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Afterwords: Captain’s Marvels

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Jamie Benn returned with a vengeance

NHL: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Well I have handed all my efforts in

Searched here for my second wind

“Is there somewhere here to let me in” I asked

So I slammed the doors they slammed at me

I found the place I’m meant to be

I figured out my destiny at last

***

If you’re going to put in a complete effort for the first time in a while, there aren’t many better times to do it than in a game against a division rival ahead of you in the standings at the end of a road trip.

There wasn’t a lot to complain about in this one, and it’s been a couple of years since the Stars were putting up games like this on a consistent basis. The penalty kill was great, the power play scored on its only opportunity, and Jamie Benn reminded everyone that the player who was more or less the only certain future for this franchise back in 2013 is still wearing the same letter on his sweater today.

Benn has been the guy for Dallas too many times to count since his arrival ahead of schedule back in 2009. That was a long time ago. Benn got Calder votes that year, but just to date all of us a little bit, so did players like Johnny Boychuk, Tyler Myers, Jimmy Howard, and Tuukka Rask. A lot has happened since then, but a single playoff series victory is far from enough for any team in a decade, so it’s understandable that one of the only constants over that ten-year stretch would have drawn some ire here and there.

Jim Lites (which is to say, Tom Gaglardi) got fed up with him earlier this season, in fact. My belief is that Gaglardi (and others in management) believe that the Benn we saw Saturday night in St. Louis is always there, waiting to be awakened. When the team struggles and we see a more passive Jamie Benn, it can be frustrating. It’s like watching a playmaker who isn’t making enough plays, or a veteran goalie who isn’t making saves. It’s frustrating, and you want to grab someone and shake them by the collar when the same failures keep recurring. (We would not recommend shaking Jamie Benn by the collar.)

This season has been kind of all over the place. With 17 games left, the Stars need something like 20 points. We’re at the point of the year where it’s probably not likely that Dallas will suddenly turn into a possession monster that scores at a crazy clip. That’s a sobering thought that deserves further consideration, but like a car with 300,000 miles on it that’s burning oil and in need of alignment, sometimes you just have to worry about your daily commute instead of trying to rebuild the car in the middle of the work week.

Dallas can make the playoffs, and it’s vital for the franchise that they do so. You don’t trade a draft pick for Ben Lovejoy at the deadline if you’re building for the future, or even for next season. There are a lot of ways to view the Stars’ moves in the last couple years, but down the stretch, this is what they’ll have to work with. And if they can wield this group this effectively against a St. Louis team—albeit a tired one—as powerful as the Blues have been in 2019, then there is always room for hope, even of a muted sort.

Jamie Benn hat tricks are wonderful things. Benn is special, and even as he creeps up to 30 years old, it’s worth remembering how special he’s been, for so long. A general manager is tasked with valuing players and making moves to build a team as completely as possible, but that Jamie Benn contract was always going to be offered and signed the minute it was able to be. A few years down the road, it’s easy to worry about what will happen as time takes its toll. Time always wins, and I don’t need to count each of my eye-crinkles to know this. Jamie Benn was fighting what I think were back issues for the past couple of games, but on Saturday, he looked every bit like the Jamie Benn you remember from Jamie Benn, over the last decade. That’s pretty cool.

Tyler Seguin’s assist was sublime. That power play goal was something else, but when you combine Seguin’s next-level vision to find Benn diagonally across the zone with Benn’s no-look shot through Jordan Binnington’s pads, that goal ranks a ways up there, for me.

I mean, be honest: if you had the puck where Benn had it, and you were asked to shoot at an empty net while you looked away, how many times would you hit the net? Maybe 50 or 60%? 80%, even? Benn whipped a shot on net, and into it, finding the five hole with a shot that made a Hamburglaresque goaltender look skyward. Breaking hearts is a little too easy sometimes.

***

Anyway, the rest of the game was more or less self-evident. Blake Comeau had a great pass under the triangle to set up John Klingberg, who could have potted two goals himself in this game. Even with Comeau taking two (er, three?) penalties in the first period, the Stars’ penalty kill looked downright dominant, Val Nichushkin not least among the jobbers. I really thought the second penalty might be the usual break after bending, but the Blues instead felt that familiar feeling of having early opportunities, squandering them, and really, really regretting it. I suppose that train had to slow down sometime. This was a good time.

Taylor Fedun also collected a nice primary assist in his second straight game back in the lineup, and [insert standard diatribe about Dallas’s defensive roster management]. Phew, that felt good. Glad I got those 750 words off my chest. Thanks for tolerating that huge paragraph!

It was Ryan O’Reilly, I think, who put the Blues’ best chance off the post with the Stars up by two down the stretch. This game, fun as it was, changes a whole lot if that’s a one-goal deficit Dallas is defending with four minutes left. The Stars were at least better in the third period than they were in Vegas, so I guess that’s something. Again, I am reminded that there is no defense so stout as scoring more goals.

I don’t think the Stars were playing strong solely because of Jamie Benn, though he certainly may have had an invigorating effect on the bench. The Blues were sloppy in this one too, and when Dallas put up two goals early and then a third right after St. Louis scored, it kept the crowd out of things. There’s something about playing in a visiting barn and knowing you’re the better team that’s translates through a screen, and throughout the lineup. The Stars were skating hard to get to loose pucks, beat out icings (Mattias Janmark had another game where he looked like his old self), and sabotage almost everything St. Louis tried to do in the neutral zone until late in the game. These were, in short, not the Blues that won so many games and turned their season around. Whether that’s because they showed up that way or were beaten down into such a listless form, only Craig Berube might know for sure.

In game 65 last season, the Stars also beat the Blues (3-2 in overtime, as it happens). The Stars faced some adversity in that game, first overcoming a third-period deficit after an ugly goal by Bishop, and then having to swallow a disallowed goal for a kicking motion that would have put them up in the final minutes of the third period. But after weathering all that, the Stars would win in overtime on a goal by, of course, Jamie Benn. You may remember his breaking his stick over his knee that night to signify the end of a goal drought. It’s been a long year.

Last year’s team found themselves at 79 points through 65 games, tied with Minnesota. This year’s squad is at 71 points, one ahead of Minnesota. We all know what happened last year, but that’s history written. The Stars, fair or not, are still sitting above the bubble after this year’s rough patches.

It’s never what brought you here, but what you’re going to do about it now. Jamie Benn, for one, seems to have made up his mind. If the team keeps following that lead, it’s going to be a fascinating 17 final games. One game at a time is a platitude, as most sports answers tend to be in the locker room. But life is only lived one moment, one decision at a time. We love watching the immediate consequences offered by sports, even as we live lives with less obvious implications for the decisions we make each day. Life will change for all of us over the final month of the season, but it will keep changing after that, too. For Dallas, the biggest question of year is going to be answered, and the Stars have the privilege of deciding what that answer is going to be. Should be fun.