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Game 44 Afterwords: Triple Threat in Orange County (and a Winter Classic Lament for Creativity)

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Six in a row, again

Dallas Stars v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

[Warning: this song has some cuss swears, so don’t like, hold up a boombox blasting it outside your boss’s office or anything]

And I can’t wait to be your number - your number one

I’ll be your biggest fan and you’ll be mine

But I still wanna break your heart and make you cry

***

When things have been bad for this team, they’ve been bad. The Dallas Stars who stumbled into the Christmas break looked like a team trying to solve the equation [Hockey+2019=?] by smearing peanut butter over a broken protractor. Not to mention the beginning of the season, of course, when the Stars looked like a team that couldn’t even find their desk in the classroom.

But it’s amazing what some easier competition can do for you, eh? The Stars are now on their second six-game ride of the season, and if you’d just watched the last three games, you could be forgiven for saying this team clearly has it all figured out.

A cold bucket of water, if I may: The Stars’ power play has seven goals in its last six games (all victories, just as a reminder). In fact, the only team they haven’t scored a power play goal against during this winning streak is Arizona.

Still, as there so often is, there’s a reason for that. Colorado, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Nashville all have penalty kills ranking 21st or worse. Arizona’s, meanwhile, is 4th in the NHL. So, yes, the Stars’ power play isn’t actively unscrewing lug nuts from its own chassis or anything as they looked to be earlier this year, but I’m not quite ready to pronounce their man-advantage a deathless wonder. It ranks 15th in conversion, which looks much better alongside a 5th-ranked penalty kill, but recent history has improved it a good deal.

That same principle holds true for their opponents in general, too. The only victory in which Dallas needed more than 60 minutes to get things done came against Colorado, by far the best of the bunch. And the only other team of that group who ranks around top-10 in the league would be Arizona, against whom the Stars needed some late heroics from a vindictive Jamie Benn and company to pull things out.

Still, no matter how bad the opponent, your side has to execute, and the Stars have been doing that, even without John Klingberg in the lineup for a bit here. You can only win the games you play, and Dallas have done that. Handily, too, at least lately.

These two games had a fair amount of similarities. The Stars’ power play was a big factor in both games, scoring three of their five goals in total. The goaltenders were extremely steady while not facing too many Grade A chances. And both games had a good bit of “run out the clock” sort of grind to them at times, which is a lot more tolerable when Dallas is the one doing the running.

In Anaheim, the Stars looked a bit slow (or the Ducks a bit fast) for the first part of the contest. I wondered briefly in the first period if the Stars’ getting the lead instead of falling behind (for once) could actually hurt them, as they’ve tended to look better when forced to play more aggressively to erase a deficit, which is to say when there are score effects.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried, because the Ducks either failed to hit the net—Ryan Getzlaf’s puck off the post was the most dangerous thing Bishop probably saw, or didn’t see—or the Stars were just tramping down their nascent dreams of transition hockey with ruthless persistence. Roope Hintz’s empty netter was a great metaphor, as the Ducks couldn’t even get out of their zone without making a critical error. Dallas still doesn’t feel like a dominant team in the Tampa Bay sense, but they are certainly looking more like an elite team when it comes to results. I am reliably informed that wins are the thing. The Stars are not at their best, unless you think a team led by a scorer on a 63-point pace is as good as they can be. But they are doing quite well.

But to be elite, to avoid stumbling in trap games or even against weaker opponents, you need depth. Enter Denis Gurianov, and on the power play, no less!

Again, as much as we can chide each other for ignoring strength of schedule, scoring power play goals is never an easy task in this league. Yes, the highway traffic was bright green when Roope Hintz passed through the box to setup Gurianov’s one-timer, but execution is never a given. If Gurianov can keep finding methods of scoring that aren’t wholly rush-based, then his recent uptick of ice time (such as it is) should only continue.

The thing about forwards and their ice time (for Gurianov and everyone else) under Rick Bowness is this: it’s gotten a lot more egalitarian. Yes, Radek Faksa is averaging slightly more ice time than Alex Radulov lately, but only by one or two shifts, at most. As much as I might still prefer to see the Stars’ top scorers getting commensurate time in which to score, it’s not like players are being scratched for negative-value guys. Up front, at least.

Oh, and even if Gurianov does continue to do the majority of his scoring this year off the rush, I’ll never complain if he keeps innovating with moves like that between-the-legs bit that almost beat Gibson. Imagine if Mattias Janmark started trying that sort of trickery on his (rather plentiful) rush chances? Entertainment, surely. More goals...perhaps.

Entertainment also, sadly, tends to include Jason Dickinson getting whacked in the face these days. This time it was his own player, but Roman Polák’s stick was motivated by Max Jones, and that drew a faulty call that Dallas capitalized on. It happens, you know.

Radulov’s goal on the power play was off a rush chance, but it was a unique one, absolutely. It reminded me a lot of 2014 or so, when Kari Lehtonen (himself no slouch at puck-handling) was doing a slightly riskier version of the Bish-Up to a slightly younger (and speeder) Tyler Seguin and company:

Radulov was in the perfect spot to finish the wraparound that Seguin knew he wouldn’t have time for by himself, and credit to Seguin for collecting his own rebound and thinking as quickly as he did to cash in on what could have been a lost opportunity. And hey, if that game stays 1-0 down the stretch, who knows what happens when the Ducks really start to lean on the Stars?

Probably the same thing, honestly. The Ducks are not very good, which is just a sad thing to come to terms with, as someone who used to go to a few games at Honda Center every year. It’s a unique sort of barn, with a much cozier feel than Staples or even the AAC. It’s fun to win games in a smaller-feeling place against a raucous crowd. Losing to the Ducks was perhaps the worst thing I experienced as a fan for a good 12-year stretch or so (especially a certain Game 5 in the 2014 playoffs), but that doesn’t look like it’s going to be much of a concern for a good little while yet.

Really, the Stars have the evidence of that on their roster. Andrew Cogliano was traded by the Ducks for Devin Shore with an eye to the future, not the present. (And, here’s something to ponder: both Shore and Cogliano are stuck on just two goals this season.)

Corey Perry is even more indicative of the Ducks’ state as a franchise. He was greeted warmly by the Samuelis and many of his old teammates, but the fact is that they reconciled themselves to what Perry was as a player at this point in his career, and they preferred the future flexibility to the bits of nostalgia his presence still afforded them. It’s hard to blame them.

By the way, if someone had told you that Perry and Cogliano had both been largely healthy this season and were separated by only one goal in January, would you have guessed they’d have only five between them?

Well, I dunno. Maybe you would have. Time is a real jerk sometimes.

***

A quick rant, if I may.

It was Country Night in Anaheim, and there was far more country music (some of it rather decent, in my opinion) during stoppages and intermissions than we ever heard at the Winter Classic during the actual game. This still sticks in my craw a bit, as the NHL chose this Winter Classic to begin bringing their own gameday presentation crew, originally with no plans to even include Jeff K until some later modifications incorporated him (we’ll call it the “Tailgaiting Bill of Rights”). But Michael Gruber (Grubes) was wholly absent, and thus we were given the incongruous experience of hearing every generic pump-up song from the last 30 years alongside mutton bustin’, trick roping, and longhorn-ridin’. I’m not sure what the NHL was afraid Grubes was going to do, but I do know that what we heard instead was the most banal, pointless assortment of songs (outside of “loooooow places!”) you could ever have imagined for such a spectacular event. It was, at the very least, a wasted opportunity.

This is about more than what filler music gets played, though. The frustrating thing about this, the more I think about it, is how absolutely hapless the NHL is when it comes to growing the game and taking risks, even when given such an easy opportunity to really let loose. The Winter Classic in Dallas was a smash hit, generating untold amounts of revenue from jerseys to tickets to concessions (for those who braved the lines) and so much more. Sure, not as many Chicago and New York “fans” tuned or whatever, but the event was everything the NHL could have hoped it would be: a celebration of hockey in a market that responded to the event with more enthusiasm than even the league’s most optimistic projections.

And yet, the NHL still thought they could present the game better than the very team whose president (Brad Alberts) had been championing the whole thing from the beginning. This is a market that has worked hard to cultivate its fan base in unique ways over the past couple of decades, often in spite of the ups and downs on and off the ice. For the NHL to cut most of the Stars’ gameday presentation crew out of the action was, and remains, an indictment of their lack of vision and their homogeneous way of envisioning the game. It’s the same reason we have Pierre McGuire doing the same mindless things seemingly every other playoff game. It’s the same reason we have a ridiculous trapezoidal Marty homage behind the net. It’s the same reason we have the loser point, or offside review, or arbitrary discipline by the DoPS. The league gets fixated on what seems to work enough to be getting on with, and then it shies away from even entertaining deviations from their norm. And they far too often end up hurting the league, and the fans, in the process. A Winter Classic in Dallas? Sure, okay, let’s do the fun little cutesy stuff, but also we need to have Our Guys come in and really make sure things don’t go off the rails.

You know what would have been really cool? If they had done the Winter Classic with the teams’ play-by-play announcers making guest appearances for 10 minutes, or even for a period. Have both teams’ color commentators in the booth. Bring everyone in, really just make it an abundance of Nashville/Dallas (Or Minnesota/St. Louis!) quidity instead of asking Doc and Edzo to get frostbite at ice level and do their best to wax poetic about the Cotton Bowl while trying to pick out players 200 feet away on teams they never cover during the rest of the year. Give the people who know best how to make the game sound interesting a chance to do so—over the loudspeakers and on the television.

In short: if you want people to get interested in hockey, you might need to stop being afraid that the game will look or sound slightly different than it does during Philadelphia’s 20th appearance on NBC.

Thank goodness hockey is a beautiful game.