Game 15 Afterwords: We Are All Val Nichushkin Tonight
This was technically a hockey game, but I don't know if you could prove that to a jury of these players' peers.
Setting: The Red Wings give up just about the most shots in the entire NHL. The Stars generate just about the most shots in the NHL. Naturally, this meant that the second period would see a total of just six shots. If you skipped the second period, you did not miss much. This game, though, it had itself some Moments.
The first period was pretty fun to watch. John Klingberg (number one star of the game) is pretty fun to watch. An overload on the shooting lane by the Wings was all John Klingberg needed, and the eventual Sharp shot was a mere formality. After this power play, it felt like the Stars were going to demolish the Red Wings.
That said, Kari Lehtonen was called upon to make some high-quality stops early, although those did come alongside some heart palpitations when he left his crease. Kari seems to be playing the puck much less this year, and I have to think that's intentional. After this game, it surely will be.
Jyrki Jokipakka had a hilarious "will he or won't he" moment when the Spezza line forechecked hard and got the puck to the point. The Wings were understably intent on marking everyone else, so Jokipakka ended up winding up for a slapshot, faking it, winding up again, stepping up closer to the net, and finally winding up and blasting the puck for real, but right into Howard. Don't the Red Wings know Jokipakka is on a relative goal-scoring tear these days? You shouldn't give goal-scoring defensemen those chances!
Val Nichushkin was the happiest I have seen him in some time after his goal, and weren't we all? He did everything right on that sequence, from protecting the puck in behind the net to beating his man back to the net and stopping at the right spot to get the rebound chance(s) that begot what might as well have been his first career goal. Jokipakka also got an assist on it, which just goes to show that you can't go to sleep on offensive defensemen.
Jason Spezza looked magical early on, but he seemed to fade a bit down the stretch (though his line was still very good). He absolutely danced the Red Wings at the blue line on one of his first shifts, but unfortunately the move was so good that it led to an offside call. Nonetheless, Spezza and the rest of his line may have been the best group on the ice in the first twenty minutes. It's nice to have three centers on one line, as Lindy Ruff surely says every morning after drawing up the lines.
Regarding Oduya's hooking call late in the first, I will never understand the benefit of getting your stick into the hands of a puck-carrier who has position on you. Either you don't disrupt him at all and get away with it, or he overreacts and/or actually loses the puck, in which case you will almost invariably be called for a penalty. This time around, the Stars paid for it. You really hate to give up those "come on and get back into this game" goals after outplaying a team for an entire period.
Speaking of putting your stick in the wrong place, Radek Faksa had a bit of a green moment when he went can opener on Gustav Nyquist in the defensive zone from behind. It's not the worst penalty to take, as Nyquist was drifting into the low slot with the puck, but that play is pretty much an automatic power play ten times out of ten.
The second period was remarkable for a lot of bad and boring reasons, but the most notable by a mile was the Stars' inability to exit their own zone without turning over the puck. Cody Eakin did his best to carry this theme over to the third, making three successive plays (or not making them, rather) that prevented his team from breaking out of their own zone. Eakin seems to be a lot better on defense in outnumbered situations according to my biased eyeballs, and that was proven twice late in the game. The more impressive play might have been around the two-minute mark when he poked the puck out of the zone near the blue line, but the more rewarding instance was the empty-netter he secured after Jamie Benn's superman move sorta kinda worked. That Benn play was this game, really: the Stars tried to do great, but it didn't really work completely, but the Wings weren't able to counter at all, so the Stars' effort ended up being good enough.
The rough zone exits were all part and parcel of a concerted effort by Detroit to cover and contain Dallas in their own end, which is a pretty good strategy against an offensive juggernaut, and one we've been seeing a lot more lately. You would have hoped that Dallas would adapt to this strategy, but the Stars were unable to execute their transition game for a good long time after the first period. Call it a sign of a long road trip if you'd like.
Mattias Janmark did his best to make his old organization jealous today. He had his flashes, but he's a known commodity now, and things aren't coming easily anymore. That's where two-way play is such an asset, though, and Janmark certainly has that arrow in his quiver. That's how you stay in the lineup without scoring a ton, at least for the time being. It'll be interesting to see who moves where when the reinforcements return soon.
Jimmy Howard was understandably stunned when Spezza's leg bumped into his helmet at the end of a 2-on-1 with Cody Eakin, but it sounds like there's no concern about a concussion, which is wonderful to hear. It would have been nice to see Eakin shoot or pass earlier on that play, especially because his shot is one of his best assets. Nonetheless, the Stars still had a couple of chances to stuff the puck home while Howard was struggling, but winning at the Joe is never easy for this team. Tonight, it was neither easy nor admirable.
Colton Sceviour was killing penalties and drawing them, too. (Would you believe Sceviour racked up over four minutes of PK time this game compared to Jamie Benn's 3:27?) Unfortunately for Dallas, the power play that came from the Sceviour-generated call produced the equivalent of Monopoly money remains that went through the laundry in the pocket of your jeans. It's hard not to get greedy with this power play, but that was a golden chance to salt the game away, and the Stars didn't seem remotely interested in grabbing it. Pity, that.
Jonathan Ericsson clearly and blatantly shot the puck out of play at the end of the period, but the officials' failure to call it opened a fissure in the fabric of the hockey continuum, and that's when everything started happening. Ales Hemsky turned to launch himself into Ericsson later, and I am 98% positive that his contact with Ericsson's head was entirely accidental. Hemsky is much smaller, and he's just trying to open a seam along the boards in a puck battle there, but given the clear and lucid workings of the Department of Player Safety, I expect Hemsky to be locked in Bill Daly's office for a full calendar year during his decade-long suspension.
You can sympathize with the bleeding Ericsson's fury after taking the hit, but I'm not sure taking a barehanded sucker punch at a defenseless player's head is much less dangerous than what Hemsky did. Ericsson was penalized accordingly (though the Stars' third period power play wasn't much of a punishment today), but I think the group think at DoPS would sooner bring back Cooperalls than suspend a player for throwing a punch in the heat of the moment after taking a bad hit, so don't expect anything out of that. Something something let the players police themselves, as Arizona Coyote Chris Pronger would surely say. I'd bet on Hemsky getting a fine or one game, just because he probably charged Ericsson. This is a prediction of what the DoPS is going to do, so please erase it from your memory now.
The torn seam in time's tapestry made itself known again on the Ericsson-induced power play when Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp went full bumper boats in the neutral zone. For a player who was questionable coming into the game, it was the last thing you'd want to happen, but Sharp did return to the game. Not really sure why he'd want to, considering how ugly the last forty minutes were, though.
Kari Lehtonen really was the reason Dallas won tonight. It must have been a wonderful feeling for Lehtonen to hold the Wings to one goal after the debacle against Detroit last year, and you could tell that Kari wasn't going to let a little thing like the third-period dissolution of hockey normalcy causality affect his play. Dallas has been getting everything they need this year from the goal crease on out, and while the confluence of many different factors for repeated victory often portends regression, there's not much that's terribly unsustainable about this team's play. Do you really expect their shooting percentage to sharply decrease given the talent on this club? Do you expect both goalies to suddenly forgot how to goalie at the same time? Special teams will fluctuate, but it's not ludicrous given the personnel right now.
Dallas has beaten up a lot of teams to get to 12-3-0 on the year. They will be encountering the Central shortly, and some tougher games (and less-favorable results) will surely come out of that, but they've built themselves one heck of an early cushion. That's what you have to do in this league, and they did it again tonight.
It's a good thing these games are all recorded, because five years from now, no one is going to believe you when you reminisce about the game where Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky beat up the Red Wings without really meaning to at all.