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Afterwords: Grubauer Hour Turns Star Power Sour

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Colorado: 3. Emotion and Physicality: 1

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

And I can’t pretend

To know how this will end

***

Despite Arizona’s loss last night, the defeat here really does hurt. It puts the Blues all but out of reach, meaning a potential first-round matchup with the Preds is pretty unlikely. In other words, Dallas is more or less guaranteeing themselves (barring a comeback in the final couple weeks) a first-round matchup against the top of the Central or Pacific. That’s not exactly making things easy on themselves.

Also in terms on not making it easy on themselves: the Stars chose to scratch a moderately resurgent Val Nichushkin, in whose honor the rest of the lineup then had trouble elevating the puck all night. Good of his boys to pour a couple out for him, I guess.

But honestly, as we’ve said before, you don’t win games by picking this or that 12th forward, most nights, any more than the Stars are sabotaging themselves by playing Taylor Fedun over Julius Honka. The biggest contributions will and should come from the top of the lineup, so it’s important to keep things in context and all that.

Brett Ritchie in his last 18 games: Zero points, -6, 13 PIM,

Val Nichushkin in his last 18 games: One point, -2, 0 PIM.

Dallas scored one or zero goals for the 25th time this season. They have lost 36 games overall. I’m no scientist, but that seems a pretty strong correlation between scoring not-lots and losing. And that’s a bigger conversation than Nichushkin, Ritchie, or even Jason Spezza (2-3=5 in his last 18 games, by the way).

This game was fast, which usually means fun, at least in the moment. Colorado were stretching the neutral zone with a forward at far blue line a lot, and this meant a bit less puck support in their own zone. As a result, the Stars turned a few pucks over and generated some great chances from below the goal line. Somehow, Philipp Grubauer found all of them, most of which came from Seguin and Radulov. Those are the guys you want in those situations, so maybe last night just wasn’t the Stars’ night.

There could have been more penalty calls in the first, but there weren’t. Colorado draws the most power plays in the NHL, and the Stars the least. This held true in a 3-2 advantage for Colorado, which also reflected the control of the game throughout. Dallas didn’t really look in command until the third period, which reminds one of Colorado’s comeback victories earlier in the year against the Stars, when the Avs had chances but didn’t convert them early until they finally cranked things up down the stretch to knock Dallas off. The difference in this one is that Dallas’s 41 Thunder— option wasn’t quite as potent as Colorado’s was.

Still, I do like the way Dallas looks these days compared to the first half of the season. Which isn’t saying much, but bright side and all that! Jamie Benn in particular looked INTO THINGS in this one, dealing a heavy hit on Rantanen and generally looking like a beast on the puck all night. One thing I’ll mention with regard to Jamie Benn’s year: his scoring is down, but a large portion of this is due to one thing: power play assists. In the previous five seasons, Benn had either 13 or 14 power play helpers every single year. This year? He has two. Given that his goal scoring is pretty much in line with the rest of the roster (which is to say, way down) this year, I really don’t think it’s fair to pile on him like Jim Lites (and Lites’s boss) did a couple months ago. Just my opinion.

Colorado outskated Dallas as the first went on, and one worries about how this team would look in the playoffs against a similarly swift team. Bishop made some insane saves because he had to, including MacKinnon on two chances on a breakaway, then another great pad save later on. The Stars have some fast players, but they just aren’t a fast team anymore. That comes from the roster decisions they’ve made—Nichushkin is a sneaky fast skater and always has been, even if his stride doesn’t look quite like he’s churning the way a Roussel or Cogliano does—but also from playing a cautious, safe, defensive game for a whole season. We are what we choose to become.

Grubauer was indeed great on the other end, but I think it’s fair to say Dallas’s finish was a bigger problem that Grubauer’s play. The last power play of the game was a perfect example of this, as the Stars were clearly forcing cross-seam passes in an effort to get the Avs’ goalie dead to rights instead of just getting pucks to the net. It’s unfortunate, as Roope Hintz and his great shot reminded us in that same stretch that Grubauer was giving up some rebounds at times. But it’s hard to blame Dallas for trying to spin gold out of the straw that has been their power play in 2019.

Jason Dickinson continues to look like a really solid player, even if the whole “shut down the big line” plan with him, Benn and L’Esperance didn’t quite come to fruition. Dickinson’s been particularly strong on the penalty kill, which has led to him having the second-best value per minute according to Evolving Hockey. It’s all about trust though, and Dickinson just couldn’t earn that last season for one reason or another.

Speaking of trust, yes. After seeing Comeau heroically saunter in as the extra skater the other night, the Stars once again evidenced their thought process last night when they iced their second line down a goal with 2:25 to go. It’s some kind of logic to expect Mattias Janmark, Blake Comeau and Radek Faksa to generate a goal against a dominant goalie at that point in the game. Comeau, in fact, played the fourth-most minutes of any forward at even-strength last night. Montgomery has said he trusts Comeau to close out games, which is all well and good. My issue is that Montgomery also trusts Comeau to help open them up, which is pretty mind-boggling considering Comeau still has just one more goal than Devin Shore, who only played 42 games with this team, and was traded for Cogliano, who has one goal in 25 games. Comeau is tied with Tyler Pitlick in goals this season, and you may recall that Pitlick was bemoaned as having a down year before his injury. Comeau and Cogliano are also signed, like Jamie Oleksiak, for not insignificant money for another two seasons.

(Oh, and in terms of being a defensive specialist: Comeau had a -21% relative shot differential last night, which was worse than everyone except Jason Spezza.)

Also, for all the talk about Comeau’s skating this season, I was shocked when a two on one disappeared when Comeau was caught by Nikita Zadorov somehow. Maybe that’s Comeau’s season in Dallas: getting passed up by random players with no real explanation, but without his team ever acknowledging how troubling that fact is.

Razor had an interesting comment early in the second about how Dallas was really getting put out of position by the Avs. That happens when you can’t cope with speed and the other team has adjusted their gameplan after being thumped by you last time around. Dallas is a bigger team, but as we’ve seen more than once this season, size doesn’t matter when you can’t catch the other team. Dallas got outflanked by Colorado early, and they never could quite get through Colorado’s great defensive layers in front of their net to tie the game.

We should talk about Jason Spezza, who returned to the lineup for a brief cameo. Spezza seemed to be a man on a mission on the power play, as he unleashed two hard shots just over the net. To be fair, the problem with the other guys was not elevating the puck enough. To be unfair, Spezza is probably done on the top power play, and may not even play every game in the playoffs.

It’s a bigger problem, right? It’s not about how Spezza will be better with better plays (of course he will, as anyone would). It’s about how the Stars have become so risk-averse (as Josh wrote the other day) as to hamstring (if not outright sabotage) their own ability to move the needle when they need to.

It’s like, if you put me on Whose Line, I’ll probably seem like an unfunny clod if I’m paired with Greg Proops as opposed to Colin Mochrie, with who I might get a few laughs. But you can only team up so many people with Colin Mochrie, you know? Jason Spezza might have been Wayne Brady once, but now that he can’t carry his own show, he’s not getting the prime opportunities anymore.

Maybe that’s fair and just. I don’t know, to be honest. But it is clear that the Stars have found themselves with a skilled player they don’t know how to deploy despite his being the fourth-highest scoring forward on the team. Some of that is on Spezza indirectly for being the oldest guy on the team and not being what he was, absolutely. But he also had a couple of great backchecking shifts, and again, he can put up points on a team desperate for scoring. Putting the blame all on Spezza for his evaporating usage is just as unfair as blaming Jim Montgomery for Mattias Janmark’s now-absent scoring abilities. If you can’t find a way to utilize a player’s strengths, you will always, always end up being victimized by their weaknesses.

Here, we have the result of a long shift of Spezza, L’Esperance and Ritchie’s line being hemmed in their own zone with Polák and Heiskanen. Spezza fought along the boards and got the puck out, after which the whole team just kind of peaced out. You’ll expect me to bury Ritchie for leaving here, and yeah, that’s about right. Of course everyone is gassed, and I don’t totally fault him for figuring that fresh legs would more than make up for whatever good he could do by taking up the center of the ice. But he did leave, the Avs did get a nice zone entry through the guts, and Tyson Barrie capitalized on the ensuing play by beating Bishop off the post to make it 2-0. Get upset at Ritchie for making a bad judgment call in his exhaustion if you want. But this is about as clear a comeuppance for a poor lineup decision as anyone stumping for Nichushkin Thursday morning could have asked for. Sure, Ritchie was benched the rest of the game, but what does it matter? He’s been overmatched the whole season despite scoring a couple of goals, but the Stars have decided that he brings a nebulous value that outweighs his inability to defend, drive play, or generate offense for anyone else on his line. Hard to argue with arguments that don’t offer any evidence, just as it’s tough, in a different way, to explain to a casual fan why you might think Nichushkin is an important piece of this lineup despite not scoring a single goal.

Still, Bishop could have stopped both goals he surrendered in this game. He also could have given up a lot more than he did. But for once, it wasn’t Anton Khudobin playing well enough to win and losing. Bishop also could have stopped the first goal, which came after the Stars were caught in their own zone again and had to ice the puck. Erik Johnson beat Ben Bishop with a hot one-timer that was, again, a bit surprising to see go in. Not a great look for a goalie in the hunt for Vezina consideration, but one-timers are dangerous shots for a reason, I suppose.

Avs draw the most PPs in the league, Stars the fewest. And when they’re allowed to call their own penalties (as they did on Lovejoy), you can see why. That was a bad call, but the Stars’ PK was great in this one, so at least the Stars retained the dignity of losing at even-strength.

If there was one moment you really wanted Dallas to capitalize on, it was probably the power play after Zadorov plowed Seguin a few seconds before the puck approached being anywhere near present. But despite six shots on goal and some particularly great chances by Benn and Seguin, nothing resulted from the two minutes. I did appreciate seeing Radulov run the power play from down below the goal line earlier though, as it’s at least nice to see the Stars are capable of bringing some different looks. More goals would also be nice.

The Stars finally got on the board with their Big Five out there, thanks to a Seguin tip on a Klingberg shot from the half-wall. That goal didn’t get them any points, but getting Seguin back in the goal column is always a good thing. You don’t want him going into the playoffs on a drought, you know?

Joel L’Esperance had a hit on Rantanen that took him out of the game. Roope Hintz made a great play from behind the net to set up another scoring chance. When you think back to last year, it’s crazy to think that L’Esperance and Taylor Fedun have become decent options for this team when it needs offense late. Things haven’t gone according to plan this season, for Montgomery, Nill, or the players themselves. But the playoffs are right there, easily within reach. Dallas just needs to show that it can stretch itself in a few uncomfortable areas in order to get where they want to be. Muscles aren’t built without tearing and rebuilding, and this team was never going to get back into the playoffs without some new elements. It’s surprising to see what some of those new and discarded elements have been, but the surprises are why we watch the game. Hopefully we’ll be able to keep watching after game 82.