Afterwords: Let The Good Times Roll

Are the Stars a “must see” team in the NHL? It’s certainly trending that way...

After crushing the Nashville Predators 4-1 in their season opener, the Dallas Stars held a rematch with them on Saturday. I was, sadly, unable to watch it due to attending a wedding [insert joke about hockey > family here], but I heard the rematch went ok.

So the Stars were 2-0, but with a disclaimer: both wins had come against the same team. And also “jet lag, yaddy yaddy ya,” but I think we’re all in agreement that doesn’t really count as an excuse. The point is, it’s one thing to start a season stunting on just one team — it’s another to do it regardless of the opponent.

Well that’s exactly happened last night in the American Airlines Center. After a rocky start put the Winnipeg Jets up 1-0, the first time Dallas has trailed this season, the Stars ended up putting on another offensive clinic, scoring four unanswered goals for the 4-1 win.

Once again, the Stars defeated a division rival. Once again, Jake Oettinger out-dueled one of the best goalies in the NHL. And once again, watching Stars hockey was fun.

Granted, the AAC is always electric, even when the team isn’t doing so hot. Last night was no exception, but something still seemed different. Was it was the lack of any boos for the team’s head coach? Perhaps all the young kids tirelessly chanting variations of “Let’s Go Stars” over and over and over again? Or maybe it was how few people left until the final minute of play, even when the game seemed more or less over and there was traffic to beat heading home?

I think all in all, Dallas has a recipe to repeat the magic of the 2016-17 season. That’s not to say they’ll end up the top seed in the Western Conference — though at this scoring pace, it’d be pretty easy — but rather they could very well become “must see” sports entertainment. They’ve already gotten the attention of national media, and it’s only a matter of time before Dallas bars and the AAC start getting flooded on game nights.

That, I think, excites me more than any final box score. The game of hockey is incredible, and the more eyes are on the Stars, the better it is for the sport. And not just from a local, “get more fans in a non-traditional market” perspective, but from a national one as well — Miro Heiskanen is a stud, Oettinger is on his way there, and Jason Robertson might arguably be one of the most marketable players in the NHL right now (that is, if the league had any idea how to market individual players).

Each of those players is enough to cause someone to tune into a Stars game. It’s up to the Stars to keep them watching, and so far, they’ve gotten full marks.

Before this snowballs into a “please like my team/sport” piece, let’s get back on track and break down some key plays from this game.

As I mentioned earlier, things got off to a bit of a rocky start. The Jets were outshooting Dallas by a decent margin, and capitalized early with the first goal of the game:

The shot itself from Mark Scheifele, of course, was fantastic. He just beat Oettinger, plain and simple. But what I find far more interesting was the setup by Kyle Connor. The Winnipeg winger turned on the jets (pun intended) to exit the defensive zone, forcing Ty Dellandrea to rush back to try and keep pace while Ryan Suter skated over to pick him up.

But then, Connor effortlessly slows to a near-stop, forcing Suter to do the same while Dellandrea keeps gliding towards the net. Scheifele instantly picks up on this slow down, doing the same and turning his body to await the one timer. Connor passes it over, Dellandrea by this point is far enough away that Scheifele can pick and choose his target, and we’re back to marveling at the beautiful shot.

I think it’s important to highlight this work by Connor for two reasons. One, he’s a freakishly good winger, one of the best in the league, and is thus a good study. And two, it helps show how good assists don’t necessarily have to be flashy — they just need to demonstrate good awareness and positioning of the puck.

To which Dellandrea then followed up with: “Why not both?”

With 26 games played two seasons ago, Ty Dellandrea is not technically a rookie. But for all intents and purposes he is, which makes this savvy, veteran move all the more impressive.

When the puck goes loose, Dellandrea doesn’t immediately pounce on it to maintain possession. Instead, he takes a quick peak to see where his teammates are, which is exactly when Tyler Seguin begins to break around Pierre-Luc Dubois. So once he gets to the puck, he knows Seguin will be in front of the goal — that’s the awareness. He then sends a perfect, no-look backhand right into Seguin’s stick — there’s the flashiness.

Poor Connor Hellebuyck didn’t even know Seguin was there — he glanced over at the same time as Dellandrea, but he didn’t catch the break (potentially because Dubois was in the way). So when the puck gets sent over, he simply tracks it rather than readying himself for a save. By the time he’s hitting the ice to try and stop the shot, the puck is already in the net.

That’s not a knock on Hellebuyck, by the way. You’d be hard pressed to find a goalie who could stop that, which is a testament to just how beautiful that pass by Dellandrea was. And, of course, partial credit goes to Seguin for getting open in the first place and finishing.

Besides some pretty passes, the other major takeaway from the game (and the season as a whole) has to be the vast improvement of the Stars’ transition game.

You may recall this soundbite from Roope Hintz following the Stars’ second win over Nashville:

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time online reading about Stars discourse knows how much fans hated the dump-and-chase system under Rick Bowness (who, by the way, was unfortunately unable to coach for Winnipeg last night due to testing positive for COVID-19). So the above quote was a breath of fresh air for many of them, even if it was rather blunt about the matter.

And it’s not just talk — only three games in, and it’s easy to notice the strategic shift. Just look at this entry from the Stars’ second line:

The puck is passed between four different Stars players in total, ultimately resulting in Seguin getting a nice scoring opportunity while entering the offensive zone. That’s the kind of play you’d never expect to see the Stars make under Bowness — the chain would have likely stopped at Marchment, who would have proceeded to send the puck into the end boards.

The change is particularly notable on the power play. Any time you have a man advantage, you should have no issue entering the opposing zone. Yet that appeared to be a consistent issue for Dallas last season — often they would resort to dumping in the puck not necessarily out of preference, but rather necessity, as they were constantly stonewalled at the blueline.

Now again, I wasn’t able to watch the second game (in which the Stars failed to score a power play goal), but I haven’t seen any such issues with the unit this year. On the rare occasions Dallas hasn’t been able to smoothly enter, they simply pass it back and quick reset, as opposed to either giving up or trying to enter by brute force.

So overall, the Stars have done a great job improving their zone exits and entries. And forgive me for being presumptuous, but maybe — just maybe!!! — better transitions have led to more offensive zone time, which in turn has led to a sharp increase in scoring. Yes, yes, it is a radical concept, certainly not one the past several Stanley Cup Champions have employed, but I think I’m onto something here...

I could continue, but it’s 2 o’clock in the morning as of writing this, and my ramblings are likely incoherent enough as is.

All things considered, I like where Dallas is at. Yes, it’s still early in the season, and yes, I am practically drowning in green Kool-Aid right now, but sometimes you just know when a team has “it.” And it certainly looks like Dallas is one of those teams.