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Afterwords: Great Goaltending Has Made the Stars a Playoff-Worthy Team

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The waiting is the hardest part. After the winning, that is.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Can’t decide if this is the worst best cover ever, or the best worst cover ever. Either way, I love it.

***

March was everything the Stars needed it to be. They went 9-4-2 to launch themselves from bubble team to playoff lock, and we’re now waiting to see not if, but how their playoffs will begin.

After last year’s March collapse, this is a breath of fresh air. Dallas got what they needed when they needed it, and the whole franchise is about to exhale as a result. The playoffs are coming back to Dallas, at last.

Ben Bishop is deservedly getting some Vezina buzz, although I suspect his injuries might have derailed that train at the last moment. Still, you know the stats.

Ben Bishop’s March 2019:

.969 Sv%

3 Shutouts

7-1-0 Record

That’s some kind of dominance right there. Bishop has been maybe the biggest reason for the Stars’ relative success this year, and you should be writing him a thank-you card right now (along with some get-well cards).

And yet, make no mistake: Anton Khudobin gave this team just as big a lift, albeit in a less dominant way.

Anton Khudobin’s March 2019:

.937 Sv%

15 Goals against in 8 Games Played

2-3-2 Record

Put it another way: Anton Khudobin never got more than two goals of support the entire month unless you count the collective shootout goal in Edmonton, and he still managed to get the Stars six points in his seven decisions. He also allowed just one goal in 33+ minutes when he relieved Ben Bishop in Minnesota, where the Stars won.

Excluding shootout goals, Khudobin allowed two or fewer goals in every game except the 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh while getting the paltriest of goal support. Think of it this way: if Khudobin drops another one or even both of those wins (or just doesn’t drag them to overtime twice in those two shootout losses), the Stars could easily be within the reach of Colorado, if not Arizona. Instead, Dallas is sitting at 99% to make the playoffs and a four-point lead on Colorado today, with three games remaining. They don’t have to rush anyone back from injury, as they did with Bishop last year. They can, in other words, take a breath.

****

It hasn’t just been the goalies (though it has primarily been the goalies). The Stars have been trending up as a team, and they generated a lot against Vancouver last night without much in the way of results. The Stars have still been a bit bumpy lately, but they’ve been bumpy on the right side of average when it comes to their overall play. And when you combine that with elite goaltending, you get a really great month of hockey, and a playoff berth. Almost.

That was basically the story in Vancouver, more or less. After an already-terrific three-win swing through the prairie provinces, the Stars squeezed one more point out of a Rogers Centre that befuddled them for two and a half periods.

The Stars’ third line really was quite good in this one, keeping the Boeser/Pettersson duo exceptionally quiet at evens. They also took three penalties, which is perhaps less ideal, but thankfully, the penalty kill was perfect. Anton Khudobin was perfect, after he wasn’t twice in the first period all the way until the eighth shooter in the skills competition. Cogliano’s goal was the capper for the line’s night, as he found twine (and earlier chipped the crossbar) where folks like Blake Comeau couldn’t on his shot off the rush in the first. The line did its job and chipped in, which is more or less what you will be asking of them in two weeks, when Mats Zuccarello should render the Stars’ top-six much more effective than they have largely been, to date.

Tim Schaller is going to request a trade to the Central Division next year, and who could blame him? He scored another weak goal on Khudobin that was eerily similar to his first, after confusion behind the net led to him emerging unchecked with the puck. Khudobin was a bit slow to recognize him and seal the post, and bam. Polák was shaking off a hard shot up high he had just taken, but I primarily I put the coverage issues on Radulov for coming down low to battle for the puck, then leaving midway through the battle before anyone exchanged with him, giving Schaller just enough time to get above the line and shovel it over Khudobin’s pad. Not pretty all the way around.

The second Canucks’ goal was equally grotesque. A Miro Heiskanen pass out of the zone found Radek Faksa, who failed to trap the puck in any sense, leading to a turnover. Sven Baertschi blew by Klingberg and then beat Khudobin where Granlund later would in the shootout, through the five-hole. It was a bad sequence by Faksa, though Klingberg looked worse in the end, as he was caught flat-footed and never really made an effort to recover, looking around incredulously like someone who expected to have another layer of defense behind him.

Klingberg, of course, would redeem himself a bit. He had a world-class move at the blue line to generate a scoring chance, but that was the good before the great, as he created a more fruitful scoring chance shortly afterwards on Radulov’s tying goal. It was a nice bit of fortune for Radulov, who was solidly robbed by Markstrom early in the game, when things looked like they were shaping up to be That Sort of Night.

Klingberg’s game was a bit of a reflection of Dallas’s. After the team looked dead-tired and irresponsible (though they also created chances throughout) for much of two periods, Dallas finally found their hunger just as Vancouver retreated into a shell. And eventually, the Stars’ (dare I say) relentless efforts finally found the net, as Andrew Cogliano’s tip-rebound-rebound effort showed. Khudobin was great to keep the game within two (as he has done all month, you’ll recall), with a slick stop on Ryan Spooner when the Stars needed it.

The sloppiness was rampant, though. Roope Hintz had a bad turnover to generate a chance, and so did Jason Spezza (though Baerstchi thankfully put that one off the post). Spezza can less afford such mistakes given his roster position right now, and he didn’t really have a fantastic night as a whole. Val Nichushkin was the best player on the fourth line, which is something like a backhanded compliment at this point. Still, Nichushkin drew another penalty, which is, for this hard-scoring team, about as much as you can ask for the fourth line on a given night. “Don’t get scored on and put us on the power play? Yeah, we’ll take that, boys.”

As they have done with a couple of overtime games recently, the Stars had a golden chance to win it in regulation as the third period died down. And, as they have done with a couple of overtime games recently, the Stars did not score. Tyler Seguin’s one-timer was almost painfully slow in developing, but he still had plenty of net to choose from. But Jacob Markstrom, as he does, found a way to stop it.

Markstrom’s game is worth admiration, even if it is the Stars were talking about. He has now stopped 82 of 86 shots by Dallas in the last 130 minutes of play, with 12 straight shootout stops to boot. If you’re rocking a .950+ Sv% and still having to slam the door in the shootout, you’re dragging your team to victory singlehandedly. It’ll be interesting to see how Vancouver handles his contract this summer, given he has only one season remaining and Thatcher Demko doesn’t exactly look like the next Eddie Lack. (Okay, bad example.) One would think they’d want to sign him first thing, but then again, this is Vancouver.

Quin Hughes looked like a player in his second NHL game, and he really could have won it in overtime with a nice against-the-grain shot with traffic, only to miss wide. It’s curious to me that Travis Green had Alex Edler playing like half the game when he had a weapon like Hughes to deploy in a meaningless (for Vancouver) game, but there’s no accounting for Vancouver.

The power play wasn’t magically fixed by Jason Spezza’s short presence on the second unit, looking so discombobulated at one point that Montgomery sent Fedun and Lovejoy over the boards with a good chunk of 5v4 time still remaining. That’s a message from the coach, but the Stars ended up 0-3 nonetheless.

We’ll see if talent alone can fix what ails them before the playoffs start. If the Stars are able to practice in the three or four days they’ll have off, one will hope they can really get their house in order. But one thing they will certainly not be practicing is the shootout.

If they do reach another shootout in this final stretch, though, I hereby petition to let Khudobin be the first to shoot. He’s earned that, at least. Maybe the Stars’ shooters have earned that, too.

The playoffs are coming.