First time was a great time
Second time was a blast
Third time I fell in love
Now I hope it lasts
The last time I was in Dallas, the Stars got utterly demoralized by the Hurricanes without Alex Radulov in the lineup, that time due to illness. It was a paltry effort by Dallas, and the home crowd had nothing to get fired up about. It was clear that Dallas needed help on offense, and it was clearer that the home crowd was aware of this. There were boos, and plenty of them. It was hard to disagree with the sentiment.
The next day in Chicago, Mats Zuccarello arrived and Radulov returned, and things were great, for a minute. Then they weren’t, the deadline passed, and the Stars were left holding the bag. And even in the recent run, it was tough to feel confident about the Stars’ offense, particularly against a Colorado team that had repeatedly cranked things up when they needed to and broken Dallas hearts in the final frame.
So, yeah, this win was pretty nice. After going through most of the season without a hat trick, the Stars have now racked up two in three games. That would be pretty fun as a main story, but then you add the two-game shutout streak Ben Bishop has put up, and the positive vibes are just about to knock down the front door. The Stars’ playoff odds are at 90%, and that’s (to my memory) higher than they ever got last season before the meltdown.
There’s still time left for heartbreak—sorry—but it’s hard not to like where the Stars find themselves right now. With 15 games remaining, the Stars are one point (and a game in hand) up on Minnesota. They’re in the catbird seat as far as bubble teams go, and the majority of their remaining games are against teams outside of the playoff picture. The goaltending is strong as ever, and some young players have started contributing at the perfect time, Roope Hintz not least among them.
It’s still a bit rich to say anything that confident about the Stars’ playoff chances given the last couple years. But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a four-game winning streak. In fact, I’m more likely to say there is something wrong with not enjoying it. It’s a game, ya nimrod.
Razor sounded like he was under the weather last night, but credit to him for still calling a great game. I’ve really enjoyed listening to Josh Bogorad’s play-calling develop as the year has gone on, but sometimes I think we forget how much easier it is for a new broadcast duo to gel when the team is doing well. Last night’s game was a fun one, and the guys in the booth made it even moreso. Can’t say fairer than that.
One thing the broadcast pointed out from the opening faceoff onward was the hard matchup by Jim Montgomery of the Benn-Comeau-Dickinson line against the Avalanche’s nuclear threat of MacKinnon-Landeskog-Rantanen.
You don’t want to make too much of one game, but it’s tough not to say that Jason Dickinson has arrived. He centered a checking line against maybe the best line in hockey, and came away without a bloody nose, which is accomplishment for anyone, but especially Dickinson, whose face tends to be a target at the best of times. In fact, not only did the Dickinson line hold their own at evens; they also scored a goal. That sounds an awful lot like a second line, to me.
Dickinson, you remember, had a chance alone on Varlamov at the end of the first period, but his shot couldn’t beat the Avs’ goaltender. What I loved about the Jamie Benn goal later in the game was how Dickinson started the play by carrying the puck right into the guts of the offensive zone, attempting a shot, and then muscling his way down to retrieve the blocked shot, holding off the defender and feeding Benn perfectly for the goal. There was no “safe play” mindset by Dickinson there, no resigned dump-in or curl back to hold onto the puck while allowing the Avalanche to set up a better defensive structure. Dickinson was looking to score, and he forced the issue, which led to a coverage breakdown by Colorado. And when you’re on a line with Jamie Benn, that’s the sort of mindset you need to have in the offensive zone. As Ryan Stimson says in Tape to Space, which you should totally read, the best sort of forecheck (and I’m paraphrasing) is forcing the other team to make a lot of difficult decisions quickly.
As good as Radek Faksa has been in the past, he’s had trouble this year forcing things at both ends of the ice. There could be a lot of reasons for that, but it’s hard not to consider what the Stars might have to gain by exploring a trade in the offseason. They don’t have a ton of valuable assets, but a GM needs to sell high sometimes, you know? Faksa is going to be a solid NHLer for a while, no question. But if Dallas can improve the team by moving him, it sure looks like they have a solution in-house. (It’s also shame they didn’t give Dickinson this chance last year, but then again, I wonder if his usage was a big part of why Nill and company moved on to Jim Montgomery. But I digress.)
Dickinson also led the charge physically, which was a lot of fun:
Nathan MacKinnon had a nice reversal hit on Roman Polák in this one, and the big defender never quite got a chance to return the favor on the Avs’ center, as MacKinnon’s elite speed and edgework just makes him a tough guy to hit most of the time, particularly if you’re not that fast a skater. But the Stars clearly had a gameplan to body up on his line all game long, and Dickinson’s hit on Mikko Rantanen started maybe the most fun sequence of the game. There is more value, I often think, in being able to be physical in opportunistic moments than in looking to be physical all the time and forcing hits that don’t do anything, like fourth-liners used to do in the NHL (and still do on some teams).
Polák also had a bit of misfortune when his stick got caught in the penalty box door, clotheslining himself a bit. The Stars survived the sequence, thankfully, as they did all game, in every sequence. I appreciated Montgomery’s pointing out Miro Heiskanen’s slick play at the blue line to relieve pressure after an intense shift by Colorado.
Miro Heiskanen was at the end of 2:14 shift here. Jim Montgomery: “The move that Miro makes to gain the red line, I broke my ankle behind the bench so the guy that he went around had to break an ankle.” pic.twitter.com/X9LhghDMT8— Matthew DeFranks (@MDeFranks) March 8, 2019
Heiskanen has looked less flashy in the second half of the season, but that doesn’t mean he still hasn’t been a massive boon to the Stars’ fortunes, just the same. Heiskanen’s worst game is still second-pair ready from night to night. The floor of an elite prospect’s game is sometimes just as impressive, on a different emotional level, than the ceiling.
Speaking of the floor, Blake Comeau and Roman Polák continued their recent trends of leading a Charlotte’s Web-style parade to the penalty box, and the Stars as a team continued struggling to draw penalties at all, with Roope Hintz earning the only Dallas chance of the night. Maybe that was a good thing, as the Stars struggled to regain their chemistry on the power play with Radulov’s return. Dallas had trouble getting set up, as they switched up their entries to avoid the drop pass. Maybe this was some strategery to counteract a Colorado gameplan, but in my opinion, you might want to begin your power play gameplan by icing a power play with your best power play setup guy on the top unit. Jason Spezza has 3.1 primary assists per minute on the power play, easily leading Seguin (2nd at 2.3) and Radulov (1.8). This is where I think data can really serve an NHL team—net-front presence and everything is great, but Spezza and Klingberg are excellent at helping the power play gain the zone and generate shots and goals. This is the idea, no? Ah, well.
But we can’t forget about Ben Bishop, who kept this game level despite a lot of great Colorado chances in the first half of the game before things really turned for Dallas. Bishop stopped Kerfoot on a 2-on-1 after Klingberg had trouble with a puck off the boards, and he had a few other solid saves that really seemed to settle Dallas down, for the most part. It would have been a shame for his shutout bid to get ruined at the end, but thank goodness for Esa Lindell’s giant legs.
Bishop and Gabriel Landeskog battled in this one, with Bishop stopping Landeskog’s deke in alone after a broken play where Lovejoy and Ritchie both took the same Avalanche player to the corner and left the net-front undefended, which burned them after a blocked shot sent the puck right to Landeskog on the doorstep. It was a great pad save by Bishop, who has long legs and uses them. Bishop would further frustrate Landeskog when he casually backed into the Avs’ captain along the boards as he passed a puck along the other side, which caused a heavier-than-expected collision that led to Landeskog’s exit from the game.
The second period really was where things turned, I think. John Klingberg had a nice play to break up a shot on a partial breakaway by Wilson, then he got a chance at the other end as the trailer, but he was stopped. Then came that series of big hits by Dickinson (on Rantanen), Lindell (on MacKinnon) and Benn (on Cole) really got the crowd going, though not as much as Jim Montgomery said he thought it was have done in the postgame scrum. Nonetheless, that shift was key, as it led to an icing by Colorado, after which the Stars got their top line out there. Then Alex Radulov sizzled a long wrist shot in off the pipe that got Varlamov looking at his blocker with befuddlement, and the Stars began pulling away. Probably that shot should be stopped, but I think Radulov just found the perfect spot, and Varlamov was just slightly off his angle. Elite players score goals they shouldn’t, sometimes.
Radulov’s first goal came off a slick play by Jason Spezza on the boards and slicker pass by Benn to whip the puck right to the net, where Radulov elevated the puck far-side like he was falling out of bed ahead of schedule. Radulov’s second goals was off a turnover to Tyler Seguin and a wonderful shot of his own. Radulov’s hat trick goal was just good, hard work in the defensive zone coupled with his elite poise to beat his man and get up the ice.
I said earlier this week that Radulov let his team down, and that’s true enough. But Radulov managed to both redeem himself and to remind the Stars why his absence was so painful in one fell swoop. Or maybe three fell swoops, if swoops can fell in threes. I’m not sure, actually. If they can, though, Radulov would be the one to do it.
I’m not sure there’s a better way to develop a player like Roope Hintz than by playing him with Radulov and Seguin. Hintz’s speed saw him turning the corner with the puck twice for great scoring chances, and he has generally looked Ready Like Spaghetti for a good chunk of games. There are obviously only so many spots with the best players available, but moving Jamie Benn down to the second line in order to add speed to Seguin and Radulov’s line is working exceptionally well. I’m always in favor of showing the kids what they can be at their best instead of making them afraid of what might happen in a worst-case scenario. Hintz is really looking like the Stars’ best forward prospect in the last [too many] drafts. He’s a great development story so far, and if the Stars have patience with him, there’s no reason they can’t turn themselves into a multi-line scoring threat when Zuccarello returns around the end of the month (we hope). If you’ve got a good thing going, ride the heck outta that wave. The goaltending is cresting now, and the playoff window is open wider than it’s been in maybe three years. Jam yourselves through it and breathe the air.
As Radulov said after the game: we’re all human. The Stars have been a little too human for a few seasons, but they’ve also been superb enough to win four games in a rough during a critical stretch. Every team around Dallas has won six or more of its last ten games. This streak hasn’t locked anything down, but it’s kept Dallas on top of the wave. It’s fun to be positive about something, even if that something is that you’re positive you don’t want to get scratched again. Motivation is motivation, and even player well into their thirties still need things to get excited about. If overcoming adversity brings people together, then this team could be getting tighter by the minute. I’ll take more hugs any day.