Game 20 Afterwords: Feeling Positively Positive
Things are looking up, insofar as they are no longer looking down
The Stars are one point behind Winnipeg for 3rd in the Central with the same number of games played.
The Stars have only one regulation loss in their last 11 games, so I think it’s far to say they’ve shaken the ghosts of their dismal start. In fact, their current 9-1-1 run is their best run of results since the 17-4-0 (!!!) opening to the 2015-16 season. Not too shabby.
(On a personal note, the Stars’ one regulation loss in their last 11 games was the game my brother was in in town for, that pitiful 3-0 loss to the Penguins. Obviously I have contacted TSA and put him on the no-fly list. If he’s a true fan, he will understand.)
The Stars had some bad breaks early in the season to go with their bad play, and they’ve gotten some good breaks lately to go with their improved play. That tends to be the way it goes, as Justin Dowling can certainly attest.
Here was a player dozens of games into his unlikely NHL career who was looking like the victim of the press box and eventually the waiver wire, only to have his fortunes turn at the behest of whatever tide is sweeping up the Stars into the lands that lie north of .500. Two goals in two games, both of which were every bit as pretty as he could’ve asked for. We watch sports for the stories and the narratives, and it’s hard not to fall in love with a guy scoring his first NHL goal at 29 in front of a host of family and friends, as Dowling did in Calgary.
Things can change, you know? When the team is losing, we all just want to eat up analysis telling us why they are bad and why they will never win again unless they make the changes we so clearly see they need.
That goes both ways, though. The team is not going to win eight of ten the rest of the year, especially as the schedule gets a bit tougher (though never much tougher than it was to start the year, in terms of both competition and pace). That’s okay. When they inevitably drop a stinker at some point and get punished for it, we can remember that things are never as bad as they seem at their worst, and never as perfect as they seem when your team is hugging the Victory Green right out of each other.
I mean, Blake Comeau scored probably the prettiest goal of his Stars’ tenure after utterly deconstructing the underlying concept of Troy Stecher. This is a veteran checking forward who has struggled on breakaways since coming to Dallas, just a couple games returned to the lineup after a lengthy absence. This isn’t supposed to happen, but Comeau saw Stecher making some assumptions, and he made the sort of play that reminds you why NHL hockey players would all make you lose your mind if you saw them playing on a random hockey rink with no expectations. Blake Comeau is one of the very best hockey players in the world, relatively speaking. Jacob Markström can now confirm this fact if needed.
So Dowling and Comeau pitched in to give Anton Khudobin an enormous (for him) amount of goal support, just as you would expect. Just as the Stars have won other games on the backs of Denis Gurianov or Radek Faksa or Roope Hintz, so now were they out to a 2-0 lead thanks to two more unlikely offensive heroes.
But the Canucks are less hapless (hapmore?) than in the pre-Pettersson days, and when the Stars sagged a bit in the second, they pounced with some good fortune and good play. Troy Stecher redeemed himself a bit—always nice to see a third-pairing defenseman do that, if less nice when your team is playing against him—with a long-range goal through traffic, and Jake Virtanen also got to a rather poor rebound from Anton Khudobin, who between that and an ugly giveaway behind his net, has had better nights.
But still, you have to give some thanks (begrudgingly or no) for these Dallas Stars, for whom a rough night from their backup goaltender means two goals allowed on the second night of road trip back-to-backs, and a 4-2 victory. That’s a veritable cornucopia of two-in-two goodness, if you have any memory of what these Stars used to be like in these situations.
Anton Khudobin also had a really nice save on Brock Boeser down the stretch, as well as some other key stops to keep things well in-hand. Again, we use “rough night” as a relative term, these days. These are nice days.
Really, if we’re going to complain about the boring parts of Stars Hockey These Days©, we have no choice but to be grateful for beauty and excitement when it shows up. All four Stars goals last night were gorgeous. The power play still looks like it’s not getting enough sleep more often than not, but special teams is something you can tune up as the season goes on. And with the Stars’ 60% expected share of the goals against a potent offense, you can be grateful for the result while still hoping for improvement. Power plays can win you some games, which also means they can do the opposite. Best to get things sorted out before that starts to foul the air. I suspect John Klingberg’s return will be key to that, as he has more or less been the Stars’ power play until the funk that infected the first part of this year. I have hope.
Tyler Seguin can also hope now, as he scored a goal off a wonderful bit of passing from the best players on the team. It’s crazy that Seguin scored two goals in his first four games, only to need another 16 games to score his next two. It’s crazier that Seguin and Benn haven’t been scoring, that Klingberg hasn’t either (and has been hurt), and that the one forward who has been scoring all year has been out of the lineup lately...and that their recent record reflects absolutely none of that. Hockey has a lot of randomness baked in, and the Stars have found themselves standing on top of the hodgepodge pile to an absurd degree. Enjoy it, even if you also kind of have a feeling that you can only win games that way for so long. Seguin deserved the goal, and Miro Heiskanen set the table as well as you could ever ask. Even the elite players occasionally need other elite players to pull them out of a pit, and that passing sequence was one heck of a hefty rope.
For the record, I think Heiskanen bumped that puck to Seguin because he had no other choice. So, full marks for the decision, but also I think you have to recognize that Heiskanen didn’t really have any other good options there, as he probably gets closed down upon if he tries to get the puck into a shooting position. Just another instance of great awareness by a great player, who by the way had no business even being there—you may remember Razor saying something to the effect of “where did Heiskanen come from?!”—except for the fact that Heiskanen does what he wants, because it’s usually really, really good. Even with a couple of biffs last night, Miro Heiskanen was still outstanding, and his final touch on Seguin’s goal was the most crucial. Well, after the shot, I guess. Those are important, too.
That impact of that Seguin goal was really similar to Radulov’s goal late in the second period vs. Minnesota back in late October, if you recall. Going into the third period with a lead is enormously different than going in after losing a two-goal lead. Momentum or mindset or whatever, those late goals seem greater than the sum of their parts, and that goal was one the Stars never seemed to get in the first part of the season. Things change, often beautifully. We don’t always notice them while they are.
Josh and Razor mentioned on the broadcast that Jim Montgomery’s plan for Roman Polák in his return to the lineup was to limit his minutes, but are you really surprised he played 18+, a bit more than both Jamie Oleksiak and Taylor Fedun? This is a player that coaches love, and he looked a lot like Roman Polák last night. That’s why the Stars have him, and that’s why they will continue to have him playing those minutes.
Justin Dowling centering Seguin and Benn reminds me a fair bit of how Lindy Ruff used Cody Eakin, back in the day. When the elite players are clicking, it can seem frustrating to put a lower-six guy up with them, but when they’re not? Well, then you try everything until something works, and Justin Dowling sure seems to be working right now. The Stars’ metrics are pretty great in the small sample size of Dowling-Seguin-Benn, and Jamie Benn was one crossbar away from giving that line a goal apiece in Vancouver. Confidence is cumulative, and the storm clouds (the good kind) certainly do seem to be accumulating.
Speaking of Benn, I continue to hope for 20-25 goals from him this year, despite a quarter of the season already having elapsed. He’s hitting posts, and he’s been shooting more in the last couple of games. If his line continues to click, and if the power play can manage to generate actual chances again, I think you could see him get hot again. But the reality is that a lot of current Stars players are going to outscore Benn for the remainder of their mutual tenure in Dallas. I can reconcile myself to that if you can, I guess. Wins help.
Denis Gurianov might be one such player. He has found a way to bring joy into the lives of Stars fans despite a lot of doubt being sown before this year. But it was clear from day one that Jim Nill wanted him in the lineup consistently, and that has paid off. And if we get a hilarious fight with Jordie Benn out of the deal once or twice a year? Well, so much the better. I enjoy hilarity, absurdity, and camaraderie. Maybe Jordie can recommend a Dallas-area CVS with a short line for the cut on his knuckles Gurianov sustained during the bout.
In a lot of ways, it’s hard to understand why the team is winning when they were losing so easily before. Jim Montgomery responded to Mike Heika’s question about what changed (I’m paraphrasing) with basically a shrug of the shoulders. Coaches get a lot of flak when they can’t diagnose and cure what ails a losing team, so I suppose it’s only fair that we let them give a grin-and-shrug after inexplicable winning streaks, too.
Even so, it’s not wholly inexplicable. The Stars have gotten better goaltending since the early games, and their defense has been remarkably stout. They’re getting some fantastic depth scoring to cover up the holes at the top of their lineup, and that’s usually enough to get it done in small stretches.
I don’t think there’s any reason to rest on their laurels or anything, especially when the schedule toughens up again. They don’t have any sort of cushion to rest atop this hole they’ve dug themselves out of; they only have a lot of loose dirt, moved around more efficiently than before. That’s a great place to be when you were down in the ditch for nine games. Now it’s time to pour the foundation and really start looking like the team they were supposed to be. There’s going to be more rupture and repair in the process, but you celebrate the small victories en route to the big ones, and the Stars have undoubtedly found some things to celebrate, as of November 15th. If they can buttress themselves against the fickle winds of fortune with continue scoring from the top of the lineup as well as the middle (or the bottom), then the Winter Classic could be a whole lot more fun than we were expecting it to be three weeks ago. I’m glad.
At 5v5, the Stars are 3rd in the NHL in xGF% at 5v5. They are 5th in high-danger shot share. They have the 5th-best save percentage in the league. And their PDO is almost dead-even, thanks to the 7th-lowest shooting percentage in the league. These are things you are allowed to be pleased with. That doesn’t mean the 1-7-1 bomb wasn’t ever dropped, or that they didn’t try to dig their way out with a shovel full of holes. But it does mean the Stars have found their way out of the crater, and decisively so. This sure beats contemplating who gets fired first.
(Now, just score a little more, please. We’re asking nicely!)