Dallas Stars Observations: Kari Lehtonen's Glove, John Klingberg's Savvy Shut Out Defending Champs
After some early-season struggles, Kari Lehtonen may finally be hitting his stride.
Well, we can probably stop talking about how the Stars haven't been getting "that save" for a little while, because Kari Lehtonen gave them one for the ages last night. After Kyle Clifford whipped the puck to the net, it found its way through a crowd of players to Jarret Stoll on the back door, and you know what happened. We all know what happened. Please go watch that save again right now. I'll wait.
Welcome back. Let's also take a moment to remember how Lehtonen stopped Dwight King on a breakaway right before Garbutt's goal. Yes, it's Dwight King, but still--the whole "save at one end and goal at the other" mantra has been said before, and tonight showed why it persists. And, for what it's worth, if Ryan Garbutt can keep shooting like crazy this year, there's no reason he can't have some moderately significant production again, which the Stars would absolutely love.
In a perfect world, the Stars wouldn't need their goaltender to come up with WebGem-type saves every game in order for them to win. After the previous eight games, however, we can safely say that this world is far from ideal. And that's where top class goaltending comes in so very handy. The Kings had just played one of their best shifts in a while, generating some buzz from a building that had been quiet for most of the night, and Lehtonen's save on Stoll turned the tone of that buzz into outright disbelief and even smattering applause for himself. Let me tell you, Erin was right: it is a cool feeling when you are in enemy territory and the other team's fans start congratulating you on how awesome your goaltender is.
For what it's worth, the Dave Jackson Wild West Traveling Carnival did get the call right that negated Jamie Benn's goal, but they went about it in one of the more confusing ways I've seen. Mark Stepneski has the official explanation here, which basically says that the on-ice officials called the Official Toronto War Room and were told that Benn's goal couldn't be called back for the netting issue because no, the coach's challenge still hasn't been instituted yet (which I'm fine with, but that's another topic). One suspects that Toronto also mentioned something like, "By the way, guys, you could decide to just confirm with yourselves that the puck did hit the netting and just roll time back to that point, effectively negating the goal anyway." After what LA went through getting burned by this exact issue back in January, it's good to see the officials find a way to get the call right, although my brother did point out the comical nature of Jackson's removing the headset after calling Toronto and saying, "the four on-ice officials have determined that the puck hit the netting..." Yes. Of course they did, all by themselves. *cue With a Little Help from My Friends*
It was good to see Benn get a helper on the ensuing Jason Spezza goal, but after he missed an empty net in the final minutes of the game, you had to feel for him. He is full of try, as they say, but most elite players are at their best when they are cocky and confident with the puck on their stick. Benn isn't there right now, but it's nice to see the people around him getting the job done in the mean time. You have to think the captain will be fine sooner rather than later. His vision is still great, as that sharp, snappy pass to Spezza showed. It might be a little more blurry after that Doughty hit that caught him unsuspecting though.
Even after the win in Arizona, the Stars still had to be jittery as the third period started, wondering what disaster was lurking around the corner. Surprise, surprise, the Stars really did a great job -- yes, that's right -- of locking things down in third. In fact, the Kings didn't register a shot on goal for the final nine minutes of the 3rd period. That is probably the best possible way to play defense that I know of: prevent the puck from getting to your crease, ever. While it wasn't flawless, it was, for the Stars, a defensive clinic.
The defense played well for a lot of the night. Low points were there, like Jamie Oleksiak getting pasted by Kyle Clifford, and John Klingberg and Jordie Benn trying one or two perhaps slightly lower probability plays in their own zone. But the positives on the blue line were numerous, and this is one defense corps that has really needed a good game to put in their fanny packs for the rest of the long season. Jordie Benn played well, moving the puck out of the zone efficiently except for one or two stretch passes that hit skates or otherwise didn't quite connect. Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski both had the bulk of the minutes, of course, playing -- wait, what's that? Oh, right. John Klingberg played over 23 minutes last night, just a touch fewer than Daley and Goligoski. For comparison, Brenden Dillon and Jordie were both around 17-18 minutes apiece, while Oleksiak didn't see much ice in the latter stages of the match, only accumulating eight minutes or so.
Maybe that's a good thing, too. Dillon looked as fresh as he has all season, and he even activated once or twice and carried the puck into the offensive zone. If he and JoBenn can find another gear by way of slightly less difficult minutes (or at least fewer overall minutes), that could do much to make Lehtonen's job easier. And Oleksiak will certainly benefit from continuing to see NHL competition, but sheltered minutes for right now is probably a good thing. Hopefully he'll get himself closer to 12-14 minutes per night regularly down the road. Regardless, the team as a whole was exiting the zone with cold efficiency in a way we really haven't seen much at all this year. The short, quick passes were slicing up the Kings' forecheck exactly as they are designed to do. It's amazing what getting away from an all-lefty rote breakout can do for you.
Klingberg was named the 3rd star of the game last night, and deservedly so. I agree with what Erin noticed in Arizona: in person, he looks like a 140lb barista, but man oh man can he play defense. I wasn't even surprised when he hit the pipe with his shot, because his play already makes you expect that he's going to do something awesome.
I lost count of how many times he would receive the puck and make a gorgeous pass despite the oncoming forechecker only a few feet away. It's like he can immediately determine when the opposing player will be near enough to dictate action, so he expends all his focus on moving the puck. It's really impressive when he sends a puck through the neutral zone and you hold your breath because it looked like he just gave it away, only to realize that he just hit a Star who just came off the bench while his back was turned. How did he do that? I don't know, but I want to keep seeing it for a long time.
The Kings seemed unable to really hit him at all, and after a while it seemed like they stopped trying, as if they knew that by committing to the hit, they would be showing their cards early and giving him another fistful of options for passing lanes. He already seems to be commanding that sort of respect when the puck is on his stick, and it's his second NHL game. I mean, all things in moderation, yes, but this kid looks like he's been rehearsing for this role for years now and is almost bored with it. (Except when he's beaver-tailing his stick on the point for a pass. Then he sounds like an excited kid again.) If Ruff is already giving him three times as many minutes as Oleksiak, I think it's safe to say Cedar Park won't be seeing #3 again any time soon.
Seguin took some shifts on the 3rd(ish) line with Fiddler and McKenzie after Eaves went down, but you have to think that Ales Hemsky will be filling that role come Saturday. After all, a shutout is great, but this is a team whose best asset is their offense, and Hemsky should be a big part of that once he fights his way through this slump.
Spezza must have been really excited to be playing on the Basket of Donuts Line again (I'm trying this one out), because he seemed a little overeager in the first period. There were a few missed passes, a couple of nice dangles before he dropped the puck to nobody, and a bit of frustration in his game. It was good to see him settle down as the game went on before he finally just wandered into the slot and decided to score a goal. He, more than anyone else on Dallas, makes stickhandling look effortless.
I hope Cody Eakin is back for good. His line had great energy last night, and it was the last thing the Kings seemed ready for. Antoine Roussel picked off a couple of passes in the defensive zone and had some good possession in the attacking third as well. Garbutt's goal wasn't really a product of their line's play at that point, but the frustration of the Kings throughout the game definitely was. It was great to see them step up after a very, very questionable hooking call on Garbutt early on. I'm still not sold on them being used as a checking line against top players, but it's fun to watch them go up the ice when they do get the puck.
The thing that summed it all up for me was when there was about 1:30 remaining in the 3rd, and Tyler Toffoli tried to pass the puck back to the point only to split the defense. The puck would miss the gaping net by about a foot at the other end (which was a real shame, since I was looking forward to celebrating that goal in Staples Center), but you knew right then that the Kings were done for the night. After LA's tough battle in Anaheim Wednesday, the Stars took advantage of a couple of scoring chances and wore them down throughout the night. Drew Doughty somehow played another 30 minutes of hockey again, but the rest of that team needs, well, a rest. And not just the lying-down-on-the-ice kind of rest that Dustin Brown tried last night (no call, thank goodness).
Dallas won't have an easy job of proving that their turnaround is for real this weekend, but if the signs we saw Thursday are more than mirages, they may be in pretty good shape. If Lehtonen can be sharp enough, if the defense can start holding their heads higher and moving the puck even better, if the secondary players can use their speed and tenacity to exploit the lesser line matchups, if all of these things and more, then Dallas should find themselves right back in the thick of things in no time.
And any time the power play wants to show up for real, that would be great, too.