Game 11 Afterwords: Niemi, Demers and Fourth Line Step Up to Down Sharks
Halloween is always a weird day for a game, but the Stars kept things frightening for as long as possible, which was very thematically considerate of them.
If the Dallas Stars had been able to forfeit all power plays and play the entire game at 5 v 5, they would have beaten the San Jose Sharks 3-0. Such arrangements are not allowed in the NHL, but Dallas dominated the game at even strength, and as such, they would have benefited immensely from a no-power-plays-for-anyone setup. Alas, they played by the usual rules Saturday, and the Sharks hung around right up until the end of the game.
I attended the game today, and the two folks who accompanied me both commented on how quiet things were for much of the first period. Part of that was owed to San Jose, who seemed to have no problem with absorbing a Dallas rush before deliberately counterattacking. The Dallas defense was tested tonight, and their puck mobility suffered more than once from a well-coordinated Sharks forecheck, and some adaptations may have led to a couple of different breakaway chance for San Jose.
It was a shame that the Stars couldn't establish a bigger lead early, especially because Alex Stalock looked about as vulnerable as a goalie can look (the Fiddler goal being a prime example of this). This was a good chance for Dallas to avoid a hot goaltender, and they barely took advantage of it. I guess scoring four goals on a goalie is "barely" in Dallas Stars terms these days.
A gentleman next to me at the game offered a familiar criticism of the Stars' power play: they try to be too fancy. I get the spirit in which such critiques are usually offered, but I really couldn't care less about how fancy a power play is when it converts at a high rate and creates the third-most scoring chances per 60 minutes in the NHL. It should be fancy when it's that amazing, although I could do without the lateral movement just inside the blue line. San Jose certainly seemed to have scouted the Stars' zone entry as well as any team has done thus far. We'll see if that becomes a trend.
That's part and parcel of the whole thing about this team: their offense is their greatest weapon, and it's one heck of a weapon at that. When they're unleashed, they can wreak havoc on an unholy level, and we've seen that on a consistent basis this year. This team has the best offense in the NHL, which they should. It's nice to admire its work without bemoaning an Achilles heel in the same breath.
Let's drive that point home really quickly. Jamie Benn is leading the NHL in points with 17. One behind him is Tyler Seguin. Jamie Benn is tied with Tyler Toffoli, no really, atop the NHL goals leaderboard with nine. Tyler Seguin is tied for the NHL lead in assists with 11. Two behind him is John Klingberg, who has nine assists and two goals for 11 points in 11 games.
John Klingberg is tied for first in the NHL in defensemen scoring, although he would take the hypothetical crown were the season to end today, as he has more goals than the two Canadiens defenders with whom he is tied. Just because it's fun to say, let's also remember that Antti Niemi sits alone atop the even more hypothetical goalie scoring trophy chase with a slightly less impressive two points. The Stars score lots, all of them.
So, hooray! Dallas was the better team today, and despite some lapses on special teams, they scored five goals and beat the Sharks to move to 9-2 on the season. They never even trailed by two or three goals, or even one goal for that matter. It's fun to watch a hockey team win, and win often. No team wins nine of eleven without some rough patches in the road, but just winning those games says something pretty complimentary about your team in the first place.
The Stars' right-handed defensemen looked good today. Klingberg especially seemed to have things together in his own end, at no time moreso than when he calmly deked through his own crease to avoid a forecheck. Such confidence is what makes players like Klingberg play their best hockey, and Jason Demers was another good example of that.
Demers may well have had a chip on his shoulder playing the team that traded him away, but his ability to play without fear was on full display. In a postgame interview about his goal, Demers mentioned that he could see the opportunity for an odd-man rush developing, and he decided that it was the right time of the game to go for it. The Stars at that time were up 1-0, and their penalty kill had been extremely strong. Those are normally reasons to play conservatively, to protect the slim lead; Jason Demers subscribes to the Lindy Ruff Principle of aggressive lead protection via more goals. It has worked pretty well.
As an aside, there were two discrete moments where I just laughed aloud in appreciation of Grubes. The first moment was during the Sharks' extended timeout that also featured Mike Cvik watching an iPad for no real reason. The review took a fair bit of time, and so the crowd's impatience with the process was greeted with one of my all-time favorite songs from the turn of the century, "Only Time," by Enya.
The second moment followed it directly. After Roussel's goal was officially announced, he was serenaded at the next whistle by the majestic "La Marseillaise," or the "French National Anthem" as some people might describe it. It is possible that Roussel was trying to hide a smile on the bench, but I could have been imagining that.
Will we ever be truly satisfied with this team if they keep winning while giving up two or three goals? It'll take some getting used to, but I'm partly hopeful that we won't have the opportunity to find out. Nonetheless, I'll take an eight-goal victory over a 2-1 snoozefest when I'm there in person. That's not the "right" answer or anything, just an opinion offered by an attendee. You can disagree, but just remember that the NHL surely agrees with me, and they always get their way. That sounds like a weird, veiled mob threat or something, but I promise it is not.
One consequence of being such a high-event team is that your goalies aren't going to look as good in the numbers department. But if Lindy Ruff doesn't care and the team doesn't care, then I can buy into that.
The only goal you'd really say Niemi had a chance on was the breakaway Nieto tally, but just like the penalty shot goal earlier in the week, you probably can't expect your goalie to stop all such chances. They are prime chances for a reason. Regardless, Niemi was very good tonight, and he'll have to be as more and more teams try to create traffic before firing shots at him. But you only have to be better than the only goalie, right? Alex Stalock was not that, most of all on Fiddler's short-side goal, so Niemi will, as they say, take that. We all will.
It's wonderful when your depth guys can contribute, and Roussel and Fiddler came through beautifully. I'll never begrudge the "grinders" points, especially when they turn out to be the game winners. There is immense value in lower-line players who maintain high levels of effort in whatever minutes they're given. It's not always quantifiable, but it is sometimes recognizable, and Saturday was one such time.
Lastly, Tyler Seguin needed that empty-netter, or at least I sure felt like it. He's been racking up the points as we chronicled, but he is a goal scorer, and you want him to score. Besides, it's not like empty-net goals don't have value of their own. That goal sealed the game for good, and without checking last year's stats, I feel like the Stars are ahead of last year's empty-net goal-scoring pace. You are doing lots of things right when you are scoring empty-net goals on a regular basis.
I don't have a toss or witticism to end with, frankly. The team won again, and they are going on the road to face Toronto and Buffalo Boston in a back-to-back set. Those two teams shouldn't scare anyone in a vacuum, but given Dallas' penchant for questioning their identity when faced with teams a ways off the Good Team Radar, I would suggest taking nothing for granted.
Not only will that minimize the pain of any potential losses (perish the thought), but it will also make any victory doubly worthy of rejoicing. Joy is plentiful so far this year, and I am not going to take it for granted when I see it.