Game 57 Afterwords: Preying on Predators, Hobbit-Style
It was a far cry from the last game Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn played in Nashville, but the Stars kept rolling over the Central Division. Good job, Stars.
James Neal and Mike Ribeiro are pretty good emblems of the former iteration of the Dallas Stars. That twilight mix of onces and almosts that we stuck with through the post-lockout years still exists in pockets around the league, and usually it's nice to see them. Loui Eriksson is still beloved by a lot of Stars fans, and who doesn't love watching Jussi Jokinen outwait a goaltender in the shootout? Ribeiro and Neal, however, are not quite as cherished by their once-fans, and that's probably putting it mildly.
So it was fitting that Cody Eakin foiled a Ribeiro power play attempt before slapping a shorthanded goal home. And it was even more suitable that John Klingberg stopped James Neal in overtime to begin the eventual game-winning rush. The Stars franchise has officially turned the page, leaflet and entire Encyclopedia Brittanica over to a brand-new era of wonder and excitement. They have 79 points in 57 games this year; Nashville is tied with the Colorado Avalanche, who are bad.
Going back through the game itself, Nashville had good chances early off a weird bounce and a bad change, and Niemi stood strong early. Yes, he eventually couldn't hang on to a rather soft shot from the point, spitting out a chubby glove rebound for Craig "I sold you your last Buick" Smith, but it could have been worse than 1-0 after 20 minutes, so I'm not going to star the Kari Lehtonen Chowder and Marching Society just yet.
Patrik Nemeth could be found all over the zones in the first period. If you think the Stars need physical defenders to start checking, then you would have been thrilled to see Nemeth. He was checking, forechecking, backchecking, and any other sort of positionally adventurous checking you could ask for. It's good to see his confidence growing as he continues to get playing time, but I'm not sure his game is going on his demo reel tonight. Of course, this is the same Nemeth who won the Calder Cup for Texas with a ridiculous deke off the rush, so maybe he's just embracing his true spirit animal (which I believe to be a marten).
Alex Goligoski took a puck off the helmet, and was that why he made a bad play (he had a couple sub-Goligoski plays tonight) that almost resulted in a Mike Ribeiro highlight goal? I don't know, but between his cranial bonk and Fiddler's absorbing a hard punch from Paul Gaustad during a fight, it was not a good evening for the old corpus callosum. Roussel actually did all right after his own bout with Weber, and who would have seen that coming?
That said, Roussel's rather needless penalty for slashing Hutton after he held on to a point shot was a bit maddening, until you realized that he must have known that Cody Eakin's newly-unstiffened neck was aching to unleash a high-quality one-timer on a shorthanded rush of his own creation. Fresh off foiling Ribeiro on yet another net-front chance, Eakin got enough of a gap from Shea Weber to absolutely destroy the ogle-worthy dish from Benn, and it was 1-1, briefly.
Also, it was probably one of the worst games I've seen Weber play against the Stars. Don't worry, Nashville; he's only signed until halfway through the Jennifer Lawrence administration.
Shortly thereafter, Valeri Nichushkin got a nice long-distance feed from Klingberg for a partial breakaway, but the "aw nuts, oh wait, hooray!" theme established itself again, as Janmark and Nichushkin managed to stay with the puck enough to keep it in the zone, whereupon Hemsky picked the disc out of Anthony Bitetto's skates and roofed it over Carter Hutton to cap a rather hapless defensive shift for the erstwhile Predators defense. I maybe should have saved my use of "hapless" for a certain line change in overtime, but we'll get there in a minute.
Playing with Janmark and Hemsky is either the absolute best or worst thing for Nichushkin's development, and I don't think we'll ever know which. I loved that line tonight, regardless. Good players doing good things, mostly.
Roussel and Weber fought, as we said, and Roussel actually landed a punch on Weber later in the bout that I believe will turn into something of a shiner based on its location at the ocular narthex of the orbital bone. It was a fitting reward for Weber's choice to play right into Roussel's agitating hands.
When the Preds evened it up, did you see how Ribeiro tripped Goligoski with his foot, preventing the Stars defender from getting to the puck #33 had just stopped behind the net?
Craig "Assistant Manager at Metlife" Smith then easily fed it out front for a rather basic sort of goal for Filip Forsberg. It's one of those plays that isn't usually significant enough to be a penalty, but you really hate to see a defender's foot dragged away from him by a forechecker's skate when the forward is on the wrong side of the puck like that. The obvious rejoinder here is that a more sizable defender wouldn't be able to get pulled off balance that easily, so you can bemoan the Goligoski DNA if you feel like it, I guess.
Valeri Nichushkin almost set up Radek Faksa on a nice bit of individual effort, as the pair of first-round draft picks combined to create another great chance in front of Hutton later in the third period. It really was a great game for Nichushkin, and it could have been a fantastic game for Faksa, who is nonetheless looking more like a quality NHLer every single day. Faksa also had a wonderful rebound chance earlier in the game, but he just wasn't able to capitalize either time. "He'll get there," I think we all are going to keep telling ourselves. He'll get there.
The Stars' top line was the only consistent display of offensive talent by either side, and they almost generated a picture-perfect chance on a Goligoski-to-Seguin-to-Benn exchange in the third. Hutton's two pad stops on Benn were his best of the game, and suddenly it felt like old times in Nashville again, with the Preds turtling amid a furiously insufficient Stars barrage. Carton Hutton played the role of Pekka Rinne tonight, and he may have to keep on doing that if the Preds want to have success this season, since Rinne certainly hasn't been able to depict his former self in net this year. I think we remember what that feels like.
Nashville almost managed to steal the game in the final minutes of regulation thanks to some scramble-bambling in front of Niemi, but a Forsberg miss on what really probably should have been the game-winner gave the Stars new life as they limped to OT, and that's where things got fun.
John Klingberg made no fewer than three fabulous one-on-one defensive plays in his own zone, and that despite being caught on the ice for the first 90 seconds straight. He also savagely dented the post early in the frame, so perhaps that's why Seguin decided to be a bit selfish later on. Klingberg in overtime is the planets aligning the night after a rainstorm: beautiful, timely, and worthy of your wonderful eyeballs. Can you imagine what John Klingberg in the 3-on-3 All-Star tournament here would have looked like? Alas and alack, NHL.
The Predators never got a single puck to the net in overtime, and Cody Eakin made a wonderful backcheck to make sure of that. He also tried to re-create his one-timer goal, but he wasn't able to get all of it this time around. Anyway, my point here is that the Predators are pretty much putrid in overtime--1-9 now, I believe--and you could see why. The Stars just didn't give them anything, while Dallas got most any look they wanted. The Predators have only made it to the shootout three times this year amid 13 trips to OT. That's notably below-average.
Of course, this overtime was always going to end on a painfully awkward play, which was fitting for the slog-fest Nashville tried to make this game throughout the third period. The Neal turnover by Klingberg caught the Predators dithering at their bench, and Filip Forsberg was forced to turn back to the ice after no one was ready to change for him, only to faceplant right before Seguin breezed by en route to Mr. Hutton.
That gave the Stars' leading goal-scorer full and complete license to work his magic on the 3-on-1. Tyler Seguin should probably shoot on those sorts of plays, usually, and Tyler Seguin did shoot. Unfortunately, Carter Hutton stopped him, which had to take about five years off Klingberg's lifespan (he's down to like 245 now, I believe--the Elvish conversion always mixes me up), as our favorite Swede was just begging for a drop pass to score his third OT goal in recent days. Thankfully, Seguin slowed down at the net to bunt the rebound over, and that was all Mattias Janmark needed to remind us why he is not in Sweden anymore.
The Stars are a dynamic team that tries to overwhelm you with speed and offensive creativity. The Predators are a stout squad with a heavy back end designed to foil your plans if you should be lucky enough to gain their blue line. This season, the more exciting formula has been the more successful one by far. If only science were always so easy on the eyes.
*Mattias Janmark is a hobbit, by the way. Sources: this and this.