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Afterwords: Road Sweet Road

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If you can’t beat teams at home, then go into a tough barn and smoke the Jets, I guess?

NHL: Dallas Stars at Winnipeg Jets
“Get ‘em, boys.”
James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

You said you want it? Well, you can have it

You said you need it? Well, go and grab it

***

Chalk one up for the coaches, I guess.

After a lot of hand-wringing about how the Stars hadn’t been finding ways to put themselves in positions to win, they assemble one of the most Shake-the-Etch-a-Sketch lineups of the season, and go and do a thing like that...and totally redeem a terrible homestand.

Well, not totally, of course. One road win does not a 1-3-1 homestand erase. But for a team that was consistently sleeping through its alarm clock, Dallas came out in Winnipeg and made a statement.

To paraphrase, well, Jim Montgomery: if he deserves some blame for the Stars’ lackluster first periods for much of the season, then give him some credit for the Stars’ 55-minute shellacking of Winnipeg at a time when memories of collapses past were lurking at edge of our collective memory.

Look, I’m not saying the Stars’ roster and lineup decisions these days are suddenly great or anything. We know that they are purposely abstaining from icing the top-scoring power play unit in the league because they aren’t comfortable with Jason Spezza’s 5-on-5 play anymore.

As Jim Nill told Mike Heika (in a nice piece that you should read):

“In the end, we all want what’s best for the team,” Nill said. “The other thing I tell every one of these players is be ready, because it can change in an instant. You can go from healthy scratch to hero really fast in this league.”

(Which is absolutely true, unless you’re Julius Honka, who could probably score 20 goals in practice and never see NHL ice in Dallas for the rest of his career.)

Still, the Stars believe in their methodology, and last night, it sure looked like their plan worked out. They were the better team from start to finish, outside of a brief surge by Winnipeg in garbage time. And the Stars believe this is part of a trend:

“I like the hockey we’re playing. We are getting more scoring chances than the opposition in pretty much every game, and if you continue to do that, the odds will usually even out,” Nill said. “We have to get better in some areas. The power play has to get better, we know that.”

It’s an interesting strategy, to my way of thinking, to try to improve your power play after your lineup decision has instantly made it worse.

Hey, if the coach wants to choose his players, then more power to him, so long as he’s willing to accept blame when it doesn’t work. Coaches sometimes know more about chemistry than we might be able to glean from small sample sizes. But it’s one thing to scratch Spezza if you have 12 forwards who are outperforming him; it’s another thing entirely to just start pulling names out of a hat because you’re more comfortable with a physical player who lacks discipline or a hard-working AHLer who is running on adrenaline to make up for any disparity in talent. Or at least, that’s what it feels like when you see this team finally promoting Joel L’Esperance late in the year after watching him killing it in Cedar Park all year, then moving him from a top-six forward and power play spot to the press box in order to get Brett Ritchie in the lineup; or recalling AHL veteran Justin Dowling (who is a very decent player) from the AHL in order to play 4th-line minutes and no special teams; or shoot, playing Jason Dickinson as a top-line right-wing with Benn and Seguin apropos of almost nothing, after healthy scratching him earlier in the year.

To ask Montgomery, a lot of this has to do with giving him in-game options, as he’s been forced to juggle things a bit to try to squeeze some extra offense out of the lineup depending on who’s going on a given night:

“When it comes to our top six, it’s a part that’s been missing,” Montgomery said. “That’s why we struggle to generate 5-on-5 scoring. That’s why you see me juggle lines a lot, because players who are making plays during a game, I slide into top-six roles, and that’s the way I’ve found has given us the most success. That’s why I think players are comfortable playing with everybody.”

Dickinson, more than anyone, proved the Stars’ confidence in him warranted in this one. While he was snakebitten in terms of scoring a goal, he did get the puck through Connor Hellebuyck at least once, and he generated some fabulous chances throughout this one, looking every bit like a player deserving of top-six minutes, as someone really cool (I forget who) was saying the other day.

Dickinson looked like a man on a mission in this one, hanging onto the puck and making moves to create something in every zone, embodying every bit one of those 200-foot players Jim Montgomery wants to see. Dickinson had one stretch in his own zone where he stubbornly held the puck and deked his forechecker multiple times just to start a rush up ice with possession. Confidence is a beautiful thing, and it’s good to see Dickinson overflowing with it, as someone who hasn’t scored a goal in a couple months. He can play in this league, and sometimes, he can play. Mark it down: Dickinson is going to score a clutch playoff goal this year. I have never been wrong about anything.

And speaking of players on 20+ game goal droughts, let’s talk about someone on the other end of the top-six circle of trust. One has to start wondering about Blake Comeau at some point, right? And I want to be clear about this: Comeau is a smart player with good defensive instincts, and his line did a good job in Winnipeg. Still, it’s asking a lot of your goaltending to keep getting slaughtered in shot differential while eating a ton of DZ starts. Comeau is actually doing well in terms of goal-differential in spite of results, rocking a 54% goal-differential at 5v5 despite being on the short end of roughly 55% of the shots and chances in that span. Some of that might be goaltending, some of it might be luck; but if you’re not scoring, it’s tough to say whether the Stars will be able to count on Comeau (and Faksa, to a lesser extent) keeping his head above water against a good team in a seven-game series while getting buried in the defensive zone.

As for the offensive zone, well:

However, credit where it’s due: Comeau has gotten all five of his primary assists this season in the last dozen games, so he is heating up—at least, what passes for heating up on this roster. At this point, Montgomery has made his bed, so you just have to hope Comeau continues to tread water in heavy defensive usage. Certainly he is capable of it.

***

It’s worth remembering that the Jets were without Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey, too. The Stars took advantage of an injured team that wasn’t ready to play, and they eventually racked up a 4-0 lead. That doesn’t mean it was easy, though. The Stars were playing hard, and you could see them forechecking like madmen. That’s a heavy, intense sort of style to play, and I’m not sure how well that’ll work in a playoff series. Maybe it’s sustainable. Either way, there’s no denying that Ben Bishop still had to be huge at times, including his save on the antagonizing Adam Lowry, who received a fortunate breakaway thanks to a bounce off the linesman.

We always feel relatively positive about the Stars after a win, particularly after one against a division leader. But the Jets reminded the Stars that they can also crank things up when trailing and mash the SCORE EFFECTS button, which has been the Stars’ most common method of finally out-chancing teams over the last half-dozen games. Make no mistake: the Predators are more vulnerable than the Jets this year, but the Stars have the goaltending to cover a multitude of sins, and Bishop showed that ability last night, as he has so often done.

In fact, both Jets goals were really not ones I’d hang on Bishop in any sense at all. First, because Connor and Laine goals against Dallas are pretty much perfunctory these days, and second, because the Connor goal came off the above rush by Hayes with a dead-to-rights pass for a dunk. The Laine goal, of course, was a one-timed blunderbuss from an elite goal-scorer on the power play. Put me in net right there to face that shot 100 times in a row, and I don’t think I would ever see that puck, let alone be able to make an attempt to stop it.

As for the Stars’ power play, I wouldn’t inscribe omnia bene habent on your stone monuments just yet. Two of the Stars’ best chances came off gorgeous rushes to the net by Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg, which is one way to keep the PK honest in defending the drop pass entry. Klingberg’s shot was saved, while Heiskanen made a fabulous play to dish the puck to Seguin, who knows how to elevate a puck while standing still almost below the goal line.

And the first Seguin power play goal came after a comically bad line change by Winnipeg to garner a too much mans penalty, giving Dallas a two-man advantage for a full minute. And if ever the Stars missed Jason Spezza on the power play, this was a time it showed, with a couple of bobbled crosses and some creeping frustration before Seguin finally just took matters into his own hands and went bar-down on Hellebuyck through a partial screen. Seguin now has 31 goals on the season. He is signed for many more seasons, thankfully.

So, sure; if your new power play strategy is “hope Seguin can score because no one else can,” you’re going to live and die by how well the PK covers him each game. Given the absence of Spezza’s setup ability on the top unit, you’re pretty much asking Seguin, Klingberg, and Heiskanen to work alchemy. Clearly the Stars are okay with this. We will see how it works out for them.

The second power play is more or less a bunch of cardboard cutouts in terms of how the coaches treat them, now. When your second unit is two defensemen and Ritchie, Dowling and Faksa, you’re pretty clearly just telling them to give your top unit a breather and not get scored on. It’s a strategy aimed, like this team’s makeup all year, not at scoring enough goals to win, but at not losing the game. Ken Hitchcock is gone from Dallas, but he is certainly far from forgotten.

Finally, just to wrap up:

  • Val Nichushkin had another great game without results, as he had a great pass on the rush that was sure goal, only to see the shooter put the puck wide of an empty net. It was Classic Dallas Stars as far as this specific game went, as Dallas couldn’t capitalize on glorious chances from start to finish. Somehow, five goals felt like the low end of what we could have seen in this one.
  • Speaking of the finish, how about that empty-net cavalcade of comedy, eh? I particularly loved Razor’s reaction to Faksa’s miss, just a calm, “ayup, ayup.” It was the “that’s about right” we all felt, but in golden brevity. And yeah, from some extended possession around an empty cage earlier to the Faksa shank on the rush to the Big Brothers program trying to set a guy up for his first of the year and finally, to the goal itself...phew. You could see why Faksa was laughing (and why Blake Wheeler was cursing) at the end of that spectacle.
  • As for hard-luck goal scoring, gotta hand it to Miro Heiskanen, whose own 20ish-game goal drought continued thanks to a casually spectacular save our of midair by Mark Scheifele. Honestly, I’m glad all of these things are getting worked out of the Stars’ system now. Gotta get all the dumb not-goals out of the way in March.
  • Esa Lindell has scored 10 goals, and wow, if you had asked me before the game how many goals Lindell has this season, I think I would have said like five. He’s been a sneaky goal-scorer this season, which is in line with Lindell goes about his business everywhere. He’s been mixed this season at times (and who hasn’t, for Dallas?) but productive nonetheless. Also interesting to note that his goal came after a prayer of a feed to the net-front by Comeau in the Spezza Spot low in the corner. The puck went to Lindell, Faksa was in the line of sight, and the nutmeg found a way. Fitting that the Stars finally scored on a haphazard chance like that after all the gilded pucks they’d gotten thus far.
  • You also have to give credit to Mattias Janmark for a bright feed to Faksa after the great stretch pass from Bishop. Janmark has been quietly re-establishing himself a good top-six option this year. At 5v5, NST has him at 4th-best on the team in primary assists/60 and 6th-best at points/60 since January 1st. It may be a bit early to pronounce Janmark as his old self, because none of us ever truly is, but we’ll take that, for now.
  • Faksa’s glove-side shot reminded us of something else: Connor Hellebuyck is not as good as Ben Bishop. Not remotely. If Dallas can get out of their own way, they really do have the tools to at least take a shot at stealing a series or two in the postseason, all things being equal.
  • Kyle Connor got called for interference on a play where I believe the official thought he threw his stick. He did not seem to have done that, at all, as his stick appeared to just get caught in a skate, and he lost his grip. I’m wondering if a memo went out around the league about stick-throwing after all of the javelin-ing we’ve seen lately. Either way, gotta love the irony of Khudobin getting away with his stick-toss (whether or not you agree with the call) and Connor getting nailed for nothing.
  • Brett Ritchie is an NHL player who has scored dozens of goals, and he has made a nice career for himself after a ton of hard work. He is enormously talented in many ways, and I believe he has the skills to be a positive player in this league. However, he should not be playing hockey for the Dallas Stars, given the options they have. I don’t say this to bury Ritchie, honestly I don’t. But he showed once again that Montgomery’s staunch trust in him is sorely misplaced, taking a foolish penalty on his very first shift, and missing an empty net on the rush later in the period. The penalty wasn’t that bad, but he finished high on his check a foot in front of the referee, and that’s as undisciplined a play as you can make early in a game, with Ritchie’s reputation. Ritchie has taken an egregious amount of minor penalties this year (we’re not even talking about majors, remember!), which is normally something that marginal roster players can’t afford. But in the coaching staff’s eyes, these avoidable mistakes are part of the energetic, physical, emotional game Ritchie plays.

I worry that as Ritchie has transformed from a power forward into an “energy guy,” his scoring confidence has waned. That missed chance from Nichushkin? He was finishing those in 2016, and he didn’t need to be in the box half the time to do it. In 2016-17, Ritchie had 24 points and 38 PIMs in 78 games. This year? He’s at 57 PIMs in just 51 games, with just six points scored. Ritchie may be an “energy” guy, but since January 1st, he’s sporting a 22% goal differential at 5v5. Combine that with his lack of setup ability, his undisciplined play, and his struggles to score, and it’s nigh unbelievable that Jason Spezza is getting scratched when he could easily be just as sheltered at evens and then deployed as the lethal power play weapon he is. Obviously the coaches disagree, but these are the kind of lower-lineup decisions that just drive me bonkers, as you’ve been able to tell for most of the season. But we all have our bones to pick, I suppose. Personally, I think Spezza is getting scratched out of frustration. Set a high bar, and your struggles are magnified. But if you’re a borderline player, you can get away with struggles because they aren’t a huge variance from your norm. Frustration is my only real explanation for the Stars’ recent lineup decisions, perhaps because it is also my primary reaction to them. Why wouldn’t you accept Spezza’s decline at evens and just deploy a one-dimensional weapon in the place it’s been incredibly effective instead of cutting off your nose to spite your face?

Ritchie got caught on the ice for a 1:27 shift early in the second period despite appearing to have a couple of chances to change. I wonder if that was a natural reaction to his error in changing too quickly the other night which allowed the Avs to take a 2-0 lead. Either way, I wonder if Ritchie just needs a fresh start in a new system. Sometimes the player doesn’t mesh with a new system, and he becomes a square peg. It remains to be seen when he will somehow have the corners rounded off in his 52nd game and beyond, or if the Stars will end up choosing another peg. Thankfully, they managed last night’s ‘Peg just fine regardless.

Mats Zuccarello will be back soon, and then we’ll have much different—and, I hope, much better—lineup decisions to discuss. The Stars, in the meantime, just need to keep getting it done with what they have. Or at least, what they choose to use.