Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill didn’t make a single move at the NHL trade deadline. In two games since the February 26 deadline, the team has proven the GM right.
On Tuesday, a focused Calgary Flames club rode into Dallas on a two-game win streak and trailing the Stars by a single point in the Western Conference wild card race. Ben Bishop was superb in net for the Stars that night, covering for their numerous defensive miscues in a 38-save, 2-0 shutout. Afterward, coach Ken Hitchcock didn’t hold back in his assessment of the Stars’ play.
“What did we give up, 30 scoring chances? I find it really pisses me off,” Hitchcock said. “Ben (Bishop) was great and did an outstanding job. He held us together and it’s two points and we’ve got to move ahead quickly. We need a lot better play from a lot more people…We have to seriously look at the way we’re playing our lines to get better because it’s not working. We’ve got 24 hours to get ready for one of the best teams, if not the best team in the National Hockey League coming in here and we can’t play like this.”
The Stars coach also criticized his team’s power play, which scored once in six opportunities against the Flames.
“We’re just being outworked,” Hitchcock said. “It’s not technical, we’re just being outworked. We’re being outworked at the puck…All the things a good power play has, we’ve stopped doing it.”
Lightning Strike Stars
The league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning visited Dallas Thursday. Despite playing the night before, starting backup goalie Louis Domingue and missing injured leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning showed why they’re the class of the NHL in a 5-4 overtime win.
After taking a 2-1 lead at 8:13 of the second period on Tyler Seguin’s second goal of the game, the Stars surrendered three goals in 6:48 and found themselves trailing 4-2 after 40 minutes. In a dramatic reversal from Tuesday, Bishop looked unsteady in net, allowing a couple of ‘soft’ goals to his former team.
The Stars ‘secondary’ scorers came through in the third. Brett Ritchie ended his 21-game goal drought at 1:50 of the period, and Mattias Janmark tied the game with 3.8 seconds left to force overtime. One point was all the Stars would earn, as Cory Conacher backhanded the puck past Bishop with 40.6 seconds remaining in the extra period to give the Lightning the win.
Somewhat surprisingly, Hitchcock saw more positives in Thursday’s loss than Tuesday’s win.
“I’m really pleased with the way we played the game,” the coach said Thursday. “We had a couple of mistakes and paid the price for it but we played a very good hockey game, especially in the third period…To come back and play the way we did in the third period was tough emotionally. The goals that we gave up were goals where we were controlling the game in the offensive zone and then all of a sudden, quick break and they’re gone. A couple of them were tough goals on Ben (Bishop), but overall I was very happy with the third period.”
Stars Inconsistency Means Nill Can’t Lose
Win or lose, the Stars are proving their GM was right to stand pat at the trade deadline. More than three-quarters of the way through the 2017-18 season, this team still struggles with consistency. One night, stellar goaltending masks a sloppy defensive effort and a lethargic power play; 48 hours later, improved team defense and power play are undone by shaky goaltending.
Factor in Martin Hanzal’s season-long injury woes, the virtual disappearance of Jason Spezza, an alarming lack of secondary scoring (Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov have combined for 78 goals, while 11 other Stars forwards have 81) and the club’s combined record of 4-8-0 against division rivals Nashville, Winnipeg, St. Louis and Minnesota, and it’s clear that the Stars haven’t quite reached the level at which a key trade deadline acquisition will lift them into the Stanley Cup conversation.
That’s not to say the Stars are a bad team; in fact, they’re above average. With 18 games remaining in the regular season, they occupy the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and trail the Wild by two points for third in the Central Division. As they’ve shown in one four- and two five-game win streaks this season, these Stars are a very dangerous team when they’re firing on all cylinders.
If the Stars put it all together over the next five weeks and go on a deep playoff run, it proves the GM was right to leave it up to the team he assembled last summer to get the job done. On the other hand, if the Stars are bounced from the postseason in the first round, it’s a clear sign they aren’t at the level of the Predators, Jets or Vegas Golden Knights, and mortgaging the franchise’s future at the trade deadline would’ve been a waste of resources. Either way, Nill can’t lose.