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Game 49 Afterwords: If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Benn and Benn

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(and Gurianov)

Tampa Bay Lightning v Dallas Stars Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The gentle rain can smooth the jagged stone

Things work out when they are left alone

And maybe that’s the key

***

Well, it’s official: the Stars are the best team in the NHL.

Oh sure, you might quibble based on such newfangled analytics as their “record,” or perhaps the fact that their shooting percentage is creeping closer and closer to their “goals per game” number. But whatever. Haters gonna be all pedantic, as the catchy phrase tells us.

After all, we know what the best teams really do. They find ways to win. They occasionally lose some really ugly games to not-great teams like Florida or Buffalo or Minnesota. They squander about 45 breakaways. They don’t score into empty nets, and then they blow hard-fought leads late after sitting young goal-scorers in favor of aging veterans who can’t keep up with a determined attack. They send checking-line forwards out in 3-on-3.

And then they win.

I mean, the Stars have now swept their season series against both Colorado and Tampa Bay, two of the best teams in the league. Fixate on the process all you want, buster. Around here, we’re all about getting the job done. Eventually.

***

In all seriousness, last night’s win was a pretty solid effort, no doubt about it. Ben Bishop made some enormous saves—I think his first stop on Brayden Point early (though Point did sort of shoot it at the perfect height for such a stop) was one of the deciding factors in this game—and the Stars capitalized on enough of Tampa Bay’s Cavalcade of Whoopsadoodles to earn two points after a really concerning slide heading into their bye week and the All-Star break.

Watching the game at the AAC last night, it felt like Tampa Bay was *this close* to connecting on more than one dead-to-rights chance. But Bishop had a couple huge stops, and Tampa bobbled a few more pucks (or shot wide), and the Stars didn’t give them many more chances to redeem those misses.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, clearly took a look at the Stars’ offense and treated it with all the deference due a heavily sedated koala.

Blake Comeau, Mattias Janmark, Joe Pavelski, Denis Gurianov, Jamie Benn (three), Jamie Oleksiak, and I think one or two other players had clear-cut breakaways or 2-on-1s (or both). Oleksiak, in fact, had a 3-on-1. There is a reason, in other words, that pretty much the either Tampa locker room said after the game that they were giving away too many chances.

That said, Tampa’s penalty kill did everything their even-strength play left to be desired (outside of their fantastic push in the first period when the Stars could easily have fallen behind 2-0). The Stars’ power play was ineffective, discombobulated, and more bedraggled as the night wore on. One or two fewer saves from Bishop, and they’re out there talking about how the power play cost them a game they should have won, or about how they have to capitalize on more of their grade-A chances.

Instead, we get the luxury of celebrating a win with Stephen Johns, who was greeted with a noticeable cheer when he started his first shift, then by a large one after play stopped and they showed him on the video board. Interestingly, Johns started the night paired with Jamie Oleksiak, but Dallas ended up moving Johns up with Heiskanen and Polák to Lindell’s side as a sort of shutdown pairing against the Point-Kucherov-Stamkos trio.

Johns played only 14 minutes, but that’s sort of what happens when you don’t play special teams (yet). In fact, let’s just make this as clear as possible: Rick Bowness is a Big Fan of Penalty Kill Specialization, as are most coaches in this league. That showed up in a big way last night, when Esa Lindell and Roman Polák played 5:49 of the 6:29 minutes of penalty kill. Oleksiak and Johns were largely just 5v5 guys, although that didnt stop both of them from having some Moments of their own.

Bowness can talk about how he’s going to rotate the eight defensemen all he wants, but I think it’s more than safe to say that what we saw Monday night is the Stars’ putative playoff lineup, assuming Cogliano and Hintz recover. They believe in size, resumes, and vanquishing the demons of playoffs past. Time will tell whether selling their offensive soul was a fair price toward that end.

***

Jason Spezza scored his seventh goal of the season last night. Toronto has its own problems—boy, do they—but it’s hard not to root for Spezza to have a nice year, given how Mike Babcock treated him before the coaching change. He’s an easy guy to root for.

Joe Pavelski is another rootable guy, and he has one more goal than Spezza. They are very different players, absolutely, and I would prefer Pavelski over Spezza in my lineup every time these days. However, given how much vitriol I read and heard last year about Spezza’s production for his $7.5 million salary, it’s a bit weird to me that, on a team even more in need of goals than last year’s, Pavelski hasn’t garnered anywhere near the same amount of ire from fans. To be clear, I’m glad for that. Pavelski is just one year younger than Spezza, meaning that he is the same age now that Spezza was last year (saved you the math there, you’re welcome). He he making ten times what Spezza is this year—literally, ten times as much—and yet there seems to be a lot more patience within the fanbase for his scoring slump. I suppose when the entire team (outside of Gurianov and Hintz) is having a scoring slump, it’s easier to forgive the individuals.

And in the category of Veterans Who Are Doing Things Other Than Scoring, Corey Perry is really doing his best to test the forbearance of Player Safety, with two pretty blatant goaltender interference penalties in the two games succeeding his suspension.

I give coaches a lot of leeway, or at least I try to, when it comes to roster decisions. But with Andrej Sekera getting his first healthy press pass of the season, you wonder if the day would come when they’d do the same with Perry, he currently tied in goals with Justin Dowling. I think I know the answer, though.

***

Anyway, back to the game. The overtime forwards were sent out in pairs as Comeau/Faksa, Dickinson/Radulov, and Seguin/Benn, which is Some Kind of Statement, I suppose. Jason Dickinson was having a fantastic night, absolutely, but it seems noteworthy that Joe Pavelski (let alone Denis Gurianov) wasn’t in the rotation. The Stars for three years now have tended to operate like a team that expects to win, just so long as they do everything possible not to lose. That’s a hell of a way go about your business, and I mean that in an experiential sense. If you watched the St. Louis series last year, you know all about “matchups” and “check for chances” and so forth. At the end of the day, you have to lead with your best players. And while Rick Bowness has given significantly increased ice time to Dickinson, Faksa, and Comeau, I really don’t think any GM (including Nill) wants those players to be the ones with the game on their sticks. Playing not to lose is very different indeed from playing to win. Just because you’re a bit more insulated from the immediate risk of losing doesn’t mean your chances of winning are necessarily better. It just feels less traumatizing.

Speaking of trauma, best wishes to whatever ailed Roope Hintz after his first shift of the game. I didn’t see much on his shift that gives a definitive clue, so perhaps there’s a lingering injury he was hoping to have healed over the break that flared back up. I do not know. But even tougher to watch was Cogliano trying to go after getting his knee run into by Blake Comeau. No idea if it’s an MCL or not, but that would make sense, given the impact and subsequent “is my leg asleep” efforts by Cogliano to get off the ice.

But you know what does feel good? Denis Gurianov, torching his man for a game-tying goal. Or Jamie Benn, using his powerful play and deft dekes to steal a puck out of the air, then to beat the reigning Vezina winner to win the game.

Benn had a chance earlier in the game where he was cutting into the slot, only to lose his balance a bit, much to the chagrin of the crowd. That made his third-period goal that much more satisfying, and his game-winner altogether glorious. This was Jamie Benn, Knowing What To Do With Breakaways.

Denis Gurianov also knew what to do—all three Stars goals were scored along the ice—and I wonder if last night was a case of the Stars sensing a weakness in a lethargic Bolts team and pouncing on it. Yes, Vasilevskiy was on a ten-game winning streak (his last loss was also against Dallas, back when Anton Khudobin stole the show in December), but the Stars got some fantastic goaltending from Bishop—who could hardly be blamed for either goal—and it turns out that giving a team like 10 odd-man rushes usually makes it tough to win. Even when that team is Dallas.

We can shake our heads with a bemused sigh at the fact that Gurianov didn’t see the ice after 7:30 in the third period, but to see the Stars slay a resurgent giant on the stick of their captain was some kind of wonderful satisfaction. Though I do feel for Tyler Seguin, one of the many members of the Almost As Many Goals As Gurianov club (AAMGAG) who Very Clearly was ready for a pass that never came when Benn put his head down and left Vasilevskiy looking for his trousers back on the other side of the crease.

Can these Stars win a Cup? Yeah, sure. A lot of teams can. But games like these give you plenty of reason to hope precisely because they contained so many of the elements that have been fostering doubt, too. This is a recipe for success in the same sense in which your buzzed roommate’s decision to pour some of his Shiner on top of the pulled pork was a culinary prerogative. This can work, absolutely. But two overtime wins against Tampa Bay were so very close from being something else altogether. You’ll pardon the skeptics among us for not excluding the more dour possibilities latent within the team’s downward analytical trends, given how their last playoff series against a great team went.

But then again, who knows? None of us, really. If the top guys can manage to manufacture some extra goals at key times, then the Stars are absolutely a team that can hang in almost in game, waiting for their opportunity. And last night showed they’re also capable of hanging another team on its own petard. Eventually.