I had breakfast with a friend last week, and we spent half the conversation talking about the profundity of Spirited Away. Whether or not it’s a perfect film, I remain convinced that Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack is at least 30% responsible for how perfect the whole thing is.
Sometime you just get steamrolled. Every team has those nights, as the Maple Leafs can surely tell you. But this season has been the furthest thing from “one of those nights,” because there really haven’t been any incidents in isolation. Everything’s been part of some bigger streak, and that means every game portends doom, or divine intervention. Win an ugly game 2-1 in the midst of a losing streak, and it’s a lucky break you didn’t earn. But “grind out” a hideous 4-1 win against Philadelphia to kick off a world-class month of hockey? That’s a retroactive jump start, baby.
If November was a hay ride of historical proportions, the Stars are now back off the wagon in a big way. This wasn’t just an ugly loss on the road to a team defying the odds; this was the end of the second act, the low point after the heroic display. This was Han Solo being frozen in carbonite and taken who-knows-where, while Luke and Leia barely escape with their lives. They also gave up another three or four odd-man rushes while doing so, I’m pretty certain.
The discussion after this game was about, well, everything. And it should be, given that Jim Montgomery rightly called it the team’s worst game of the year. The Stars weren’t failing because their system was flawed, at least not on this night. They were failing because they couldn’t do anything right. If their system had been completely built upon the principle of giving really good high-fives while on the bench, I’m fairly certain they would’ve come out of Winnipeg with like nine broken wrists. It was that bad.
One of the strongest defensive teams in hockey was leaking breakaways and 2-on-1s at an unheard-of pace, and even their best defenseman (and best player?) looked pretty rough outside of a beautiful individual effort to stave off a second shutout in four games. This was everything the Stars haven’t been, until recently, when they have.
Montgomery mentioned that the Stars weren’t battling enough, and he pointed to the team’s dreadful faceoff results as evidence. I normally avoid drawing meaningful conclusions from faceoffs, as they are largely irrelevant to the outcome of most games. But the Stars were just 35% on the dots Tuesday night, and that’s pretty danged awful. In fact, it was the Stars’ second-worst faceoff game of the year, with the only inferior showing coming in...Winnipeg, back on November 10th. On that night, the Stars went an absurd 27% on faceoffs, but still managed an overtime loss to sustain a five-game point streak (which would end up lasting much longer, of course). Maybe Winnipeg just knows how to work the system at home.
Oh, and in that 11/10 game, the Stars’ two goals came from Radek Faksa and Mattias Janmark. This time around, they got just one tally, and it came from Heiskanen, who reminded everyone that he isn’t sophomore slumping in the way other players might be prone to do.
not a super super great night for the FCC line or the Miro-Oleksiak pairing, all told pic.twitter.com/xWdhgnVBb0— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) December 4, 2019
I mean, yes, he and Oleksiak got victimized a whole lot last night, but but this whole game was a lot more about what the Stars weren’t doing as a team than what individual players were doing wrong. Tyler Seguin didn’t eat a single minus, but he (and Radulov) also saw a whole lot of the bench in the final period. As much as we always talk about how coaches overreact to defensive miscues instead of looking at missed offensive opportunities, I think this was indeed a night where the coaching staff knew that they didn’t get anywhere close to the kinds of performances they needed from their top guys. Unlike Winnipeg.
Patrik Laine scored two goals against Dallas, and I don’t care what stupid rule says otherwise. I could watch him find ways to shoot pucks unfathomably hard for hours on end. He’s like a goofier Ovechkin, and that’s saying something considering, well, Ovechkin. Laine reminds me a bit of a Finnish Brett Hull seeking revenge for some reason, and the Stars sure feel like it, given his career numbers against them.
I think this game was over halfway through the first period, when the Stars basically just stopped generating anything at all with the puck. It was a miracle worth of a house elf that they made it out of the first 20 minutes only down 1-0, and it was fitting that Montgomery apologized to their selfsame goalie after 40. The Stars had a couple of small pushes, but Winnipeg looked more or less like the Stars did at home against Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. They did what they wanted, and they got the goals to show for it. They could’ve gotten more, too.
Miraculous resurgence doesn’t happen often, maybe once or twice a season if you’re lucky. The Stars got their Moment against Minnesota to revive a dying season, but now the same old problems are metastasizing again in uglier ways. This isn’t just a team playing it safe, failing to do what is required to generate offense; this is a team that looked (and has looked increasingly so lately) like they didn’t know how to generate offense, how to do the things that lead to the other, better things.
I don’t know what you do now if you’re Jim Montgomery. You have to think the Stars have fired a lot of their psychological bullets already, given their start to the year. The last thing this team needed after 14-1-1 was a big losing streak to kill their momentum, but let’s hand it to the Stars: they’ve found a way to do it. In four easy steps, they’ve managed to shake all the invaluable confidence they built in November:
Step One: Lose a Game You Deserved to Win (0-3, Chicago)
That Chicago game really was stupid. The Stars could’ve gotten way more for their efforts, but in their fifth game in eight nights, Chicago’s one goal stood up until a late power play goal made it 2-0 to salt things away. Games like this happen all the time, to every team. Sometimes you catch a team brimming with mojo, and their goaltender has a great game while they steal a goal or two. I am repeating myself, but this is where special teams are so crucial. They can defibrillate an arrhythmic game and get you something you couldn’t otherwise find. But the Star’s PK is cratering right now, and their power play has only had small streaks of effectiveness all year.
Step Two: Break Your Fans’ Hearts
Few goals this year have felt as satisfying as that late Roope Hintz tally against St. Louis to tie things up. And, of course, even fewer things have stung as much as the ensuing Ryan O’Reilly goal to rip out Dallas’s collective hockey heart and saucer it into the back of the net. This game really felt like fate cackling at the Stars. I’m not saying the huge points streak will prove as ephemeral as Hintz’s goal, but I mean, I’m not not saying that either. Time will tell! There isn’t quite as much time as we thought there would be, a week ago.
Step Three: Blow a Late Lead to a Bad Team
Minnesota aren’t that awful, really. But they aren’t St. Louis this year, and that made the late power play goal by Parise—seriously, who bats a puck out of the air in such crushing fashion other than a supervillain?—that much more painful. Dallas is trying to clamer their way out of a mud pit, but this was the game where they got the closest to the top, only to roll back down and fall even further into the mire. Radulov took a bad penalty, special teams wasn’t good enough, and the team’s relative offensive explosion—that’s what two goals are in December, for this team—got them only a measly point, thanks in large part to the worst five minutes of overtime I’ve watched this year. Blech, blech, blech.
Step Four: Be Really, Really Bad for an Entire Game
Yeah, you watched it, too. That’s where they are now. Confidence shaken, scorers disappearing. Everything they built last month is begin to burn up, and the team’s defense keeps dropping the fire extinguisher on the toes of their scoring forwards. It’s all bad, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better without someone more than just Jamie Benn, or John Klingberg, or (briefly) Miro Heiskanen stepping up. The coaches need to figure out why their team can’t beat a two-man forecheck anymore, and they need to fix the power play, again. That’s where you start, and surely the coaches have been there for a while now. Solutions are great to talk about, but if a coach were ever able to fix every issue as it cropped up, their team would never lose two games in a row again.
It would have been less painful if the Stars had scattered their wins and losses around a bit more instead of coming at their fans in waves this year. We’re all a bit out of breath after the highs and lows of the season, but this town has needed sustained success for a long time. The Stars have shown they can do it for far longer this year than they’ve shown the opposite. They have one more day to prove they can change their game plan against a team that seems to have their number right now. Hopefully they use that three hours better than all the poor fans who spent Tuesday night in front of their televisions.