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Afterwords: The Thin Line Between Comeback and Disappointment

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Shootout losses like this provoke the strangest emotions

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Today I woke up alone wishing you were here with me

I wanted us to be something that we’d probably never be

Today you called me up and said you’d see me at our show

But now I’m stuck debating if I even want to go

(From San Dimas High School Football Rules”)

***

I took the dog on a jog today. I haven’t run as much as I’ve wanted to lately, but the weather made a sharp turn for the better this weekend, and a run along the south Seattle marina in sunshine was too tempting to pass up. Cardiovascular health is a lot easier to maintain when the scenery is beautiful. I should be in better shape than I am, but the huge burrito I got after said run is probably a good representation of my rather Epicurean priorities on most game days.

For a team that spends to the cap, the Stars should be better. We’ve said it so much you’re either sick of it or numb to the message, so I’ll not go too deeply into it here. They want to be good, sustainably good. Jim Nill, until this year, hadn’t traded first-round picks (and they still might not). This year, they’ve traded two twenty-somethings in Devin Shore and Connor Carrick for two thirty-somethings in Andrew Cogliano and Ben Lovejoy. The Stars are hoping for the immediate gratification of these two trade burritos to outweigh the extra pounds that’ll be there down the road.

In their last five home games, the Stars have averaged a pitiful 1.8 goals per game while incongruously going 2-2-1. Goaltending helps you stay in it, just like the adorable dog I live with who guilts me into going outside with him more than I’d be inclined to go myself. Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin have saved the Stars’ season, and maybe more than that. We say this, of course, with Bishop still out for an indeterminate amount of time with ten games to play.

Weirdly, I don’t have a lot of concerns about Khudobin’s ability to provide quality goaltending for the Stars if Bishop misses more time. I say “weirdly” because of the two quick goals he’s surrendered in the last two matches, the worst of which came on a pretty poor play by everyone involved...

...but with the poorest of the poor by Khudobin in particular:

Yikes. Khudobin is late to the post there, perhaps not expecting Schaller to shoot until he reads it too late, and thus he’s late to get into proper reverse VH position, forcing his glove to lag up high to cover space at the post until his body gets there. As a result, there’s a gap on his thigh that Schaller exploits, and the puck bounces in.

The other reason I say “weirdly” is that the Stars’ issues with Khudobin in net have been less with the goaltending itself, and far more with the offense at the other end.

From my rough* numbers, here is the goal support each goaltender has gotten from the Vaunted Dallas Stars Offense, Deepest It’s Ever Been:

Goal support by goalie:

Ben Bishop: 2.8

Anton Khudobin: 2.26

*I’m fairly sure there are a couple of games where Khudobin is the goalie of record but where some goals were scored with BIshop in net. Thankfully, the difference is so drastic as to render those couple of games moot for the larger point I am making, which is basically just “help out your backup, jerks.”

That’s basically an extra goal Dallas has scored for Bishop every other game, which is a big part of why he sports a 24-14-2 record while Khudobin sits at 13-15-4. Yes, Bishop’s Sv% sits at .933 to Khudobin’s .925, but that’s mostly from special teams, as both goalies are near identical at evens. Here is a reminder that the league-average Sv% this season is at .909, so yeah, not too bad. Let’s score Anton Khudobin (and Bishop, though his contract still looms) as decent wins for Jim Nill thus far.

The most heartbreaking stat for me, though, is what happens when Khudobin has allowed exactly two goals. Think about that for a second. How great is it if you play your backup goalie and hold the other team to just two goals? That should mean at least a point most nights, right? Well, you know where this is going: Dallas is a horrific 1-6-2 in games where Khudobin has given up exactly two goals. This stat is entirely believable after last night’s game, in which squeezing two goals out of this once-potent offense seemed like climbing K2 with nothing but some beef jerky and a pair of cargo shorts. Of course, a team is able to play more defensively when they have a lead from the outset, so maybe on this night, Khudobin was a bit to blame for his lack of goal support.

Heiskanen led the team with 28:29 played, with Klingberg close behind. That’s what happens when you trail all night, and let’s not lose sight of the fact that Dallas did come back to tie it, eventually. To have a player like Heiskanen (who looked as good as he has in the last two months) playing Suterian minutes and succeeding is a great luxury, and one of my reasons for meager optimism about this team in the 2020s.

No, the power play still isn’t helping the Stars, as it’s sitting at 1-for-17 in the last six games. No, Tyler Seguin isn’t heating up yet, as he’s now shooting 1-for-50 in his last 12 games. Probably gonna need a bit more from your number one center at some point if you’re planning to run, walk or even limp into the playoffs. Dallas is still in good position for a wild card spot, but teams have lost ten games in a row this year, and a cold offense combined with an injured goalie is just begging for such a hand to be dealt by cruelest fate. May it not come to that for a second year in a row, they ardently prayed.

Credit to Jacob Markstrom, who looked shaky early (I thought) but really bowed up down the stretch. He stopped all four shots in the shootout, whereas Vancouver only asked Khudobin to make a save twice, one of which was a slick glove save on Tanner Pearson, the other of which was Josh Leivo’s game-winner. Of course, one of Markstrom’s shootout saves was on Jamie Benn, who seems to have completely discarded his wrist shot these days when it comes to breakaways and the like.

I miss this Jamie Benn:

Nevertheless, the positives were abundant in this one, as Dallas continued to show that they are capable of at least letting score effects do their thing as opposed to that disappearing act in Vegas a couple weeks ago where they generated nothing in the entire third period. Dallas racked up 46 shots on Markstrom, many of which came from the low slot. Improvement, I guess.

Roman Polák also had a better game (his and everyone’s play on that first goal against notwithstanding), as he recovered from a scary puck to the face to kill an overtime penalty. He also assisted on Benn’s goal, as he made a nice stick check after bodying up on his forward to turn the puck over at the Stars’ blue line. From there, Val Nichushkin took the puck up ice, dropped it to Benn, and drove the net. It’s a simple play, but Nichushkin created traffic and took defenders with him, giving Benn space to use his elite shot, which he did. A primary assist well-earned, as were the two penalties Nichushkin drew for Dallas as well. Hard to know why Nichushkin was looking better than usual last night, but if I’m coaching, I lean into it and keep putting him out there. Hard to say he gives you less than any of your other bottom-six wingers right now, eh? Janmark, Ritchie, Cogliano and even Spezza aren’t giving Dallas much at evens these days. If you can get Nichushkin hot before game 82, that’s something you have to follow up on, right? He even kills penalties, for goodness’ sake!

You have heard this was Nichushkin’s best game of the year. Certainly Montgomery thought it was up there, as Nichushkin played third-line minutes (13:38), surpassing names like Spezza, Fedun, and even Jason Dickinson. Call me cynical, but I’ll get excited when Nichushkin can have a not-so-great game and still not be immediately scratched for Ritchie (when the Stars have a healthy forward group). Let the kids play through it a bit, eh?

Taylor Fedun, by the way, was huge for Dallas despite playing minimal minutes. His goal was just a prudent shot with tons of traffic. Defensemen goals are a bit random for most guys, but Taylor Fedun has twice as many goals in Dallas this year as he had in his career with four teams in five years prior. Good on ‘im.

Through 72 games, it’s very apparent than Jim Montgomery prefers players like Roman Polák and Ben Lovejoy to smaller guys like Carrick, Fedun, and [redacted]. Or at least, he prefers them in the games Dallas has been playing in, which is to say low-scoring, necessarily defensive contests. Heck, even Oleksiak got priority over Fedun the first game after Lovejoy was acquired, though he seems to have managed to play himself into the press box in Dallas once again. Honestly, I really do feel bad for Oleksiak, whose career really seemed to be finding its legs in Pittsburgh for a bit there. He didn’t deserve to get traded back to a team that had given up on him once already and was all but assured to do so again, but as we’ve said, cruelest fate will have its druthers. Anyone up for a prop bet on whether he or Cogliano will be in Dallas through the end of their contract?

Some more negatives: Jake Virtanen lost Lindell in the first period, and Jamie Benn took two Dallas penalties. John Klingberg had to go full Dagobah Yoda on Elias Pettersson to give Vancouver the penalty shot after Tyler Seguin blew a tire, and Joel L’Esperance had a peck of power play chances that he couldn’t pot. John Klingberg might in the midst of his worst season in Dallas, and he’s still the team’s most important defenseman (and perhaps overall player).

Roope Hintz didn’t score, which is new for March, although he did chip the crossbar. Dallas, in fact, thrice hit iron before finally breaking through on that Benn goal, which was massive for a team about to head into a third period down 2-0. There is some lesson about persistence in there, but then Benn’s foolhardy tripping penalty in overtime was perhaps the result of too much persistence, a stick stretched too far when discretion would have been the better part of valor.

One does have to give credit to Khudobin, however, for realizing that Tim Peel and Justin St. Pierre were Having Themselves a Time of It in this game. Khudobin clearly knew that the game was afoot, as evidenced by how he shoved the net off to draw attention to his broken skate blade and get a whistle without fear of a penalty, and how he nonchalantly dropped/threw (thropped?) his stick at Pettersson to scramble some alien circuits on the penalty shot.

Seriously, I would be livid if I were Vancouver there, as Travis Green appeared to have been. For the officials (both of whom are on the red line staring at that play) to not even review or discuss that is eminently odd, but wheels within wheels, you know. Or, with these two officials, it’s more like wheels of cheese filled with old radishes trimmed down and disguised as ball bearings.

It’s a point, and so despite giving up two nonsense goals to a nonsense team, the Stars more or less held serve in the race for the playoffs. That’s the goal right now. The Stars got out the door and went for a jog despite sleeping in on St. Patrick’s Day, and that’s as much as you can ask for a team playing its fourth in six nights. They may not deserve to be in better shape than they’re in, but they probably don’t deserve much worse, either. Some times, the loser point does make sense, morally.

They have three more home games before setting out for their last multi-game road trip, and one can hope that this jaunt was a sign of better, more beautiful days to come. But ultimately, it’ll be up to them to get out the door and stay in shape. No one else is gonna run the race for them, although Khudobin might ask if he can be the team’s first shooter in the next shootout. It would be hard to blame him. It is hard to blame the goalies for anything, this season.