskanen uncharacteristically stumbling and Ben Bishop getting beat ‘tweeners in seemingly effortless fashion). But he also had a moment earlier in the game where he tried a vintage Benn deke, and it just flat-out didn’t work. That happens, you know. But the fact that Benn will still try those things, even as the success slows down from his best years? That’s ultimately a good thing. And occasionally, it’s a great one.

The team has shown its flaws, too. Perhaps the reason no one is talking about the Stars’ resurgence really is that simple: they were so bad, at first. When you haven’t had two playoff runs in consecutive years since 2008 and your top scorers aren’t putting up dynamite numbers, I suppose you can cut national writers some slack for not hopping on board the hype train right away. The Stars are, if not greater, then at least fully as good as the sum of their parts right now, and it’s led to some extremely fun games. Aside from victory, fun games are all you ever really want from your hockey team, right?

The Stars now own the third-best goal differential in the West. It’s a long season yet, but this has already, just 23 games in, been a nuclear trampoline the likes of which we’re used to seeing in Buffalo or Philadelphia. But if the Stars keep rising higher with each bounce, everyone’s going to start noticing them before very much longer.

***

Radek Faksa has a nine-game points streak, and yes, you are reading that sentence correctly. True, his goal Thursday wasn’t exactly picturesque, but for a player whose metrics have him as one of the most upside-down forwards on the team—only Cogliano, Comeau and Dickinson have a worse xGF%—Faksa is finding ways to contribute, as they say. For a team starved for depth scoring over the last two years, Faksa has turned into a pretty valuable scoring piece this season. This also comes as his defensive numbers have been worse this year than in any recent season, but I don’t see much of a relationship there. But one thing’s for sure: scoring a lot with so-so shutdown results is far better than scoring a little on an “effective” checking line. Goals still win games, as they often have over the years.

The thing that’s made this 12-1-1(!!!!!!!!!) run so much fun apart from the inherent joy victory brings is the pace of so many of these games. The Stars are looking like a team in sync, and that creates a really pleasant flow to a lot of these games, even ones in which they’re shutting things down for long stretches. Against Winnipeg, I believe we were shorted one TV timeout in the first period, which is perfectly all right with me. If the team is playing well, even a lower-event system can still be fun to watch. It’s nice to see things functioning as they’re designed.

Jason Dickinson’s tip was another such thing, as his perfect backwards tip went just over the shoulder of Connor Hellebuyck (whose HockeyDB photo makes him look, incidentally, a bit like a itinerant resident of Rivendell). Dickinson has quietly become a key member of this team’s forward corps, as you could see when Montgomery put him out with Benn and Seguin late in the game to hold things down. There are some key differences between Montgomery and his predecessor, I am reminded.

Taylor Fedun was the initiator of that goal, by the way. He’s probably my bet to come out of the lineup when Klingberg returns, if only because the NHL operates on seniority when there’s even a slim argument to be made about quality when it comes to roster decisions. Were I to have my druthers, I think you, gentle readers, know that I would decide otherwise. But as Sean Shapiro and Owen Newkirk said on the Carcast last night, the debates about your 12th forward and sixth defenseman are the sorts of arguments you want to be having. It’s nice to have a second line, this year.

Corey Perry is a big part of that, or at least that’s what everyone keeps telling me. I’m not sure how much I buy that his two secondary assists (his only primary assist came on Faksa’s rainbow gumdrop goal) were part of his dominating a period so much as the team getting some good results out of low-percentage plays, though. He was also one of the players who seemed to go the Radulov route on the power play and just try his own thing, at one point. I guess you can say he’s putting up points, and certainly on this team, you take any points you can get. But he also went 11 games in a row with only a single point until the Stars’ Vancouver beatdown Tuesday, so you’ll forgive me if I continue to say that he hasn’t looked like much of a difference-maker on offense, but rather like an aging scorer whose body can’t quite do the things that helped him score in years past anymore. Still, if Perry is only going to score points in one out of every four games, then I guess thank goodness most of them have been multi-point efforts. Besides, Noted Offensive Savior Denis Gurianov has only scored goals in two of his 19 games this year, so maybe we can all be okay with sporadic scoring as long as it’s distributed as perfectly as it’s been in the last 14 games.

Miro Heiskanen spent the first period looking like the best hockey player in the world, and I’m not really exaggerating there. He hit the post on a one-timer, created scoring chances almost telekinetically, and generally did everything he wanted on the ice except score. Sometimes I think that the Stars were just stupid lucky and don’t deserve Miro Heiskanen, and then I decide that really, no NHL team deserves Miro Heiskanen. He is a gift to all of us who love hockey, a reminder that this game is but a medium for goodness and joy, and that some players are much better translators than others.

Patrik Laine may not be in Winnipeg in three years. He looks that lost, to me. Every player needs some lucky goals—just ask Faksa—but I don’t know, man. Here you have the second-best shooter in the league after Ovechkin, and James Neal is looking like twice the player Laine is. The Jets are in a bad way these days, particularly with their defense corps being all vacuumed up into absurd injuries and injury litigation, but if they can’t sort out Laine, they’re going to be rebuilding very soon in a small market that already lost a team once.

Ben Bishop was solid, if not heroic. Which is fine, and even good to see. The team won without Bishop being a hero, and that’s what we kept hoping they could do in the playoffs last year. Well, you’ve had some great proofs of concept lately. Bishop was fantastic on that delayed penalty sequence early on, when the Stars spent over a minute looking outnumbered far worse than 6-to-5, and he really was perfectly good enough on a night where that was what the Stars needed, and no more. Great to see.

Tyler Seguin deserved that empty-netter after the puck jumped on his other empty-net (more or less) attempt earlier on. If you didn’t see the replay on that miss late in the second (if memory serves), the puck was almost completely atop his stick blade when he made the backhand attempt, so it was a bit forgivable that he missed it, all things considered. That said, Seguin isn’t the forgiving sort when it comes to missed goal opportunities. Most scorers aren’t.

Oh, but the Very Smart NHL nearly took that goal off that board with an offside review that we Have To Have. It’s great to see NHL games lose all their momentum in order to watch grainy replays that look like 1954 speed skating trials. Definitely these razor-thin margins on offside calls were hurting the game and ruining everything. I’m looking forward to MLB (if they make it through the impending strike, that is) instituting replay on every home run to see if the batter’s feet stepped out of the batter’s box. Gotta Get It Right. Please.

That said, Winnipeg probably should have challenged every Stars’ goal instead of just the Jason Dickinson entry (which was a foolish bit of work by the Jets’ video coaches, or whomever). I mean, if you were watching those Stars power plays and you were their opponent, I think you’d be smart to start challenging for illegal sticks, doped bananas, and too-sharp skate blades. The power play is looking lost again, and this team won’t be able to afford it when their even-strength scoring comes back down to earth, which is going to happen sooner than you think.

That said, Mattias Janmark is more than welcome to score 19 goals again, if he would like. Rebound goals (off an Andrej Sekera shot) are perfectly fine. Heck, they’re kind of a coach’s dream, given what teams preach nowadays: bodies at the net, dirty areas, etc. Figure it out, and profit. Certainly the Stars would be fine if Mattias Janmark made his next contract a financially problematic one, as it would mean a rather solid preceding season.

As for those with currently large contracts, Joe Pavelski got a feed from Gurianov off the rush, but it came too late and went into his skates. At the last, Pavelski couldn’t quite shovel the rebound through Hellebuyck, though he almost did, and the Stars had to be content with a game in which they only scored five goals. These are the times in which we live, and I am going to keep enjoying them.

We’ll end on a word of caution, thanks to Josh Bogorad. The Stars are winning at a blistering pace right now, and that’s something they haven’t done since 2012. A season in which Glen Gulutzan’s Stars began the year 11-3-0 before losing five games straight (in which they only scored four goals total). Things turn in a hurry.

Oh, but hey, that 11-3 start wasn’t even the point streak Josh was referring to. Those same Stars actually put up another great stretch of games later on, going 10-0-1 in a stretch from late February into March. They were sitting on a 39-26-5 record, and the team was looking primed to get its first playoff appearance in four years with just 12 games to go in the season. They would finish with a 3-9-0 collapse, ending the year every bit as poorly as they had played well to start it.

Teams get hot, and teams get cold. In some years, it’s the same team. Let’s just hope the Stars have worked the cold part out of their system, for once.