Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bag of Pucks - Feb 19

Another week of hockey, another bag of pucks...

Since last we visited, the Stars played 4 games with two wonderful victories and two difficult-to-swallow defeats.  Such is life when the grind of the season leaves very little time for regrouping or even the occasional practice.  It is a dogfight of the highest order and the Stars find themselves sitting in the familiar position of 8th in the Western Conference, a spot they have seemed to occupy for most of the last 2 or 3 years.

Up and down they yo-yo around the conference standings, feeling better than the very worst teams and worse than the very best.  They are similar to the present day Dallas Cowboys in that they can see that they are nowhere near elite and yet, not that far away from teams who have done elite things recently (See: Los Angeles Kings).  It is also known as "No Man's Land."

But, while many fans have told me that they have had it with this organization (a few people who claim to love the sport have actually decided they would support the Stars actually moving out of Dallas.  Now, that is fed up!) and don't see a particular upside right now, I am here to tell you that at the risk of sounding like a homer for the first time in years, I am actually rather excited about where the Stars are these days.

If you hung in with this team for the last several seasons, through the Tom Hicks miscalculation period post-lockout (the first one) and pre-sale last November, you know that this was a team that did not appear to be heading anywhere fast.  They had a roster filled with waiver-wire pickups and retreads and players who were making their last pre-retirement stop.  It was ugly and seemed to have no future.

But, now, I would argue that the Stars have a number of kids who the rest of the league would love to get their hands on, with more on the way.  And finally, this week, we are seeing the tangible results simply by looking at the score-sheet.  When Jamie Benn found Brenden Dillon on a cross-ice pass late in the game in Vancouver, those who have hung in there with this team jumped off their collective couches in unison celebrating the kids of this franchise winning a game where the 4 goals were scored. One by a 20-year old (Reilly Smith), one by a 21-year old (Cody Eakin), one by a 22-year old (Dillon), and one by a 23-year old (Antoine Roussel).  4 goals by 4 different men were the collective age was 86 years old?  I dare you to find that in the Stars record books, because I would wager it has been a long time.

Then, Sunday, in a painful loss to Calgary (more on that in a second), the scorers were again Smith, Roussel (off a shot from Eakin) and old man Ryan Garbutt (27).  Put simply, that means the last Stars goal scored by someone who hasn't lived in Austin this year would have been a 2nd period goal last Wednesday by Stars' captain Brenden Morrow who just turned 34 years old.  That was 8 periods ago.

The good news: The kids are carrying the weight of the offense right now.  The bad news: they were only supposed to be supplementing it, not carrying it.  If Mr Jagr, Mr Ryder, Mr Roy, Mr Benn, and Mr Erikkson would rejoin the crew in putting the puck in the net, we would really have something cooking here offensively.  Of course, those 5 are the Stars top 5 scorers, so we can assume they will light the lamp again very soon.

And as we know, that will need to be how the Stars get their results for now.  Scoring goals can cover some issues, but the alternative 2-1 wins are going to be rare.  Because defensively, they have a few major issues working against them.  One: Their blue-line is still a few sandwiches short of a picnic.  Since the offseason after the Western Conference Finals in 2008, when they lost their 3 top defensemen, the Stars have been working with an assortment of d-men who are guys who play hard but are not going to be confused with elite-level defensemen.  A few years ago, I asked two men in NHL personnel (who didn't work with Dallas) if ANY of the Stars defensemen would crack the Top 4 on Chicago's blue-line.  They said no, and only a few would be in the 3rd pair (Robidas and Daley at the time).

Well, time has passed and the Stars have had a hard time finding anyone to surpass either Robidas or Daley in the pecking order.  The trade for Alex Goligoski is looking worse as his confidence continues to plummet.  I am not sure what the Stars should be doing to fix this issue (as most of it has to come from him), but his play has not improved since his healthy scratch.  Some of his play on Sunday against Calgary was well below his ability and you can see him playing without swagger and frankly at times looking like a guy who would rather not have the puck.  That is most disappointing for a guy that has had so much invested in him and is supposed to hold the puck more than anyone on the power play.  Right now, they almost look like they would rather have others in that role and he is relegated to leftovers.  Jamie Oleksiak has been sent back down to continue to develop after 6 rather non-descript performances up in Dallas.  Anyone who thought he was ready to show everyone how it is done at the NHL level might need to understand that it takes a long time to develop your own 25-minute a night defenseman.

Dillon, to this point, is the outlier.  He remains a mystery to anyone who follows the NHL draft because at this juncture we are having a hard time finding his faults even though he was completely undrafted.  Most notable amongst his positive attributes is that he appears to have no reservations about his ability to belong at this level.  He hits hard, skates hard, jumps up in the play, and seldom has meltdowns in his own end.  In short, 16 games into the season and 17 into his NHL career, he appears a cinch as a Top 4 defensemen here for years to come.  If ever a team needed to hit on a player at this position with that size, it is Dallas.  And it appears that the play below was another indicator that the stage isn't too bright for this kid.

The second major issue the Stars deal with is their goaltending situation.  With Kari Lehtonen suffering a groin issue in Vancouver that is keeping him out indefinitely, we see the house of cards that the blue-line creates.  There are franchises that have a back-6 that can protect a back-up goalie, but Dallas right now cannot.  Richard Bachman will see a lot of rubber in these games, and unlike Kari, does not have the ability to win games on his own very often.

This helps explain a great deal of the Stars incredibly bad performances in back-to-backs, by the way.  Don't think it isn't all related, because it is.  The Stars are 1-15-2 in the 2nd game of back-to-back nights, and in the lion's share of these games, they are dealing with someone not named Kari between the pipes.  In fact, of the 3 times they found points in a back to back, Kari was the goalie twice.  His 1-4-1 record in these situations is nothing to write home about, but the alternative options have resulted in a record of 0-11-1.  That seems like a rather clear statistic there.

So, how does this get fixed?  Well, the only answer is getting Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov to time machines and bringing back the 28-year old version of themselves to fix the blue-line to a point where the guy between the pipes doesn't have to save the day every night.  Otherwise, it is not fixable without a major change in the Stars' personnel.  Kari Lehtonen gives them elite-level goaltending on most nights and the Stars pay handsomely to receive it with his paychecks.  But, when he is on the bench or worse, on the injured list, they are just not capable of withstanding the combination of tired legs and ordinary goaltending as presently constituted.

With 5 more back-to-backs, that is a major concern with each point being vital.  And that is why you can see how everyone sees Dillon and ultimately, Oleksiak as the true hopes of the franchise.  Big defensemen who can help a goalie win a game when he is not playing perfectly because they don't allow chances.  But, for now, we see that a team like Calgary can get enough chances in the 3rd period that they can score 3 times with players who collectively had scored 0 goals all season before that rally.


Meanwhile, our FIGHT OF THE WEEK is a no brainer, right?  3 fights in 4 seconds in Vancouver for our hometown guys against the Canucks.  Whether it turned the game or not cannot be proven, but the game did change at nearly this precise moment in time.

And, now for my quick editorial, if you think these fights didn't turn the game in a sport that is purely of emotion, then you might want to make sure that you aren't already pre-disposed to be anti-fighting and have a hard time seeing the forest because you are too busy looking at the trees in front of you.

This was the last game of a road-trip in which the Stars just had their lunch stolen in Calgary and were facing a game in which Vancouver was already all over them and Bachman looked shell-shocked surrendering 3 goals in short succession earlier in the period.  If any game was labeled "go quietly into the night and get to the plane as fast as possible" it was this one.  And then, the Fiddler-Nystrom-Garbutt line did something about it.  They decided to say to Vancouver that if you are going to beat us tonight, we are at least going to try to leave you with some headaches.

Fighting is a sensitive issue for many, especially those who have a hard time explaining to their friends why hockey has it when every other sport is fine without it.  Well, my answer is, "because, it does."  I didn't put it there, but for anyone to act like it doesn't affect the players on both benches and get the blood pumping and at times, inspire a team to dig a little deeper when the chips are down and the breaks are beating the boys, then they are kidding themselves.

It doesn't work every time, and it doesn't always erase a deficit in games where you need a rally, but it is sometimes the best idea the guys on the bench have.  Especially a defensive line like that one.  They decided to go out on the ice and get back at Vancouver for a big hit they didn't like.  Sometimes that is by hitting everything that moves on your next shift and sometimes that is dropping the gloves.

But, to act like it was choreographed or staged is just flat out wrong.  They had their manhood challenged and did not back down.  And then when Garbutt was fighting first, Fiddler started chirping. Then, it was his turn, and Nystrom engaged in verbal sparring with another Canuck.  Before long, all 3 fought and stirred up the hornet's nest.

Again, I cannot prove that it always leads to a rally, because it doesn't.  But, it does make the entire bench forget about the long plane ride, the short sleep, and even the score.  They just want to go out there and get their own adrenaline moment.  That is hockey.  A game of pure adrenaline.

Full marks to those boys for dragging the rest of the squad into a game that looked like it was lost.  See it for yourself below:

GOAL OF THE WEEK:  This week I am going with this beauty from Saturday in Edmonton where the veteran Ales Hemsky put on a number of moves on Colorado's D-man Shane O'Brien and then beat the goaltender off a turnover in the Avalanche end.

THE ARE-YOU-KIDDING-ME CALL OF THE WEEK: This is just brutal in yesterday's Colorado-Nashville game.  Amazing.  Perhaps we need a coach-challenge system in the NHL.

Talk to you next week.

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