Game 52 Afterwords: Curse Reversed, but It Hurt
Francois Beauchemin reverted to his Anaheim instincts tonight.
I had originally typed out four hundred words about the metamorphosis of Patrick Roy's beard gradient, but I suppose it's more important to discuss the Stars' first win against the Avs since the venerable Eisenhower Administration, so let's get to it.
Things started out as you would expect, if the Avs were any other terrible hockey team. Jason Spezza pulled a dazzling deke off, failed to convert, then received a not-quite-as-pretty pass from an Eaves blind backhand (after some great work by Nemeth). Unfortunately, the Avalanche were taking notes, because they would pull off their own version of this play before the night was over.
On the Blake Comeau goal, there wasn't much you didn't see. A rusty Jordie Benn (who ate all three minuses for the Stars tonight, while Nemeth scampered off just in time to avoid the third) made a foolish attempt to stand up at the line, Soderberg walked around him, and Comeau just beat Niemi from a hard angle. Niemi didn't exactly fill the net, but you'd probably look at your defender in absentia to prevent the chance in the first place if you're Lindy Ruff. The vast majority of you are not Lindy Ruff.
As for the almost immediate go-ahead Colorado goal, Iginla's five hole was perfectly placed to play croquet wicket to Nick Holden's blue line wrister. Full marks to Patrik Nemeth for successfully screening (but not blocking) the shot, as Niemi could only gamely guess at the shot from his vantage point in Barclays Center.
In case you couldn't tell by now, this first period was nutso, and it just got moreso as things progressed. Antoine Roussel had two odd-man chances in a row, and he missed the net on both of them, but that was nothing compared to our Ales Hemsky Moment of the Game. With 2:40 remaining in the 1st period, the eponymous winger picked up a cross-ice feed on his backhand without even looking, completely lost his defender, walked in on the goalie, and promptly (well, maybe not promptly) tried a cross-crease pass that was blocked into nothingness.
And even with that particular deference, Hemsky led the team in shots on goal with seven and individual scoring chances (five). His stretch pass goal from Goligoski (who also had a game and a half tonight) was just such a shot on goal. Hemsky's one of those players that just categorically refuses to become what you want him to be, but when his way hits the highway, it's a joy to watch it accelerate. Given Hemsky's play of late, it was little wonder that Ruff chose to start him in overtime (although pairing him with Eakin was perhaps a bit more mysterious choice). I would also like to point out without comment that Hemsky appeared to just blow a tire and go into the boards all by himself after his goal. Before you chide him, realize that he just scored an NHL goal. Okay, now go ahead and chide.
The Stars will need all the scoring forwards they can get for the next "while," thanks to Francois Beauchemin, who laid a dirty, retaliatory cross check on Jason Spezza as the Stars' only two-minute power play expired early in the second. Spezza went into the boards, and he was visibly grimacing on the bench as Dave Zeis's crew attended to him. Spezza appeared to be reaching back towards his clavicle or shoulder, but it is ours ever only to speculate in times like these. As for Beauchemin, no speculation is needed. He was ticked off because he felt Spezza sold the holding call that put the Stars on the job, and he chose to lay a vicious cross check into Spezza's back to express that sentiment. It was a dirty, filthy play that will deprive Dallas of Spezza for few games, and there is really no reason not to be furious about it. (Unless your love of Radek Faksa supersedes your sorrow for Spezza's loss, but I like to think those feelings can coexist.)
Jamie Benn certainly appeared to be steamed, as he would give Matt Duchene a nice rib tickler of a cross check later on as perhaps a bit of payback. Things stayed nasty for most of the game, but the Stars are never going to have much catharsis for you when it comes to throwing overpowering punches in a scrum after the whistle. Unless you count goals as catharsis, that is, in which case: Maybe!
While we're issuing brickbats, major buckets full to Vernon Fiddler for apparently finding the deep, dark secret of whichever linesman it was that teed him up for the Unsportsmanlike Conduct in the faceoff circle. I don't know whether to bemoan Fiddler's lack of control or the linesman's thin skin in this case, but as most officials will tell you, there are some "magic words" that players can drop which the stripeys will not take kindly to. Maybe this particular official was having a bad week (do linesmen ever not have a rough week in the NHL what with the policing they do?), or maybe Fiddler genuinely crossed the line and said something that most any zebra would call. Regardless, it was an ugly moment in a pretty choppy game, and it wasn't necessary.
Jamie Benn's first attempt at redeeming his rough night came on a beautiful feed from Seguin (who in turn received the puck from a streaking Goligoski on the rush), but Pickard got over in time to shut it down. Benn's release wasn't crisp enough, and the Avs' goalie didn't leave many holes tonight.
It would get rougher for the Captain when he started playing Where's Waldo with Soderberg before the cross-ice backhand from Comeau found the former Bruin wide open for the easiest of goals. It wasn't an error of laziness so much as genuine confusion. Benn appeared to look around for his guy before covering the middle of the ice, then you can see his heart crack a bit when the puck goes by and he realizes what happened. But the Avs have been converting Stars' bork-ups into goals at a mathematically-impossible-but-still-I-think-correct 2.3:1 ratio lately, and this was the latest such installment.
I don't know where the crux of the game was, but the Stars did appear to buckle down a bit after yet another trailer for the Mysteries of Officiating miniseries set to debut this spring. I am referring of course to the challenged-and-revoked goal on Niemi after Andres Martinsen ran over the curb and hit the Antti Niemi storefront before the puck approached the net. It was the easiest goalie interference challenge you could hope to make, but it should have been the easiest goalie interference penalty you could hope to call. Unfortunately (and I know I'm railing against them now, and they largely don't deserve this criticism) the officials appear to be running scared these days, trusting replay to fix their mistakes. That means fewer plays blown dead, which can be good if it avoids a false whistle and preserves a legitimate scoring chance; that also means missed penalty calls such as this one, however, and Lindy Ruff was justifiably irate about the missed call. But this curse was never going to lift itself, so the Stars dug in and got back to work.
As the game got chippier, players started lining each other up. Alex Goligoski whiffed on what would have been a mammoth hip check on Nathan MacKinnon, who almost scored as a direct result of the erstwhile defenseman. John Klingberg was similarly targeted throughout the night, but he absorbed a couple of hits that you wished he could have seen a bit earlier.
Later on, after Eaves and MacKinnon were sent off for delinquent behavior, a Nichushkin "almost" (he chose to try a deke-n-tuck instead of one-timing a great feed) turned into a breakaway for the freed MacKinnon, who was ever-so-easily brought down by Klingberg. Antti Niemi did what he's done lately on the penalty shot, however, and it was a 3-2 game still. Even though a loss still felt inevitable at that point, Niemi had stood up to fate's biggest effort thus far, and it felt good. "Could this be the night?" you wondered.
Also of note was Jamie Benn being split from Seguin on the next 4-on-4 (after a trademark Roussel scuffle), which began with Tyler Seguin and Val Nichushkin paired together. The Ruffling had some benefits shortly after, when Jamie Benn almost tucked the puck into an open net when he finally did get out on the ice. Unfortunately, the Night of Almosts continued for Dallas, right until it didn't.
Patrik Nemeth fired pucks at the net all night, but his passes were the best parts of his game tonight (as his two assists indicate). The Stars' end to the 4-on-4 sequence featured heavy cycling in the Avs' zone, and Nemeth's pinch would lead to the Demers "power play" goal (from a good Eakin feed) that tied things up.
I felt tense until regulation ended, because we were all of us expecting disaster, right? And looking at the Stars' ice time, you can see that Ruff was right there, too. Even with Spezza sidelined, Ruff kept Moen and Fiddler on the bench for all of the third period (except for a brief Fiddler PK stint). Defense pairs were getting mixed up a bit (Jordie Benn missed a couple shifts to start the third), and it felt like a playoff game that neither team wanted to lose. Both Dallas and Colorado got cagey as regulation wound down, and you can hardly blame either squad for opting to protect the precious point on a night when three of their division rivals lost in 60 minutes.
At the beginning of the Colorado broadcast, they highlighted what they called "two of the best offensive defensemen" in the NHL: Tyson Barrie and John Klingberg. Well, overtime ended after a near-breakaway for Dallas was negated by a swift Barrie, who retreated into his own zone, wound up the rush, then gained the Stars' blue line before trying a nifty little pass to himself to beat his defender. The only problem with that is that Tyson Barrie chose to try said play on Jamie Benn, and the frustrated Stars' captain was having none of it. Benn got a piece of Barrie's failed move, the puck squirted to John Klingberg, and my only regret about our latest wonderful highlight this season is that Jason Spezza was not around to stick gum down Klingberg's neck.
Let's hope someone went full Juicy Fruit in Spetz's honor, because John Klingberg really did have a fabulous game tonight. Is there anyone you trust more with the game on his stick these days than John Klingberg? No, there is not, and Klingberg apparently agrees with you.