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Game 47 Afterwords: Well, That’s Not Good

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How quickly the good vibes from a winning streak can disappear when they’re built on the sands of special teams

Buffalo Sabres v Dallas Stars Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

The tambourine player in this piece (about 1:05) is my favorite tambourine player.

***

It can feel like ingratitude, bemoaning a loss or two after a six-game winning streak. Especially might it feel that way looking at these last two losses, both of which effectively came by just one goal (putting aside the empty-netters).

Dallas made a cameo at the AAC last night, and one would’ve appreciated the opportunity to enjoy the team’s play in person for one of the few opportunities in January. But sadly, as you well know, that is not what transpired last night.

Instead, the Stars continued to struggle to manufacture goal-scoring, getting some decent chances, but overall having to watch the superior goaltending at their end go for naught. It’s great when your team is stingy, as that is a very vital part of being able to win hockey games. Very! However, I am reliably informed that one is not awarded a goal for every 50 saves a goaltender makes. This is perhaps a flaw in the rule book, but a fairly longstanding one at that.

The Stars had good, even great stretches last night. The second period in particular looked like a good team against a messy team, and yet Dallas finished yet another great period with barely anything to show for it in the goals column. In fact, they technically finished that great second period with nothing to show for it, thanks to a late Rasmus Dahlin goal that took back any growing good vibes.

By the way, Dahlin played third-pairing minutes last night. due in part to Buffalo’s 11F/7D arrangement, but not entirely. Dahlin has become a sort of Jack Johnson type this season, and I can’t quite figure out why. Much as the Heiskanen/Dahlin thing hits a nerve for Stars fans (who justifiably resent the absurd Calder voting last year), Dahlin is a legitimately elite player, or at least he should be. Hard to figure out what’s going on in Buffalo, as always.

But back to this game: Dallas didn’t really deserve to win, except perhaps in the sense that they are a better team than Buffalo. But you do have to play like a better team, and Dallas looked just as sloppy as Buffalo at times last night, forcing Ben Bishop (who was spelling an ill Anton Khudobin) to make a few saves the team had no business asking him to make.

You really can’t fault Bishop for either goal he gave up, either. The Dahlin chance was a nice shot through a screen—the Stars tried for a few of those, but never quite managed to thread them through—and the Vesey goal came after a combination of a puck hopping over Cogliano’s stick and a beautiful pass that left Bishop understandably helpless as his team looked on in shame:

Still, Dallas had their chances, almost in spite of themselves. Going 0-for-4 on the power play happens all the time, but considering how red-hot Dallas has been up a man lately, that one stung a bit extra.

You need to win games in different ways, though. Holding teams to two or fewer goals almost every night this decade is a fantastic accomplishment, but not if you turn yourself into just as neutered a team as the ones you play. Goaltending and special teams are crucial areas of the game, and Derek Laxdal appears to have made some meaningful and effective adjustments in that area. But on nights like Thursday in Dallas, you are reminded that this team really is just as offensively fragile as they looked in games six and seven against St. Louis last spring. Dallas didn’t have their legs, Buffalo sort of had their number when they needed to, and that was pretty much it.

Oh sure, there were bad breaks. Miro Heiskanen’s injury was and could well continue to be devastating, although one could be cautiously optimistic that he’ll be more or less all right after the long break and All-Star hiatus, unless we’re talking about a concussion.

That was, perhaps obviously, the biggest problem for Dallas. No other defenseman outside of Klingberg is capable of moving the puck effectively, and the Stars’ breakouts were largely garbage for most of the night. A lot of that is a credit to Buffalo, who saw the Stars’ weakness and either jumped their breakouts and created chances, or simply forced the Stars to give up the puck in the neutral zone (whether by turnover or dump-in) after all five players came back to help with the breakout. The Stars’ forecheck, as a result, looked pretty much listless for the third period. Sure, there was some fatigue and give-up in there, but it’s hard to get on top of the puck at the other end when you’re constantly buried in your own.

There were some other rough moments that were less the Stars’ fault, perhaps the most noticeable of which was a very solid, very veteran official in Dan O’Halloran calling Esa Lindell for high-sticking on a play that was quite plainly a follow-through of a shot, not to mention a stick that never touched anything above the collar bone.

But Dallas’s vaunted penalty kill got them through that (even without Mattias Janmark and Radek Faksa in the lineup), and the Stars drew four power plays of their own. Really, they had every chance to make their own breaks in this one, but they ended up breaking down instead.

In fact, the Stars’ only goal was a missed shot by Heiskanen during that stretch, but one that fortunately bounced right to Jamie Benn, who did not miss. And by the way, how about Jamie Benn, who just passed Tyler Seguin and Denis Gurianov in goals this season? How about that? Sure, maybe you’d say that Seguin is on pace to score a somewhat-less-than-blistering 19.6 goals this year. but I would counter that by saying that Denis Gurianov is playing fourth-line minutes, and here he is, scoring just as many goals as the Stars’ All-Star centerman! That would be good, if you didn’t know the numbers. Instead, it is something else.

About those minutes, by the way:

Jason Dickinson’s ice time has been trending up, even if you don’t count his replacing Radek Faksa last night. In a vacuum, that would be pretty cool to see. Dickinson is one of those players that’s been easy to root for his whole career, and his play to start the year looked like it was right on the cusp of jumping to a new level, much like Hintz did last year. So, credit where it’s due: Rick Bowness has trusted Dickinson, and he’s gotten more ice time. You like to see that.

On the other hand, we can’t not talk about Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov, who seem stuck in a perceived box since the coaching turnover. Neither was benched in this one, unlike the last defeat, but neither was really trusted to do more than take a turn, either. Again, I have a hard time understanding how you play a line with Dickinson, Cogliano, and Comeau so much in a game the Stars never led for a moment.

Actually, wait, that’s not true. I understand it precisely, I think. Coaches like to see lines do the things they expect of them, and that CDC (née FCC) line generally did. The problem is that asking a line to do less offensively oriented things is a low-risk request. So, so many players are capable of playing a shift or ten without giving up a goal. Goals are hard to score! Even goal-scoring chances are fairly rare, so if you proclaim a line’s job to be one of shutting down the other side, they’re usually going to succeed.

On the other hand, young players know what happens to their ice time if they don’t score. There are only so many spots in the lineup after the top line, the checking line, and the veterans are handed their spots. If you want to stay in the lineup, looking “invisible” is the worst thing you can possibly do, outside of score into your own net. And besides, Hintz and Gurianov are really good at scoring goals. Hintz has literally been the best goal-scorer on the team this season (not to mention looking like the best forward overall earlier in the year), but his icetime allocation shows that the coaching staff believes that talent to be more of a fluke than a guarantee.

To put it bluntly: the coaches seem to prefer Hintz and Gurianov being allowed to ply their trade more sparingly than players who score far less often, because they perceive them as riskier players (or, perhaps, as players who might be somehow more effective with less ice time). It’s been the big discussion on this board for a while, and I expect it will continue to be. When your team doesn’t score goals like, at all, people are going to have very strong opinions about why that is, and whether it is fixable. Personally, I don’t know the answer. Sure, you can give another three shifts to Hintz or Gurianov, but if Gurianov has an off night (as he undoubtedly did against San Jose), then you’re going to have a tough time sorting things out.

That said, when Joel Kiviranta is being given Gurianov’s top-six spot because the AHL call-up plays hard and makes good reads on the PK at times, you have to question whether this team is going to look any different from the impotent offensive crew that lost against St. Louis. Again, Denis Gurianov has kept pace with Tyler Seguin’s goal-scoring this year through 47 games—even outpaced it, since he’s played five fewer games!—and the team still doesn’t trust him in a top-six role when the chips are down. That’s a coach’s prerogative, all things being equal. But when you’re 30th in 5v5 goal-scoring under the current staff, it’s really hard for me to justify that approach. Shouldn’t it be up to the coaches to sharpen those weapons instead of sheathing them, given how eminently needed they are?

The Stars are choosing to lose the shot battle most nights in favor of quality. That’s fine, if your cumulative quality results in more goals than the other team’s cumulative shots. Unfortunately, the Stars are actually slightly underwater (49.5% in 5v5 xG% per game), and so it is that one bad bounce and another screen shot can be plenty to beat a team that not only continues not to score, but seems to embrace not doing so. By the way, teams tend to get fewer power plays in the playoffs, too. So, as great as it is to see the power play getting healthy lately—and make no mistake, it is great—I’m really beginning to get nervous that the Stars’ approach in the playoffs is going to prioritize size and trench warfare. That’s a volatile game at the best of times, but even moreso when your few goal-scorers are either not scoring, or are not trusted to try.

But hey, there’s always hope for young players, even as they grow less young. Val Nichushkin is tied with Joe Pavelski in goal-scoring this year, after all. Anything can happen! Unfortunately, it sometimes does.