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Game 39 Afterwords: Division Central

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The Stars are 8-4-2 against the Central, which is not bad

Colorado Avalanche v Dallas Stars Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

Waiting for the fire to light

Feeling like we could do right

Be the one that makes tonight

’Cause freedom is a lonely road

***

First off, just a reminder that the DBD Meetup is tonight at 6pm at Craft & Growler. A lot of folks have RSVP’d, but there is always room for one more. So come on out and buy a t-shirt, win a koozie, or steal my beer every time I turn around. We’ll either get to watch the Stars destroy the Coyotes, or perhaps better yet, drown our collective sorrows in the best of company.

***

Coaches like to be in control. It’s their job, I suppose, so you can hardly fault them for wanting the ship to respond to their steering. A team without an identity is almost invariably worse than a team with a flawed one.

Rick Bowness has made no bones (ahem) about his vision for this team since he’s taken over. The checking-line forwards are getting more ice time, Seguin is taking some of Pavelski’s minutes, Benn and Seguin are playing with Radulov most nights, and Taylor Fedun is finding himself cut out of the defensive shuffle almost completely.

If you watched the Road to the Winter Classic episodes this past week, you surely saw the segment where Bowness preached the importance of keeping down the chances against, showing the team the sheet that (I believe) Jeff Reese and company use to track scoring chances. The message, or at least what we saw of it, was clear: Don’t let the other team score.

Which, hey, that’s a good message! That is literally your team’s job, or one of them. If you are not preventing the other team from scoring, that is bad. Just some hockey insight for you there.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure Bowness’s message has been transmitting properly, as the Stars have just two regulation wins in the eight games that Bowness has coached—and one win was a 2-0 thumping of the Devils, one of the worst teams in hockey, on the day of Montgomery’s firing. But results can be fickle, and the goaltending hasn’t been at its best since Bishop earned the Stars’ first shutout of the year.

I mean, let’s be clear: that was a nice win against a very good (even great!) team on Saturday. The Stars made a couple of big plays, and Bishop didn’t have to replicate Anton Khudobin’s heroics in Tampa Bay to get the Stars another two points. Solid play outside of some sloppiness on the two goals against and some great shootout work were enough to win the day. Good for the Stars. They needed that win. It was, as they always say, something to build on.

No, it’s not the record that really concerns me, right now. It’s how the Stars are going about their business. Specifically, how they are more or less ceding control of play to the enemy on a regular basis since December 9th. Not only is the team’s overall xGF% trending down lately, but the team’s ability to generate offense is heading back down to their 1-7-1 days to start the season.

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I won’t overwhelm you with charts, but the Stars’ defensive metrics aren’t any better. They’ve been allowing more shots and generating fewer for nearly 10 games now, and it’s hard to see that being a consistent recipe for success in the NHL, even in a weak Central Division.

Still, the Stars are now 8-4-2 against the Central Division this year, so when the Winter Classic marks the halfway point of the Stars’ season, we’re going to have a pretty good idea of what they’ll need to do in the back nine in order to head into the playoffs with something approaching confidence.

Speaking of confidence, how about Denis Gurianov? That one-timer off a feed from Klingberg—which apparently was a set play after the won faceoff, per Sean Shapiro on the Carcast last night—was something I doubt we see from a player who was toiling away on the fourth line for the first part of the year. Yes, Gurianov’s shot was deflected off Ian Cole (if memory serves), but Gurianov is now tied for second on the team in power play goals, with three. If you are tied with Joe Pavelski in power play goals, then you are either having a very good season, or the team’s power play has some very big problems.

I think the Stars are enduring a mild case of both of these, so far. But Tyler Seguin’s recent surge is bringing some encouragement, at least in one department. That overtime power play was a bit stilted, but dangerous all the same. Still, I would have preferred Klingberg to Heiskanen in that four-man set, as I think Klingberg’s power play acumen is deadlier in that situation than Heiskanen’s is, at least right now.

Klingberg, in fact, deserved his first star accolades last night and then some. He remains a key to the Stars’ fortunes, and his recent decline in minutes troubles me, even as it corresponds to more scoring individually. I also have some concerns about what pairing him with Jamie Oleksiak might do long-term for both of them, as I think Oleksiak needs a skater like Heiskanen to help him sort out puck movement in the defensive end. I suppose we’ll see if the pairings were just a quirk of the matchup last night or something else soon enough.

Ben Bishop certainly didn’t have his best game, but with the Stars doing at least a passable job of keeping the Avalanche out of the house, he was able to get them to penalties, then do a fantastic job of stopping two of the best players in the division right now. Good on him, even if I couldn’t begin to tell you what he was doing on Ian Cole’s goal. That was an EA Sports goal off the top of Bishop’s stick blade if I’ve ever seen one.

Joe Pavelski’s minutes might be going a tick down under Bowness, but his play on that two-man advantage (not to mention his keen shot to beat Grubauer in the shootout) was the stuff you need from your leaders. Pavelski is smart enough to be able to risk getting above the puck along the boards despite killing a 5v3, and it paid off when he continued to fight for the puck even after losing it to Makar, rather than peeling off for the easy change. Killing that 5-on-3 was the turning point of the game in my mind, even if the Avalanche still had the better of play for more or less the final 40 minutes of regulation.

Lastly, I don’t know what to say about overtime that hasn’t already been said. Yes, it’s inexcusable to basically punt on having the last change by starting Faksa and Comeau in overtime. Yes, it’s more or less the same outmoded logic that some baseball managers use to “save” their closers for after the team has gotten a lead, which can often result in losing the game without having put your best player into it.

When I said a few weeks ago that Montgomery’s firing was going to be a very big deal for the franchise, this is partly what I had it mind, and no fooling. This is the Rick Bowness Tampa Bay got to know (and largely love, until the results stopped being there). I still think he does a great job in coaching the penalty kill, but it’s hard to say he’s sorted out anything of consequence since taking over the reins. We did hear that responsibilities have been tweaked a bit more post-Christmas in terms of the coaching staff, but I’m going to wait and see before drawing any conclusions. Right now, the Stars simply need to find a way to take control of games instead of trying to withstand whatever the other team throws at them.

But then again, if you’re in the camp of Stars’ employees who genuinely thought the Stars were a Jamie Oleksiak away from turning the tide in games six and seven against St. Louis last year, I doubt anyone’s going to change your mind now. The Stars are going to live with what they are, whatever that might become. They certainly have the personnel to win in many different systems, but it’s hard to make sense out of how that personnel is being deployed lately, given the lack of results defensively and the lack of production up front.

Still, the team scored a power play goal, and their big players made big plays at the right times. I’m certain that Klingberg was pushing that puck up for Radulov as he got blown up by Zadorov, and Radulov made an even better play to set up Seguin for the dunk. The Stars made enough plays to be able to give up 40+ shots and win. That’s really all you can ask of a team coming off a holiday weekend. We’ll have to wait and see what they have to give when more is required of them. I suspect it soon will be.