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Afterwords: Two Vital Points Earned the Hard-but-Dramatic Way

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The Stars kept pace with a narrow escape in Los Angeles, coming back from three different deficits to win in overtime

Dallas Stars v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

How ‘bout from now on

You write the script

I’ll read the lines

So, here we go

***

The Stars needed these two points as badly as they’ve needed points all year. The fact that that’s the case in game 64 is, sadly, not unfamiliar to Dallas Stars fans. But perhaps slightly less familiar was the result of this game: Success, eventually.

After Montgomery’s criticism of their effort at morning skate, how did the Stars come out? They came out, ah, like a group of vitamin-deficient iguanas, which is to say not superbly. One wondered if the absences of Jamie Benn and Andrew Cogliano might give them at least an initial spark, but the opposite really proved to be the case. And even when things did turn for Dallas, they turned like an articulated bus at rush hour. This one was a traipse through the muck and mire, but the Stars managed to avoid getting sucked into the bog. Well done, I guess.

I’ve watched a lot of games at Staples Center, and as I’ve said before, they have a certain feel to them. This was right out of the 2009-2011 seasons, where you kind of felt like the Stars could win any given game, but you also couldn’t help but notice how difficult they were making it on themselves. They obviously have solved a lot of those problems in the last five years or so, which is great for folks who didn’t move out Los Angeles in 2016 like idiots.

Anyway, things were messy early. New Veteran Defenseman Ben Lovejoy got his routine giveaway out of the way earlier, turning a puck along the wall over for a grade-A scoring chance, but Khudobin’s glove foiled Kyle Clifford’s bid.

But the blueline group was going to be largely questionable on this night, as an icing from Esa Lindell led to disaster. Jason Dickinson lost his man off the ensuing faceoff, and that man ended up being the goal scorer, Anze Kopitar. To compound matters, the Stars failed to do much on an early power play, only to see the Kings score on their chance to push things to 2-0. Roman Polák may have ended up screening his own goalie on a shot from the middle of the slot (with an of-course-they-hit-him Jason Dickinson slow to recover from blocking a shot just prior), and suddenly there was a very real possibility that Dallas could have just started digging their own grave in the bottom half of the Western Conference.

Speaking of the defensive group, Jamie Oleksiak also sat for Taylor Fedun in this one, and the coaching staff indicated that they’ve been seeing some hesitance in Oleksiak’s game, so who knows if this will end up being a rotation or just an out-and-out battle for the two less-senior members of the blue line for the sixth spot. Julius Honka is also still traveling with the team, but there is every possibility that he sits the final 18 games of his Stars career at this point, so congratulations to Dallas for trading for Greg Pateryn two years ago, I guess. I’m done talking about it for now.

Fedun, however, deserves every bit of conversation he’s received. Go read Matt DeFranks’s great piece reviewing every shift from Fedun’s game against St. Louis last week if you haven’t already. Anyway, Fedun and Esa Lindell might have been the only really dependable blueliners for Dallas in this one, although their allotted minutes fell on vastly different ends of the spectrum. But it was Fedun’s vision and slick pass that found Tyler Seguin busting to the net after Seguin skated his way through the Kings in the offensive zone, and that was a huge counterpunch just a minute or so after the Stars went down 2-0.

From that point on, the Kings seemed to sag while the Stars perked up. The Mattias Janmark goal midway through the second was a classic third-line goal that the Stars have gotten far too rarely this season. Comeau’s shot attempt was deflected harmlessly wide of the net, but it ended up going right to an alert Janmark’s stick, and the OG Stars’ hobbit promptly stuffed the puck by a step-behind-all-night Jonathan Quick. That’s some puck luck, but it was a sign of things to come from the third line, as the same group of Janmark, Comeau and Faksa would end up scoring the third and tying tally halfway through the final period on another Comeau shot. This one, however, looked every bit like a shot intended to create the exact rebound it did, and Comeau earned every bit of his second assist of the game as Faksa dunked the rebound back in.

In a sloppy game, maybe it made sense that the least dynamic line would end up being able to tread water. If you can’t ride the wave, you can always charge right through it, and the third line was able to stay standing as they did so. When you’re playing a bad team, sometimes that’s enough.

It almost wasn’t, though. After clawing back from 2-0, one of about a dozen rush chances for Los Angeles finally found paydirt when Roope Hintz cleared a rebound right to Kopitar’s stick. Puck luck goes both ways sometimes, but I suppose you have bigger problems when Alex Radulov and Roope Hintz are the only two players back to prevent a breakaway.

One of those problems was, somehow, John Klingberg, who isn’t right, as evidenced by his causing a pair of 2-on-1s in a row on Khudobin early in the third period. But the goalie stood strong, including yet another stop on a breakaway by Dustin Brown as he exited the penalty box. Aside: I really don’t need Dustin Brown scoring big goals against Dallas, so this felt like a personal favor to me from Khudobin. Probably it was not, but feelings are feelings, and you can’t tell me I’m wrong. Prove that negative. PROVE IT.

Back to the defense though, Klingberg really has been disturbingly mortal since returning from a hand injury earlier this year. Perhaps that injury is just enough to knock him off the razor’s edge on nights like these, because he was fighting the puck most of the night, and losing. Miro Heiskanen had his troubles as well, though of the less extraordinary sort (in both senses).

On the other side of that regrettable coin, Valeri Nichushkin redirected a puck off the bar. So close! Nichushkin got elevated up to the top line with Seguin and Radulov in the final frame, and he looked a bit more confident at times. I can’t help but wonder if we’re seeing the last 18 games of both Nichushkin and Honka in Dallas, so I’ll take whatever gifts we’re given at this point. Root for the home team and all that.

When we talk about the game being sloppy, we usually mean that the Stars were getting caught out of position and not capitalizing on their own chances. That’s about the size of it, but thank the good hockey gods (as opposed to all of the other ones who have befallen this team over the past few years) for Anton Khudobin’s incredible play this season. Khudobin stopped multiple Kings on glorious chances, and it’s with utter bemusement that we must admit that, once again, Khudobin stole a game for Dallas in which they surrendered three goals.

The Stars never led this game until the game-winner, and I thought that was interesting given how the Stars played Los Angeles much earlier in the season when they won to break a three-game losing streak. (If you’re having trouble placing the game, it was the one where Seguin requested Tyler Pitlick as a linemate on the top forward set with Radulov sitting.) Anyway, the quote from that game, which the Stars led 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2, and 4-2, was this, from Montgomery:

“I think with the lead, we became a little results-oriented again and got scrambly with the structure of our game.”

I guess the Stars figured that it was safer to just never get the lead in the first place or establish much structure to begin with. Strategy!

***

The Brett Ritchie interference penalty to end a power play prematurely was perfectly Dallas Stars, for two reasons: One, because the Stars’ power play was a mess for most of the night, generating only a couple of looks like surrendering some truly lethal chances against. And two, because Brett Ritchie has been a penalty-taking machine all season. Now is a good time to go back to a quote I read in I think the Athletic earlier this season about how one scout pointed out that Nichushkin’s lack of penalties taken could actually be a bad sign, showing he’s not involved in the play enough to risk a penalty while fighting for a puck. I find that opinion really reckless and indefensible, but you can intuitively see what the scout might be getting at. Still, it drives me bananas that hockey people can still find a way to demonize a player like Nichushkin while Ritchie continues to provide negative value. Both of these players have flaws, and both of them have skills. I think it’s possible to talk about both of their attributes and shortcomings at the same time. It is a brave new hockey world, where offense comes from things that don’t show up in the standard scoreline, and where supposed rough-and-tumbleness doesn’t necessarily mean virtue. What I’m saying is, I guess, that Nichushkin might be more valuable on the power play than a Big, Tough, Net-Front Guy. It’s not that important at this point, but just something to think about. Just because a guy hasn’t scored a goal at 5v5 this year doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be given opportunities on the job. It’s like taking Jason Spezza off the top power play unit in favor of Martin Hanzal at 50%. These players will come and go, but teams should constantly be looking for what provides real value for their team, not what makes them feel valuable to the team. I am not a hockey player in the NHL, but I do think there are inefficiencies there to be exorcised, for the teams willing to do so. This doesn’t mean replacing one player with another and just clicking the RESET button, of course. Ritchie can do thinks Nichushkin can’t, and so on and so on. I could talk about hockey philosophy all day and be wrong for just as long, but if your team refuses to question some of its assumptions about marginal players, your team will probably never improve upon its margins. Food for thought.

Right, so enough with the bottom-six blathering. Jason Dickinson got straight mugged by Jon Quick on a play that deserved every single scream you heard.

I want to point out how softly and perfectly Spezza laid this puck out for Dickinson from the backhand. Furthermore, I want to point out how glad I am to write for this website, where I can say how grateful I am that this wasn’t Nichushkin getting robbed, because I don’t know that a hockey player in a drought like he is could ever tie his skates again if he got his biscuit pilfered like that. Jon Quick looked kind of off most of the night, but darned if Quick isn’t still capable of stealing things. He even got abit of the glove on Hintz’s shot that found the net, but the puck fittingly got past him, and even more fittingly hit Dustin Brown, himself fitfully ensconced within his own net. Things aren’t super great in Los Angeles these days.

Miro Heiskanen broke up a 2-on-1 in overtime, reminding us that great defensive instincts don’t get fatigued. Roope Hintz certainly got his redemption. Rick Bowness got a very solid handshake from Jim Montgomery on the bench after the win. Clearly this team is fighting things within and without, but when you win the fight, you get to celebrate. Overtime wins are a wonderful gift in hockey; perhaps the very best sort there are. Relish the win, and relish the joy on the bench. It is vicarious joy, perhaps, but still quite real. The playoffs are like that, potentially. Playoff wins linger. Playoff losses do too, but just like the scent of an ex-lover, you can’t recall the pain without the earlier joy alongside it. The Stars are trying to pursue a shot at that experience again, and they did enough to stay in the hunt. The thrill of the chase isn’t an end in itself, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with breathing deeply and smiling as you continue on the journey.