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Game 56 Afterwords: Capital Punishment

I was trying to temper my expectations for tonight’s game before it started. Sure, the Stars beat the Caps 3-2 back before Thanksgiving, but they didn’t face Braden Holtby, and that was back when the Stars were effectively the best team in the NHL. January is still fresh in our collective memory, and it’s hard to be confident about Dallas playing the best teams in hockey.

Here’s the thing, though: Dallas is one of the top teams in hockey. That may be a product of how unique this season is, or perhaps it’s just a consequence of an unsustainable run of 56(!) games. The third option, of course, is that the Stars actually are a legitimate contender, and it’s hard not to at least consider that possibility given the week Dallas just had.

On the Stars Sunday Podcast with Owen Newkirk and Bruce Levine, they mentioned that this was one of the toughest weeks of the Stars’ season. Well, Dallas went ahead and beat the top two teams in hockey en route to a 3-for-3 week, and suddenly Dallas has won five of their last six games, and they’re back on top in the West again.

Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn did their thing tonight, and they did it against the NHL’s best team. Benn’s goal was a bit of “stick with it,” and Seguin’s tallies were one part patience and one part tap-in on a 5-on-3 (after a Klingberg one-timer was fended off by Holtby). But execution is the thing, and that’s what they did. Jamie Benn totally danced Karl Alzner before hitting the outside of the post as well, which fit with the mojo-heavy game Dallas had been playing to that point.

That two-man advantage, by the way, came from successive penalties performed upon Klingberg’s person, and both were rather physical. Goligoski got hot after the Tom Wilson hit on Klingberg from behind (for which Wilson got an interference minor), and the second minor was a high-sticking call that appeared to cut Klingberg’s inner lip. Washington clearly read their instruction manuals before tonight, but it was a bit too little too late, and the Stars’ top guys made sure Washington paid for their indiscretions upon the lithe Swede in the best currency there is: Goals.

Of course, the big story coming out of the Stars’ latest win was the injury report. Seguin’s arm was cut by a skate on the anniversary of his last significant injury (though it apparently isn’t going to be a serious injury, thank goodness), and Eakin was simply “injured.” Looking back, Eakin did take a high hit on his final shift before heading straight to the bench, but Ruff’s postgame comments indicated that Dallas is expecting to recall someone before their next contest, so your guess is as good as mine. Certainly we wish Eakin and Seguin the speediest of recoveries.

It’s interesting to note that only five Stars forwards played over 13 minutes tonight: Benn, Seguin, Eaves, Roussel and Sharp. Minutes were getting spread around, and the Faksa lined handled themselves well. If Eakin ends up being kept out (after what was really a pretty solid game) for a bit, Faksa and Janmark would be expected to step up, and surely Jason Dickinson would be near the top of the list for a potential recall, but we’ll have to wait and see on that. Either way, it was great to see Faksa taking critical draws in the game’s waning moments. Faksa at his best looks like a solid NHL player, and that’s a win for everyone from Joe Nieuwendyk to Vernon Fiddler.

Ales Hemsky had a heck of a game, as his steal in the defensive zone (he jumped a Justin Williams pass) led to the opening goal. Janmark (who also had himself a game) took the beautiful saucer pass, and he placed it perfectly past Holtby off the rush. It was exactly the sort of goal you’d hope to get from that line, and even though Nichushkin didn’t end up factoring in the scoring, he had himself quite the night as well. Hemsky also nearly tucked in a goal of his own after a hilarious deke worthy of Hemsky’s first-round-pick status, but Holtby’s big frame prevented the final reach-and-tuck, and thus we were left with simply a Most Hemsky Moment of the Game. We’ll take it.

That same line also ate two minuses, but if you’re looking for extenuating circumstances, try this: the Justin Williams goal found Mr. Game 7 alone on Kari’s right, and the Big Finn couldn’t quite be big enough on Williams’ nice top-shelf shot after Demers, Oduya and Nichushkin got themselves out of sorts; as for Burakovsky’s goal, Hemsky actually got a stick on the pass to break it up, but a freak bounce and a rather ludicrous Lehtonen poke check attempt brought the Capitals to within one.

Ah, Kari. Early on, the Caps got the better chances, and Kari Lehtonen was sharp enough to withstand some great shots after the Stars’ d-men had their corners turned somethin’ fierce. Kari had drawn in again after his solid performance against Chicago, and while you suspect Niemi will punch the clock in one of the games in Nashville and St. Louis next week, it’s good to see Lehtonen winning games for Dallas again. Kari may have used all of his silver bullets during seasons past, when Dallas had nothing to offer him by way of support; but if he can at least be involved in one of the Stars’ best seasons of this millennium, I’d be okay with that. He can make some of the biggest saves you’d ask for, but the pucks have been getting by him (and Niemi before him, for that matter). Maybe it’s just time we reconciled ourselves to being happy about the Stars’ “only” giving up three goals, eh? Winning helps.

The Ovechkin goal was (and I tend to use this word a lot about Ovechkin’s tallies) perfunctory. The Stars were almost frantically concerned about the best goal scorer of the last 15 years during the Caps’ power plays, but Ovechkin proved just how little room he needs to beat goaltenders. I love watching him, and it’s even easier to admit that after a victory. Dallas beat Washington in regulation both times this season, so I’m going to go ahead and hand out Ovechkin praise like candy. Dude’s been the best thing about the NHL since the lockout, and no foolin’.

There were some laughable penalty calls in this one, but Dallas didn’t lose the special teams battle, and the Stars at 5-on-5 are as good as anyone you’ll run into on an NHL rink. Despite the score at the final buzzer, Dallas had far more chances, far more shots, and far more dominance of the game in general. This was a not-close game made interesting (and a Tom Wilson pipe-shot made it morseo), but four-goal leads are enough, even for the Stars.

The 2015-16 Stars are not the Platonic Form of Hockey. They are, perhaps, the realized hockey dream of 13-year-old kids across the world who dream about goals aplenty without giving much thought to how they can stifle opponents with sound positioning and conservative play. If you can find a way to embrace your 13-year-old self, then perhaps you can learn to love the Western Conference’s best team. There is zero reason not to love the ride this team is on so far. They just beat the Eastern Conference’s best team, again. I’m beginning to think it’s not a complete coincidence.

I’ll put it this way: everyone questioning the Stars tends to bring up the playoffs. “This team won’t advance in April,” they cry. Maybe they are correct! There’s no way to prove that statement one way or the other until April arrives, but you can most certainly laugh, cry and scream in delirious joy as the Stars win yet another 4-3 contest behind the efforts of their elite-scoring team. If you can find a better form of entertainment in the meantime, please let us know. I doubt one exists.