Game 69 Afterwords: 90 Points, 1st Place, and Crushing Chicago
What are three things that could make early March more amazing than you ever would have predicted in September?
Looking at the below forward lines incited a visceral reaction prior to the Chicago game last night. Don't believe me? Just go to a mirror and look at these lines, then look up at your face really quickly:
Disturbing, right? Yeah, I get it. That isn't how you assemble this roster sight-unseen, but that's what the Stars iced Friday against the Hawks, and it surely worked. That may have been tough to believe if you hadn't seen it, though.
And what if you took it a step further and said that Ales Hemsky would be on a checking line against Jonathan Toews? Would you plug rookie Radek Faksa in against a player a lot of (misguided) folks would pick first overall if they were drafting an NHL team today?
What if I told you that Kari Lehtonen, in the midst of a rough two-season stretch, would outplay Corey Crawford, and outplay him badly? Would you believe that to be possible with three kids, no Klingberg, no Demers, and a new-to-Dallas Kris Russell on the blue line in front of him?
Lindy Ruff blew up the lines, Stephen Johns made his debut on a rotating shutdown pairing against the reigning champs, and it worked. Cause-and-effect or not, most coaches are judged by their results, and a 5-2* victory against Chicago with a depleted and slumping roster felt like a surprise birthday party in the middle of a dreary winter day.
*We'll go bad news first; the current euphoria can take it. First, I'd love to sit down for a nice cup of pour over coffee with Jamie Oleksiak and ask him if he was shaking his head after the Blackhawks' first goal for the obvious reason: he totally lost his man, and that (now-open) man would end up with a tap-in goal right after Oleksiak watched the puck for a bit too long.
In the other section of bad news bears, Kari Lehtonen got another pock mark on his GAA with that late second goal by Chicago. You know how referees will sometimes just waive an icing call late in a game when the outcome is assured in order to run out the clock? Well, that's kind of what it felt like on that goal review. There was contact in the crease with the goaltender initiated by the attacking team right before/as the puck went in, and guess what? That's apparently totally fine. Sure, the contact wasn't on the side that the puck went in, but I have to echo Razor on this one: I give up. Here's heartily hoping that the league moves GI review calls to Toronto for the playoffs somehow, some way. This is getting ridiculous.
And because the NHL highlights are auto-playing for some readers, allow me to simply link the prettiest move of the evening, because it's our MAHPOTG. Sure, it doesn't count for anything other than style points (style-points-to-actual-points conversion rate TBD), but good grief, this is a player the Stars can easily put in their bottom six, and he just humiliated Duncan Keith without breaking a sweat and put Crawford on his butt to make the save. The forwards are stacked, folks.
Speaking of the bottom six, let's all give an encouraging nod to Mattias Janmark, who found himself suddenly at the bottom of the lineup. Thankfully for Janmark, the bottom of said lineup includes Brett Ritchie and goal-scoring phenom Vernon Fiddler, so it's not like he's playing with Gregory Campbell and Zac Rinaldo or anything. Still, that's an abrupt shift from playing aside Jason Spezza.
And speaking of which, Jason Spezza has scored all of the goals lately. Five straight games now, and I think eight in his last ten or something like that. All those things we imagined back in 2014 about how the Stars had the best second-line center in the universe? Well, they're kind of happening, right now. Please enjoy this. You should be enjoying this.
Which is not to say that you have to enjoy the "how" of this game. Certainly this doesn't look, on paper, like the way you'd start the playoffs, and you could even argue that the third pairing (though they were only intermittently paired together) had a downright bad game. That's fine when you can shelter them at home, but you're going to have trouble trying that on the road.
Stephen Johns wasn't sheltered, and he looked all right. Expectations were measured, but it's nice to see big guys who can play defense who aren't Adam Pardy or Aaron Rome, for once. Stephen Johns looks like a good defenseman, and that is almost inestimably huge for this team right now and next season. (Johns, by the way, is estimably huge. 6'4" is not nothing.)
Ruff singled out Cody Eakin and Radek Faksa along with the Big Three as having great games Friday. Faksa I could see, given his stellar checking work on Toews, but I am asking anyone who has better Hockey Insight than I do to please inform me what is going right with Cody Eakin right now. I love the guy, but that missed net on the breakaway had to sting given how scarce goals have been for him in 2016. (Although Jamie Oleksiak can sympathize with the missed net, as he had one of his own off a paunchy rebound from Crawford.) Eakin continues to stick at center despite literally every other center on this team spending time at wing this year, and I can't figure it out. This is likely because I am not an NHL veteran, coach, player or even rookie, one of those people who just "gets" the systems, and knows what players are supposed to "look like" even when they don't always seem to be in position or to be pushing play the right direction enough. I am not being sarcastic here: please praise Cody Eakin for me. I am totally open to it.
Alex Goligoski and Jason Spezza (remember him?) had a couple of gorgeous feeds from below the red line tonight to set up goals. Goligoski's in particular was a sight to behold, as he had to collect the puck after a shot attempt and continue behind the net before finding Roussel (who went down on a knee perfectly to elevate it). Spezza, of course, laid the puck up nicely for Seguin, who wasted no time in collecting the puck and firing it home.
I thought it was interesting that Seguin didn't hold the puck too long there like some slumping players might be tempted to do. That's been a big difference between Seguin and Benn lately, as Seguin has continued piling up the shots even as he hasn't found the net. His confidence hasn't escaped him--just his good fortune. And tonight, the Stars as a whole found their fortune once again. That Panarin one-timer off the post testified to that.
I'd argue that Jamie Benn didn't really "score" so much as Tyler Seguin willed him into the goals column though sheer sapience. That look-off and pass to the net was absolutely wonderful, and it was the very definition of an All-Star setup: you can miss the puck completely with your stick, and the puck will still go in. Hey, Benn will take it. Goodness knows he's earned one of those.
Kari Lehtonen was huge tonight. That second goal was rotten luck, but it did evoke a bit of "oh yeah, that's Kari" in an otherwise blissful evening, right? Do you want to have a starting goalie in the playoffs discussion right now, no you do not. You do not. Still a few games yet to play, and it's probably going to come down to who's hot in April. Basically the Stars' starting playoff goalie is going to be chosen by a bunch of Esquire magazine editors.
One last thing about the personnel: Kris Russell looks good, and has been good. Judging a player by a few games' worth of Corsi is a horrible way to draw conclusions, but so is doing the same with blocked shots. The fact is that I was terrified when the Stars got Russell, as he was demonstrably the worst defender on Calgary. I'll say that again: even judging Russell only against his teammates (and thus eliminating the "well of course he looked bad, he was on Calgary" logic), he still came out looking bad, and by a few different measures. Now, of course, Russell is playing well, and the Stars have been winning. I am really happy about this, and you have to give credit (so far) to the scouting staff and Jim Nill for figuring out how to use Russell differently in order to maximize his strengths. It looked like a big risk to get another smallish defender who didn't have a history of pushing play the right way, but it's worked. How about that, eh?
For Saturday, indications are that Ruff will go with Niemi, the fresh goalie (which is the better choice in back-to-backs, usually) against St. Louis. The Blues are officially in second place now. The Stars are responsible for that. They can also be responsible for allowing Chicago to pass up the Blues on Monday. What a bunch of nice fellows the Stars can be when they are beating you. They are in first place in the West again, by the way. You probably knew that already.