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Afterwords: Sabres Still Bad, Hintz Twice as Good, Bishop Looking Great

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Ben Bishop has saved 94 shots in a row

NHL: Dallas Stars at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Never a lock In the fall

In the shutout

In the shutout

How will we know

***

Ben Bishop has never been here before. Three shutouts in a row is a curiosity for the filler portion of the sports chapter in a fraying copy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! that you find in a used bookstore. If you believe in karma, maybe you say this run from Bishop is the universe tossing the Stars a bone after how things went in March last year.

Or maybe it’s just a good goaltender playing at his best when the games matter the most against teams that haven’t been very good. Beating the Rangers, Avalanche (at home, at least) and Sabres is hardly cause for veneration, in a vacuum. But considering the Stars have averaged just 2.3 goals per game in each of those three horse collars he’s put up, it’s worth appreciating the Boucher-lite ride Bishop is taking us on.

With Jack Eichel suspended, the Stars had to know this game was theirs to lose. At least, I think they knew that. You can point to two posts by Jeff Skinner and a host of other no-no’s that could have made things much less fun, and you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. Dallas leaned on the Sabres harder as the game went on, but they still only managed two goals against these Sabres, so feel free to donate platelets to Mats Zuccarello. If a truck pulls up to your house today asking for a pint of blood, you’ll know why.

As yesterday was unofficial Roman Polák Day, I was watching particularly closely for someone else who has spilt some blood for this team. If you read the nice pieces by Matthew DeFranks and Mike Heika linked there, you’ll see a lot of quotes about Polák’s leadership, work ethic, coachability, sense of humor, personality, and general all-around “Good Guy-ness.” Anyone who’s played sports loves playing with those people. It’s fun to have fun, especially with someone who doesn’t take a shift off.

And give him credit: Polák did not disappoint, as I noticed two sequences that really made me wonder if this 20-minutes-a-night warrior is really quite as effective at his job as the coaching staff has determined him to be.

Let me stress that these GIFs aren’t to be taken as proof that Polák is worthless or bad or anything of the sort. They are, most importantly, entertaining, and I wouldn’t still be writing all these words if I didn’t enjoy entertainment a fair bit. Like, for instance, this little gem of a sequence by the Stars’ second defense pairing with a few weeks left in the regular season.

If anyone tells you about how Bishop is really benefiting from a stingy defensive scheme put in place by Ken Hitchcock on one cold, windy night in 2017, maybe keep this clip in mind. You can argue, I suppose, that Heiskanen should have gone with Tage Thompson after the drop pass to Sam Reinhart. Clearly that’s what Polák was banking on. I would probably suggest that Polák shouldn’t have Light Brigaded into the already-covered puck carrier, but again, there’s room to discuss this play. So, no, this wasn’t a great example of Veteran Defensemaning. Instead, you got a pretty embarrassing sequence that I included at the top of this piece mainly just because of Thompson’s “DID SOMEONE SAY SPIN-O-RAMA???” move to totally, inexplicably peace out of any sort of scoring area immediately upon getting the puck.

(Yeah, the puck probably rolled on him or something, don’t @ me, blah blah blah.)

Anyway, more than being a referendum on Polák (or Heiskanen, who most fans are going to be more inclined to trust, given his outstanding performance this season), this play was just a good encapsulation of the game as a whole. I don’t want to give anyone credit for playing fantastic hockey, because at lot of this one was just kind of grombly. Both teams had breakdowns, but neither could really capitalize. And by “neither,” we mean mostly Jeff Skinner, who has gone like a month without a goal (as has Comeau) and who hit two posts tonight on glorious chances.

One such chance happened after a Polák clearing attempt went right to Jeff Skinner as the Stars’ warrior fell down and slid out of the zone after possibly hitting his skate blade against Jason Pominville’s. Also, hey, Jason Pominville! He’s still around! How about that.

Anyway, yeah, the GIF:

Thankfully, the pipe was just as stingy for Buffalo in the second as it had been for Dallas in the first, and so we can enjoy that sequence with the gentle empathy that comes from remembering our own mistakes. I once went to an important meeting with a publisher after forgetting to button up half of my shirt. Probably a professional hockey player is allowed to fall down once in a while.

Anyway, let’s move on from talking about falling down once in a while and get to Blake Comeau, who also had himself an eventful game, yes indeed. Comeau put four shots on goal and got an assist on Roope Hintz’s cookie jar effort, so Comeau certainly earns the Val Nichushkin Award for Best Offensive Game That the Haters Will Still Laugh About Because Goals. It is not a very prestigious award, and also you have to pay shipping costs. We’re not made of money here, buddy.

Comeau and Janmark right now look like two players whose shots are sponsored by the auspices of Cronus himself. Neither, admittedly, has an 80-grade shot tool, but also these are NHL players, and as such, you’d expect one of them to be able to stash the odd biscuit when given (by their own efforts or otherwise) a pristine scoring chance. I half-wondered if there was some Freaky Friday thing going on in the dressing room, as Jason Spezza was suddenly blocking shots and shepherding young players around the ice, while Blake Comeau was the one getting assists on pretty goals and failing to convert his multiple chances. Someone get on that, please.

By the way: Spezza, in 67 games, already has the second-highest number of blocked shots in his career. If you want buy-in from a veteran player, that’s one small, arbitrary indication that Jim Montgomery’s gotten it from Spezza.

Yes, but let’s please get to the good stuff, which is to say Roope Hintz’s hair. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but if that bag o’ salad ain’t the heir apparent to Modano’s sweater in the breeze, then I am an idiot. I should make fewer pronouncements, probably.

Hintz began his Flow of Mojo when he capitalized on some questionable defense by Rasmus Dahlin on Blake Comeau—who himself hit the crossbar right after Hintz’s second goal—and then proceeded to just kind of walk up to the goaltender and stuff the puck up the net’s metaphorical nostrils.

Any time he’s playing with Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov, Hintz looks like the fastest player on the team. That’s an odd way to put it in one sense, but maybe it’s just the speed that those two can play at that makes Hintz’s natural speed seem that much more astounding. Anyway, this goal was a little speed and a lot of “I can score and I shall score” on Hintz’s part, and that’s a fantastically encouraging sign on this team, of all teams. Also, extra history points for scoring a goal that Buffalo fans (wrongly) didn’t think was legit at first.

No doubt, Hintz was Feeling It, as we saw when the junior member of the five-man power play unit tossed in a second goal on the Stars’ third and final power play. That wrister from distance takes some confidence to unleash in that situation. Hintz, again, knows he is on the ice with Klingberg, Benn, Seguin and Radulov. But rather than looking for a perfect play or a low-risk pass to let someone else make the magic, Hintz trusts his instincts, reads Linus Ullmark’s sightlines, and rips a shot far-side with perfunctory precision.

And, lest you believe the Stars just deferred on the first two power plays out of respect for the silly puck-over-glass rule, I must remind you of the Jamie Benn robbery by Ullmark after Seguin’s fantastic spinning pass on the power play, and of the John Klingberg post before it. There were a lot of posts hit in this game. Dallas was a bit better in a lot (though hardly all) of this game, and that’s about right for a 2-0 win.

Shutouts are often called clean sheets, but this thing wasn’t clean. It was rough and pointy, something you pick up by the tail and gingerly carry to the nearest bin. Sort of like the broken stick that hit Jamie Benn in the face. Jason Dickinson probably gave him a look after that happened.

Yes, there were some pretty bonkers moments in this one that reminded you of the rather rough-draft state of both teams right now. Joel L’Esperance had a great chance on Ullmark for his first NHL goal, but a circus save (which is different than a great save) by Ullmark sent the puck straight up in the air and somehow eventually out of harm’s way, much like Bishop’s leaky save in the first.

Then Jeff Skinner hit iron again with a slick backhand off the crossbar on the power play that looked every bit cursed, because Skinner got the puck elevated (easily) and past Bishop, only to conk the post a second time. It is best of all to be lucky and good.

The Stars haven’t had a lot of luck this season, broadly speaking. But one area they have enjoyed sufficient fortune is in the crease. Even with Bishop missing a few games earlier in the year, the very capable (and under-served) Anton Khudobin kept Dallas afloat. Which is great, but let’s maybe not overburden the life raft before the ocean looms, eh Ben Lovejoy?

Yeah, I mean, it’s not great, but Lovejoy does manage to avoid the worst of the collision with his goalie, so props and all. Or at least not anti-props. Your Dallas Stars: Not Quite Doing Enough Things Badly To Totally Sabotage Themselves Yet.

I was hoping for a Hintz hat trick, but even with a nice turnover generated himself with time winding down, Hintz never really threatened for one. Bishop, in fact, looked like he considered taking a shot at one point—which is a billion times more important than any hat trick, I don’t care, give me goalie goals forever—but the Stars have already redeemed their One Free Empty-Net Goal coupon for this calendar year, so we’ll have to wait on that one. Ah, well.

This was a crucial win, as they all are. Literally Arizona is now in a playoff spot, although by the time this gets published, John Chayka’s statistician will inevitably get injured, fall over, and lose some of their accumulated points, dropping them back down to 12th or something in the West. Dallas can’t afford to get into a pile-up right now. Best to stay high above all piles, far away from a pile’s only natural enemy.

Final thought: Heiskanen-Klingberg is probably better as an opportunistic pairing (à la Niedermayer-Pronger) than a constant one, and that’s more or less how Jim Montgomery deployed them in this one. It’s about the process of dictating the puck’s progress on the ice, and the Stars realistically only have two players who can do that on the blue line. No harm letting them do so alternately for most of the night. Well, some harm to Buffalo, but who really cares about them? It was a good goal, nerds. And the only thing as good as a good goal is a great goalie. It’s always nice to have both. Greed is a deadly sin except for when it’s a necessary evil. And if necessity is the mother of invention, then the Stars have come up with some pretty greedy wins lately. They’ll take ‘em.