Game 53 Afterwords: Blackhawks Down (Stars)

The Stars did not win the hockey game on Saturday. They did not come close to winning the hockey game on Saturday.

Jamie Benn hit two posts, and the Stars went 0-for-6 on the power play with two shorthanded goals allowed. There's a narrative if you want one.

Or you could look at the absence of Jason Spezza. Mattias Janmark did the opposite of stepping up as the 2C, ending up playing the fewest minutes of any Dallas Stars player.

Antti Niemi let in three goals in the first period, including an uncscreened slapshot from a defenseman. Those are ones you'd like to have a goalie top, right?

In the end, it doesn't matter whom you blame. There are so very many players who would like to forget this game, who would be just fine with an obliviate spell before the weekend is over. This was a sorry contest, and the Stars did all of the apologizing afterwards.

Jamie Benn did get one of his hit posts redeemed by Tyler Seguin, who has come out of the All-Star break ready for the stretch run.Unfortunately, that would be the only offense Dallas could muster. Scoring chances were plentiful, although the premium ones were all-but-nonexistent for the first period. But it didn't really matter, because even when the Stars started leaning on Chicago early in the second, pucks weren't going in.

Try to look at this from Chicago's perspective. You have to be pretty thrilled, right? Dallas is still technically able to pass you with their games in hand, but you just beat them down in their own home--though you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for United Center with all the red around the rink--and reminded everyone whose names just got engraved on Lord Stanley last summer.

If there's any consolation, it's that Dallas actually didn't play all that badly at 5-on-5. Sure, no succulent chances were generated for the first twenty minutes, but Chicago didn't score a goal 5v5 until Kane's perfunctory (to steal Brad's term) marker to cap the offense for the Hawks late in the second. Dallas wasn't a ship leaking water everywhere; they were just a ship unable to weather the storm when the rains came.

And oh, how Chicago can make it rain. They have the speed to counterattack, as Alex Goligoski found out at great cost. They have the awareness to find rebounds, as Cody Eakin and Ales Hemsky discovered. And they have the wherewithal to take Dallas to the proverbial woodshed just as things started looking better than the dismal January that suddenly doesn't seem like such a distant memory after all.

This is what elite teams do, though. They get high-level goaltending when the trailing squad leans on them. They score on the power play in order to control the game. They exploit open ice during 4-on-4 situations. They, quite frankly, do exactly what Chicago did to Dallas all night long.

It's not that there wasn't some good to be seen. Indeed, the game was highly entertaining for about the first half of the proceedings. Dallas peppered Crawford, and with a little more rebound fortune, this game is a close one for a bit longer.

That's not what happened, though. Dallas lost their number two center, and things went to pot everywhere else. As much as we've lauded Dallas's system, this hasn't looked like a deep team at all this year. A bit of adversity or a bit of shuffling (Demers or Hemsky's absences come to mind) has been generally disastrous. If that's mere correlation, then fine. But it sure would be nice to have some evidence to support that claim.

Antti Niemi was okay, but even when he made a great save on Toews' shorthanded bid, the Stars had a mental breakdown and let Hossa dunk the rebound without a protest. It was a team running scared, and their fear gave them tunnel vision at the worst imaginable time.

But I don't even want to talk about how the shorthanded goals happened--even the second one, which was partly on the officials for not granting Roussel a well-deserved penalty shot--because the best way to prevent shorthanded goals is to do what Chicago did right off the hop: score power play goals.

Lindy Ruff was happy with the chances Dallas generated, and I can see where he's coming from. But if you're going to preach accountability, the power play needs to absorb some of that criticism. It's gone from being a lethal weapon to a wet noodle, and it's been absolutely back-breaking for the Stars on too many occasions to count. They don't seem to know what they're trying to create, or worse, they're only trying for one thing, and they get utterly lost when that telegraphed tactic is stymied by an effective penalty kill.

Just as slumping scorers love empty-net goals to get them loose again, so too does a team on shaky ground need its advantages to be just that. For Dallas, far too often as of late, they haven't been able to take advantage. Tonight was the nightmare many fans had seen, and it appeared that the players were panicking right along with you.

The good news, of course, is that Dallas is still in a pretty sweet spot. Second in the West with 30 games to play is something anyone would take to start the year, and that's worth remembering. Even with the cataclysmic feel of an infested building collapsing around them, the Stars are in the proverbial catbird seat entering the final stretch.

But things got tough Saturday night, and the Stars withered under the hot, national spotlights that have wilted their optimism so many times this year. Nets were missed--my, how many quality shots clacked off the back boards--and chances were not converted. There's subjective explanations for that involving playoff experience, veteran savvy, or just a simple lack of competitive drive, but there's no excuses left in the tank. Dallas doesn't have to win all their games remaining, but they do need to decide what sort of team they are going to be. So far, they have not been a team that responds to challenges. The Blues, Kings or the Leafs can tell you that as well as anyone.

So far, they are a team thrilled to be the big fish in a small pond, but when the pond gets bigger, they look for an old log to hide underneath. It's embarrassing, and there's no other way to put it. Sure, Dallas only needs to make the playoffs, but in April, you are going to be the team you become in the regular season. So far, that product is looking like one heck of a vulnerable bunch.

You can call out players, and there's nothing wrong with that. No one on the Stars can brag about their game Saturday night, and maybe that will end up being a good thing. As much as Dallas has struggled since 2016 began, they have very few true beatdowns to their dubious credit. Tonight was the hockey world laughing at them, telling them they don't belong with the real contenders. The only way to answer them is to start winning again, and not just against the dregs of the conference.

Minnesota is in far worse shape than Dallas, but neither team has to be feeling cocky at they look towards Tuesday. It's going to be dirty, and perhaps even gruesome. Maybe that's why NBC picked that game up in the first place. After all, what's more fun than watching two nervous cats on a trampoline?