Game 30 Afterwords: Divisional Losses Hurt More
The Blues' #91 was better than the Stars' #91 tonight.
You're the Dallas Stars, and this game is important. You've heard the rumblings about how your high-flying stylings are regular season irrelevance. Your team is all about offense first? That dog don't hunt in the playoffs, they say.
Fresh off your most "outscore your problems" game of the season against the Hurricanes, you settled things down against Philly and played perhaps your best 60 minutes of the campaign. It's the NHL, though, and you're forced to pack up and fly to St. Louis for another game the following night. The Blues are one of the best teams in hockey, but the previously invoked slogan about dogs and playoffs is equally applicable to them. You're aware of all the eyes watching you, waiting for your unstoppable force to meet its immovable object, and that test comes in a rather unfair situation.
What happens? You spend the first period looking completely outmatched. You go naught-for-four on the power play, including a chunk of 5-on-3 time at the end of the game. Your "best in the league" offense gets completely shut down. You can't generate scoring chances. You surrender the game-winning goal on the opening penalty kill of the game. In short, you fail; and perhaps the worse indictment is that you fail unspectacularly. This wasn't the Blackhawks meltdown of yesteryear; it was just a hockey game you lost.
This game doesn't have to mean anything more than any other loss to a good opponent. The thing is, it probably does. This was by far the Stars' biggest test of the season, and for those willing to draw big conclusions from one game in December, they flunked it. If you're more inclined to glance at the Stars' 46 accumulated points and wait for the the rest of December to unfold before pronouncing the team a castillo de naipes within their division, consider yourself lucky. Most people can't and won't wait.
Sure, you can make excuses for them. Good ones, too! The Jason Spezza penalty early on was clearly a "set the tone" call from the refs that most veteran players of his caliber wouldn't get called for; the Backes goal was a bit of a fluke deflection off
the spirit of Jordie Benn Oduya before him; the Stars hit themselves some posts in this game; Allen played out of his mind tonight; and the last two Blues goals were psychological empty-netters, only coming after the Stars were purposely sacrificing defense in order to break through. These things are not untrue, and you can point to them, but for a team that wins as many one-goal games as the Stars, you really can't afford to get bitter about tough bounces in a tight game. You have to make your own breaks, and the Stars have gotten used to doing that with ease this year.
That leads us to Ken Hitchcock, who might be the hockey Joker, because he clearly just loves to watch a game burn to the ground in a pile of unappealing ash. The Stars did miraculously* end up evening the SOG total by the end of the game, but Dallas generated a paltry 12 scoring chances this game. They held the Blues to 13, but defense is little consolation when you play almost the entire game from behind. By way of contrast, Dallas had 52 scoring chances against Philly. The Blues are not a high-event hockey team, and this was not a high-event hockey game.
*power plays and score effects, my wee bairns.
Antti Niemi deserves all the praise Razor & Co. were giving him tonight. The Stars have gotten what elite teams need from their net, which is the hackneyed-but-true "opportunity to win," and at no time has that phrase been better exemplified than the first 20 minutes tonight. The Stars turned and went to the locker room down 1-0, and the arena staff got to work picking shrapnel out of the goal crease. It was not a pretty period, which is sort of what happens when you scare the eggnog out of the 2nd-place team in your division for 29 games, then proceed to turn the puck over to them repeatedly as they come out firing in your first meeting of the year. Niemi had three highlight-reel saves tonight, and once the new-and-improved Dallas team showed up for the second frame, you could see the Stars just maybe stealing what almost felt like a tie game.
Against good defensive teams, you have to take advantage of your opportunities, which means odd-man rushes and power plays. You can do the rather easy math of how often the Stars converted their (few) chances tonight. Janmark (again) and Spezza were a bit slow to shoot when given some golden opportunities, which happens when you're facing a red-hot goalie--a shooter's confidence wanes a bit. But you really aren't going to win many road games against Ken Hitchcock teams when you can't get anything from your Amazing and Wonderful Power Play.
That said, the entries were great tonight (until things collapsed at the end of the game), but Dallas isn't breaking up the PK box with any kind of regularity, and it's killing them. The Stars are 2-for-20 on their most recent power play chances, and both of those conversions came against Carolina, owners of the 29th-ranked PK in the league. The Blues are 2nd in the NHL when down a man; the Stars are/were 2nd on the power play. Once again, the brick wall held firm against the freight train.
Benn's fight (and inciting shots on Backes to start it) may have been partly responsible for something good, but we can't really know that without getting into the players' heads, so skip it for now. Roussel's fight was something else entirely, as was his double minor for roughing Lindbohm after the final buzzer. Against Philly, the Stars stayed above the fray, largely opting to wait out the Flyers until they could beat them where it counted. Tonight, Dallas was getting drummed, so they had to reach anywhere they could to find some adrenaline. I don't know if it worked. I don't know anything about the true effects of the fighting and antagonizing players like Roussel engage in. These guys could pick most of us up and throw us a good distance across our backyards. If they and their coaches think abrasive acts like these are beneficial for their team (in measured doses), and we can't patently disprove that assertion, I'm going to leave well enough alone. You do you, Rous.
It was noteworthy that Ruff opted for Oleksiak over Jokipakka (and Nemeth) tonight, and even more telling that he put Oleksiak on the right and moved Jordie over from his usual spot on the off-wing this year. In all likelihood it had to do with keeping Oleksiak on the side he's played with Nemeth and trusting Jordie to adapt, but I suspect it also had to do with the right-side breakouts the Stars like to use. The plan would have looked like genius if Oleksiak's shot in the 3rd had gone in to tie the game rather than clanging off the post; instead, Tarasenko and Backes came back down the ice on a 2-on-2, and Backes set a nice little pick on Jordie Benn to open up a lane for one of the best shooters in the NHL, and Tarasenko did not miss his spot. You can see how Oleksiak read the play as a 3-on-2 initially (which it kind of was until Jamie Benn got back) and stayed on his side of the ice rather than stepping over to take Tarasenko, but that's really just a nice play by two good players against the Stars' 3rd defense pair, and I'm not sure any other defense duo would have done much better in that situation tonight.
Jamie Benn and John Klingberg tried some heroics , and good thing they did, as the Blues blocked shots and held the blue line with relative ease against most every other player on the ice tonight. Klingberg's Round-the-World Adventure almost ended with Patrick Sharp scoring from a glorious chance in the slot, but as with so many of the Stars' chances tonight, the puck was deflected into the netting. That was the story of this game by the end of it, really. The Stars didn't fail to shoot the puck so much as they failed to do what shooting the puck is meant to accomplish.
Dallas has been better than St. Louis this season, which is why they are so very far ahead of them in the standings today. They were worse than the Blues tonight, and it really didn't feel good, but this season is still young, and the Central Division battle is just getting started for Dallas. The Minnesota Wild already learned what can happen when you assume that you've figured out the Stars' offense. If the rest of the division takes a bit longer to learn that lesson, that wouldn't be the end of the world.
Divisions aren't won or lost in a single game in December, but the remainder of December will be a lot more informative about the Stars' true talent level than November was. January will be even more informative, and so on for the rest of the season. Fans are only ever waiting for the next data point in order to announce their team's virtues and vices, but if you're the Stars, being 22-6-2 means you can afford to be more patient than literally everyone else.