Yeah, I love my baby, she’s long and lean
You mess with her, you’ll see a man get mean
As disorganized as the Stars looked against Vegas, they looked equally as resilient in Nashville.
Maybe it’s a bit of a mental thing, as the Stars (and Anton Khudobin in particular) have made themselves rather comfortable in the town that fancies itself as “Smashville” for vaguely aesthetic marketing reasons. Maybe the Predators are finally reaping the bitter rewards of selling their enviable defensive depth to pay for pyrite up front and an aging goaltender in net. Or maybe the Stars are just better than the Predators this year.
Certainly last night’s contest would suggest as much, as the Stars entered the game with some encouraging play, ceded the ice to Nashville for a bit, and then roared back in the second period to remind the fans that the city of Dallas can claim more than just the hockey rink where the Winter Classic is going to be played. They own the Predators, right now.
You know the Predators had a few names circled on their whiteboards, the standard “don’t let them beat us” guys. Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen, and so forth. But in the end, the Predators beat themselves, both by not scoring as much as they have to (given their porous goaltending) and by giving the Stars every chance to make their own chances count, which Dallas did. Enter Blake Comeau.
blake comeau, conqueror of worlds pic.twitter.com/H5WTdIDOYQ— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) December 15, 2019
Blake Comeau may be infamous when it comes to breakaways, but his scoring this season is already leaps and bounds ahead of where it looked for much of last year. His shot on that shorthanded breakaway was confident and lethal, as Rinne looked like someone waiting for another move or step when the puck flew by him. It was a massive swing, coming as it did on a power play where the Predators could have taken control of the game. But power plays did more or less the opposite of what they’re supposed to do for both teams Saturday, as Dallas lost some momentum after their pair of chances in the first.
The Stars have to do something about the power play. Whether it’s the players just getting in their own heads and freelancing too much or just a matter of personnel rotating overmuch and never establishing a rhythm, I couldn’t say. But I do know the Stars know it’s a problem, as Todd Nelson was not invited to take it back over after the dismissal of Jim Montgomery, who had taken it from him early in the season during its dire stretch. I’m not sure Derek Laxdal is the cure-all for an NHL power play, but I do think having Benn, Seguin, Pavelski, Heiskanen, and Hintz on one unit is worth trying. Those are good players who can threaten in different ways.
Personally though, I’d put Hintz on the second unit to aid in entries and move Radulov and Klingberg up with the top guys and stay there. Klingberg is built for the power play, and Radulov can create space with the best of them. The main issue with that five-man unit is probably the entries, but you’d hope that amount of skill could sort it out depending on the penalty kill formation. But who knows, right? Maybe things will stabilize further as Laxdal continues to tweak the units. And with the penalty kill red-hot (or keeping other power plays ice-cold) lately, they at least have a slightly larger margin for error.
The Predators remind me of teams with fragile confidence, especially after the second period. The Stars put up the force field in the third period, and the Predators more or less stayed to the outside for 20 minutes. The shot differential still wasn’t ideal—if not an outright turtle, it was at least something of an armadillo—but you can live with this manifestation of score effects when you’re up three goals:
The Predators outshot the Stars 16-3 in the third period, but I think the Stars were pretty okay with it, and for good reason. Not much of a threat there. pic.twitter.com/G6nwrq2mTb— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) December 15, 2019
It’s interesting how much less complaining there is about a team sitting back with its offense when it works out, you know? Defensive structure is good to have, especially when the other team doesn’t.
Also, is it safe to say Jamie Oleksiak has offensive instincts against? Because his decision to jump into the slot and bust to the net after Alexander Radulov’s wonderful shift was exactly what the Stars have needed from their defense lately. Taylor Fedun and Jamie Olekisak, Goal-scoring Juggernauts. I could get behind it.
Speaking of Fedun, do you remember how Dillon Heatherington’s role changed drastically once Ken Hitchcock was asked not to coach the Stars anymore? I’m wondering if Taylor Fedun might see a similar change in fortunes under Rick Bowness. It’s early, certainly, but there’s no denying that Bowness likes Roman Polak and Jamie Oleksiak a whole lot, as he’s gone out of his way to praise both at different times, whether for their size and play or their penalty-killing abilities (in Polak’s case). Maybe it’s going to be matchup-dependent, but again, we’re talking about the third pairing on defense here. These aren’t the sorts of decisions that sink a team’s season unless a lot of other things are going wrong that put them on thin ice.
The forward group has also seen a very compact distribution of minutes under Bowness, though that’s been a trend for over a month now, as you can see from this great chart:
The only real changes at forward so far under Bowness are some curttailing of Pavelski’s and Gurianov’s ice time, and a slight bump for the (sigh) FCC line. And it’s still much too early to draw any major conclusions from that, either. One would expect a new coach to keep things fairly balanced until he felt confident enough to skew them towards a specific end, and that’s what we’ve largely seen so far. We’ll keep an eye on it. Balance is fine if you’re winning, but missed opportunities can come back to bite you just as much as performative failures.
Anyway, totally unrelated to that, this happened also last night:
Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera somehow didn't complete the finishing move here to make it 4-1. pic.twitter.com/mqYVR7fFUS— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) December 15, 2019
There are a lot of reasons why this play might not have result in a goal—it’s a short, hard pass from Sekera that doesn’t give Perry much time to adjust, and perhaps the ice had some snow there in front of the net to throw Perry off. But still, seeing formerly elite players miss slam dunks like this is a haunting thing indeed. We are approaching the midpoint of the season and Corey Perry has three goals. He has a 0-2-2 line in his last 11 games. I’m not saying the Stars have another Martin Hanzal on the team or anything, as Perry is still doing some good and important things that don’t show up on the scoresheet. But I am saying that Perry might well be as offensively diminished as Anaheim suspected him to be when they bought him out. Time will tell, as it tends to do.
The game almost turned right after that miss, as Anton Khudobin had to come up with a weapons-grade stop on Roman Josi, who was alone in the danger zone. Khudobin is such an enjoyable person even when he’s not playing goalie, but to see him lead the Stars to yet another victory was the cherry on top of the luxury sundae that his stay in Dallas has been. It’s easy to forget how awful the backup goaltending in Dallas was for most of the decade when you find yourself feeling just as comfortable with your putative backup goalie as you do with the guy who got a goodly portion of the Vezina voting last year. Jim Nill fixed the backup goaltending, eventually. Credit where it’s due.
Thankfully, Andrew Cogliano would continue his red-hot handiwork to give the Stars the 4-1 lead that two other veterans could not. You can tell how much the team loves Cogliano finding the net again, as goal droughts for forwards weigh heavily on everyone in the room. Another writer said to me last week that Cogliano’s game looks a lot like the NHL version of a college hockey player’s, and I think that’s a pretty apt description. That goal was no different, as Cogliano made smart, NHL-caliber decision to cut to his backhand (as did Oleksiak, so maybe the Stars had some scouting to that effect), but he only finished the chance on the rebound, with the sort of hardscrabble goal every player loves to see a teammate get. Good for Cogliano, who is also seeing his fortunes turn with the Stars’ recent rearrangements. A solid third line is a valuable thing in the NHL.
After a fairly uneven overtime loss against Vegas, this game looked like a fulcrum after that Watson deflection (from a surprising turnaround shot by Dan Hamhuis, by the way) found its way into the net. The Stars were down 1-0, and there was the lurking fear of tired legs in the team’s second game in as many nights. But Dallas carpe’d the diem, and the Predators continue to scuffle. They’re on pace for something like 88 points this year, and January is fast approaching. With Kyle Turris getting scratched every now and then, you wonder if the Predators—who trail the woebegone Sharks in points, albeit with four games in hand—might follow the actions of so many teams this year and make a chance behind the bench. I’m not sure it’s what they need, but clearly what they need isn’t what they’ve got right now, either.
The Stars, meanwhile, held their heads high, and continued a five-game point streak. They are 19-11-4, and that’s despite a 1-7-1 start and a goodly sum of turmoil off the ice. The team has a better goal differential than St. Louis, who lead the Central for now. They are finding ways to press onward and upward, further up and further into whatever further nonsense this season has to offer. You cannot spell “Drama in Dallas” without “Drama,” after all. (Just some wordplay for all the folks out there.)
Now, we are always wont to get high after wins and get low after losses. The team will look bad again, at times, and then we’ll all start talking about all the obvious flaws it has that all those idiots in charge never addressed. Every fanbase does it, because we want to wrestle with disappointment head-on, believe that the struggles could have been avoided if only we had prepared better, if they had made smarter decisions.
But the truth is ugly and simple and kind of nice, in its way: the Stars are doing quite well against the bottom half of the league this year. As of Sunday, the Stars are 11-3-1 against non-playoff teams, and 11-8-3 against teams in the dance so far. They look capable of holding their own against a lot of good teams, but they aren’t rolling over elite ones with regularity. It’s a battle, but one they’ve positioned themselves to fight past 82 games, so far. That’s the primary goal of the regular season, and despite so many things that could have unraveled lesser teams, the Stars are still there, daring life to come at them. Even when things are chaotic, and even when layers of protection have been stripped away, Dallas has stood tall, with fists raised, daring the rest of the league to bring it on.
In late October, the Stars got up off the mat before the bell was rung, and they’ve been landing their fair share of punches since, even when they’ve been staggered in unexpected ways. And on this five-game points streak, they’ve managed to stand their ground and hold their heads high. They’re not going anywhere just yet.
January 1st should be pretty fun.