Game 24 Afterwords: So This Is Why Minnesota Didn't Want Dallas in the Stadium Series
Can't really blame the Wild for campaigning for Chicago instead after what Dallas has done to them so far this year, really. Yes, I am petty.
Minnesota will be playing an outdoor game this February, and they will be facing the Chicago Blackhawks. You may recall that the NHL actually wanted the Wild to play Dallas, but Minnesota begged out in favor of Chicago. Perhaps this was because the Wild didn't want to see North Stars jerseys used by the, you know, North Stars franchise in their back yard, or perhaps the Wild honestly assumed you had to face the Blackhawks or else the outdoor game didn't count. Either way, there is no love lost between these franchises lately, and the Stars went ahead and added to the acrimonious nature of that relationship by playing lame for 30 minutes before roaring back to demoralize the residents of the self-proclaimed State of Hockey.
First off, I would like to scold the Wild and Canucks for trying to neuter the brilliance of the new overtime format. I couldn't tell you what the Wild's plan was in the extra frame, but they were a half-step away from just huddling behind their net and counting to 300 as overtime first got going. I get it, I do--the Stars are a lethal team with the puck, so you don't really want to give it up to them once you've got it. The thing is, the Wild appeared to just opt out of trying to create offense entirely for most of their "possession" in the extra frame, and it really sucked the life out of what is clearly destined to be a nitro-fueled extravaganza. The Wild had some chances, but they missed three shots and had another two attempts blocked, and that doesn't even indicate the School Zone Crosswalk routes they took for what felt like 15 minutes before the Stars finally got the puck. Go watch the Chicago/Los Angeles overtime from Saturday night if you're curious what overtime should look like. Embrace it or die, rest of the league.
So yeah, Minnesota played overtime like a 4-on-3 powerplay in which they got set up in the zone and suddenly realized that they did not have a fourth player to do the shooting. The Stars, by way of contrast to their stepbrethren, generated a thrilling chance just about every time they got their hands on the puck. Patrick Sharp, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin all had marvelous chances 3v3, and the Wild were frankly lucky to survive as long as they did. The level of dominance we've seen so far is heavily reminiscent of the 2005 Stars and the newly introduced shootout, in which it became clear that one team had decrypted the new program's code long before anyone else. The Stars just create chances like they're ordering off a menu when the ice opens up. Maybe having three of the top five scorers in the NHL on the ice together has something to do with that, but I am not the hockey expert.
Either way, the Wild could only succeed in playing keep away from the NHL's best players for so long. Seguin and Benn won the faceoff on their second shift, and it just wasn't fair. The Wild gamely tried to forecheck, but those three are going to find a way to move the puck up the ice, and when you only have three players around on defense, you had best hope your goalie is auditioning for a Disney sports movie role. Darcy Kuemper was not doing that tonight, and Jamie Benn essentially pulled him and two other Wild skaters out of position with his puck carrying, enabling Seguin to collect the feed on his backhand and calmly deposit the winner. It's a formality with these three in overtime so far, but I am genuinely afraid that teams are going to do everything they can to ruin overtime against Dallas as the year goes on. Stay tuned.
Oh, right, the first half of the game. On the first goal, you had Thomas Vanek throwing a shot into the legs of Klingberg (I avoided any lascivious adjectives there for fear of a literal interpretation), who tried to poke the puck to Hemsky. Unfortunately, the puck was too far away, and he was only able to nudge it back to the first-time unsuccessful Vanek, who try, tried again. Niemi never saw it, and the Stars were down early on the road in a back-to-back. It wasn't crippling, but the Stars hadn't been able to do much to that point, so falling behind seemed worrisome. Yeah, about that.
Val Nichushkin is gaining confidence, which is great until that confidence causes you to try a risky play instead of throwing the puck at the net. As good as Jordie Benn is, I think we'd all prefer that Val go ahead and take that shot there instead of deferring to the sans-scoring-title Benn. It was the latest ugly turnover for the Stars, who really need to maybe figure out why they are doing that. I don't have any great coaching advice for them other than what Razor said about Klingberg's play Friday: don't do that. Compounding the problem was Patrik Nemeth (who actually had a pretty good game otherwise), who moved his stick out of the 2-on-1 passing lane to block what turned out to be a fake slapshot by Vanek, who then dished the puck over to Coyle for the easy goal. Tough spot for Nemeth on his first NHL night back, but you really would prefer that he let Niemi take care of the shooter there and keep that passing lane defended.
The Wild's last goal was kicked off by the ice gremlins, unless you think Tyler Seguin is just not a very good puck-handler or something. Then, for the second night in a row, we watched a Jason walk in from the right circle and blast a slapshot up high past an unscreened goalie. Pominville's shot was actually from farther out than Spezza's, but I will say that you can see Klingberg getting a bit gun-shy here for a second, making sure someone covers the other side of the ice before he skates over to get his stick in the lane. That's still a shot you need your goalie to stop, though.
Then things changed, and you know that by now. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Stars scored four goals without help from their power play (which got fewer than the requisite three chances, you may have noticed). The Stars heard you scoff at their halfway point turnaround with guffaws of "score effects!" and "too little, too late!" The Stars heard you doubting their ability to score three goals in one period, and they were not amused. If you haven't apologized to them for your lack of faith, maybe send them a gift basket. (They probably need some new gum, as most of their supply is surely down the back of Klingberg's jersey by this time.)
Lots was made of Ruff's Ruffling, and it's hard to discount its effect given the obvious correlation with the Stars' possession dominance. However much the new linemates helped jump start the squad, we've seen the Stars go down by three goals and tune the satellite radio to GOALS XM before, so you can't have been totally shocked that they found a way to come back. They could easily have won this thing in regulation if Nichushkin's slapshot had found a friendlier part of the post, but that wouldn't have been nearly as much fun, would it?
I watched this game (with a late start) after driving 200+ miles, but to my weary eyes, both Cody Eakin and Johnny Oduya had really good games. It was great to see Eakin get rewarded (he was a hair's breadth from three assists on both the Sharp OT alley-oop and the Goose goal), and Johnny Oduya had at least two goal-saving plays in addition to some great puck-carrying to get the puck into the offensive zone. The Stars' top line wasn't quite in sync for much of the game, but this team really is pretty deep, and it was a treat to see that depth hold up when the game could have fallen out of reach (which I guess would be like 9-0 for the Stars). Goligoski got the first goal (he also had a very good game tonight), but it was the product of a team-wide push led by a few of the secondary folks.
If the Canucks game was like the Stars switching places with the Senators in Tuesday's game, tonight's contest was perhaps a wonderful alternate timeline of that debacle. The Stars again went down early, but instead of opening things up too much and trading chances, they shored things up on their end first, then leaned on the gas steadily and continually. Antti Niemi had as good a game as a goalie can have after letting in three, and that is another reason why I will probably stop applying for NHL coaching jobs: I would have been sorely tempted to get Jack Campbell some ice time after that third goal, but Ruff's memory for this team's puck-based weaponry is better than mine, and he was vindicated tonight. You don't have to admit that Ruff is the league's best coach after this game, but if you can't give him credit for making some good decisions tonight, then you probably never will.
I have typed 1,500 words without talking about Benn's shorthanded goal. Good for Cody Eakin to be ready for the other team to gift the Stars a puck this time, and very good on Cody Eakin for using telepathy on Jamie Benn to convince him to shoot. We've seen Eakin score plenty of goals on odd-man rushes, but when Benn gets that much space, I would like him to shoot all of the times. His wrister tonight was almost Ovechkinish in its sheer force, and I am once again reminded that those carbon fiber sticks are deadly weapons in his hands.
John Klingberg only scored two points tonight, but his first of the two was comforting proof that John has let bygones be bygones when it comes to the universe's sabotaging his high-risk moves. All he did was confund Zucker with a dance that needs to be copyrighted yesterday, walk the line as he waited for his opening, and fire the puck past a screened Kuemper for the tying goal late in the third period. This guy is the guy, is what I am telling you. You already knew that, though:
Finally, the Wild selected the Chicago Blackhawks Darcy Kuemper as the third star of the night. It's remarkable that a goalie who gave up four goals could be adjudged a higher honor than Jamie Benn tonight, but that is the Dallas Stars this year. If you can hold them to four goals, we'll all assume that you're doing your very best.