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Afterwords: Jason Spezza Scratched as Stars Declaw Bitter Kitties

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This was business taken care of, and well done.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Victory.

***

I did my taxes Tuesday. It’s always a bit annoying to me how long I tend to put them off, considering I usually tend to get something back. Why delay my own reward? Just put the work in and reap the benefits.

That’s not how people work, though. Sometimes it’s not totally in our control, as when things will pop up or work will commandeer your day or, or, or. Sometimes you just don’t get the things done that you know you should. Deadlines are great blessings to all our lives, even though they don’t feel like it in the moment.

Dallas took care of business against Florida. It’s hard to call it a foregone conclusion—particularly considering how this team has waffled in its approach to non-playoff teams—but after taking their sweet time, they finally cranked up their engine and got the job done.

That’s some solid domination, that is. It didn’t feel like it early on, but the Stars used what they had, hacked their way through the tall grass, and ended up collecting two points from the threshing floor.

The big news going into this game—well, other than Dallas’s signing of Joseph Cecconi—was Jason Spezza getting healthy scratched for the second time in two years. It caught be surprise a bit, although in retrospect you could see it coming from Jim Montgomery’s steadily declining usage of the Stars’ best power play setup (and one of their worst even-strength setup) guys. Spezza had become a fourth-line player that they didn’t want on the top power play, and that’s first-year Ales Hemsky territory if ever I’ve seen it.

I’ve shown my hand long before now, so I suppose there isn’t much to be said for how NHL coaches (and GMs) tend to overvalue things like penalty-killing and physical play. And you know what? I think we can understand that a little bit, at least in terms of its psychological impact. Maybe the team really does play better when they have faster, heavier, grittier players in the lineup. That’s not borne out in, uh, any empirical sense, but it could be true in a somatic sense. You can’t quantify how Brett Ritchie or Mattias Janmark being in the lineup might be “what’s best for the team,” but maybe they just make the other guys (and their coaches) feel better. If that’s true, then playing them is a coach’s prerogative. They don’t have to play Spezza just because he appears to have value over a lot of other guys. And, this time, they didn’t.

Ultimately though, I come back to this: scoring goals is really hard. You’re going to fail at it a lot. If your job is mainly in goal prevention, it’s a heck of a lot easier to call yourself a success most of the time, because there are so many obstacles to the puck getting in the net. If your job is to “drive energy,” then you can be a success just be skating hard and finishing a check after the puck is gone. It sounds big. It feels energetic. Just because everything I can find in terms of objective data has Ritchie as more or less a drag on the team’s production doesn’t mean the argument ends there. Even if you think it should.

If this team makes the playoffs (as it is 97% likely to do), they will have to find some extra goals from somewhere. They’ll be facing better goalies, better offenses and better systems on a consistent basis, and I suspect the coaching staff doesn’t trust Spezza to be able to create goals in those contexts.

Still, Spezza is 6th on the team right now in even-strength goal-scoring rate (not counting departees like Shore, Pitlick, Condra, and Smith), so in my view, assuming you don’t want him playing with your top forwards, I’d use him much as the Stars have the last couple of years: for offensive zone starts with literally anyone who can shoot, and power play minutes. Scoring is the thing, and Spezza is still, for worse or for better, one of the Stars’ better scorers. Taking that out of their lineup is a huge bet on not only guys like Joel L’Esperance to overcome their own weaknesses as competition ramps up, but also on players who have been a liability, like Ritchie, not to dig this team a hole its offense can’t climb out of.

***

The other notable absence from this game was Taylor Fedun, to whom we send deep condolences and sympathy. Death is awful, and it is at least some small consolation that he was able to be with family during a time of grief. Hockey is not that important.

Ben Bishop returned to the lineup, and his shutout streak got ditched right out of the gate off a messy play in front. In a way, I’m glad it happened that way, because it both took the pressure off the team (and Bishop) without being an obvious breakdown by any one guy. It was also encouraging to hear that Bishop’s absence was primarily precautionary, as the hope is now that he’ll avoid any long-term issues thanks to takin’ ‘er easy this past week. Good on Bishop for choosing to do so despite having a personal streak going. That’s unselfishness at its finest. Now, let’s see if the team can do its part and make things a bit easier in the final few games so that everyone can get some rest in. In other words, it would be great if Esa Lindell could not turn the puck over with a poor breakout pass, and if his defense partner (whose name escapes me) could not get walked despite having an enormous gap.

This is what I will see in my nightmares leading up to the playoffs.

***

As you may have noticed, the Stars were really a one-line team in terms of offense, but when that line gets you four goals, you’ll take it.

If you’re curious which line the Stars matched the top dudes up against, well, guess what

Yeah, quite a lot of Things Happening for Sasha Barkov there. I still like Florida’s core, but it’s really sobering to think of what this team could be if they hadn’t ditched Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. Can you imagine being a fan of this team and watching the Lightning tear up the league just across the state? Must be kind of like being a Sens fan earlier this year when Toronto looked amazing.

As for teams who haven’t quite turned their core into a desiccated husk of its former self, it turns out the Stars still have an elite top three. Just as the 2014-16 teams could hit the NOS button by putting Spezza up with Benn and Seguin, so also can these Stars still get things going by putting all of their best players together.

In terms of the rest of the lineup, you know the basics. Roope Hintz continued to look amazing even off the top line, drawing a penalty with some lightning-fast hands in the offensive zone and then drawing another on a scary play that sent him into the boards hard. Hintz also scored that half-second-too-late power play marker at the end of the second, so it’s safe to say his confidence isn’t waning just yet. Good drafting is helpful.

Tyler Seguin didn’t score a goal, but he set up the game-winner with a fantastic piece of Definitely Not Boston Bruins Culture-Worthy hard work at the blue line to turn the puck north. Jamie Oleksiak and Ben Lovejoy did not get scored on (well, Lovejoy did on the penalty kill, but that’s another matter), although Oleksiak did take a penalty after a failed clear by Brett Ritchie led to some defensive zone scrambling.

Razor pointed out the large gap being played by the Ekblad/Matheson against the top line, and Aaron Ekblad certainly felt the sting of defeat in this one despite his best efforts. Enjoy your stupid Calder Trophy, big guy.

By the way, Seguin had a really interesting game apart from his four-assist night. He almost scored an own-goal on a delayed penalty when a bump back up the boards nutmegged Miro Heiskanen, but thankfully the puck slid wide, and it stayed 1-1 long enough for Klingberg to score on the ensuing power play. (An as for that goal, I loved seeing the camera angle behind the net live for that one. Perfect direction.) Seguin would also commit a penalty in this one when he launched a puck into the cheap seats out of mid-air. I wonder how many times I’d have to try to do that on a puck that high before I’d even hit the glass, let alone clear it. Probably more than two times.

Nichushkin got a great chance on a 3-on-2 early in the third, but Sam Montembeault (whose name is just begging for a BLT to be named after him at BB&T in Florida) got just enough of the puck with the glove to keep Val off the sheet, still. I really have loved Nichushkin’s game lately, such as it is. That’s a player that really is useful when he’s not scoring goals, even though you’d of course like to see him do that, too. If Nichushkin can stay in this form, I don’t see how you ever scratch him again. That combination of size, speed, hands and discipline is perfectly great if you separate him from his expectations. (I am avoiding talking about Spezza any further for now, but, I mean...)

Finally, there was a real sense of the warm fuzzies when Mike Hoffman went full “Wah-Wah” with the thrown stick on Alex Radulov at the end of the game. If there’s not some sort of kangaroo court fine in place for that, there definitely should be. It helps that the NHL has a more sensible rule than many leagues in terms of granting the goal there, but honestly, that’s just kind of garbage hockey, right? It helps that it’s hilarious and kind of admirable for how it worked, but man, if that ever became a trend, I’m sure the NHL would go full Respect The Game and start fining or even suspending guys without a second thought. Throwing your stick is never okay, after all. Unless it is.

Nine games to go.