DALLAS — The paradox was impossible to ignore. Shortly after a multilayered, embarrassing 4-0 loss to the Golden Knights, media members took the customary path to the Stars’ dressing room. Jamie Benn, dressed in a suit, walked in the opposite direction to his car.
Moments later, Stars coach Pete DeBoer sat at the podium. He was asked about the impact Benn’s dangerous cross-check on Mark Stone less than two minutes into the game had in setting the tone for what turned out to be a disastrous game for his team.
DeBoer took a few seconds to collect his thoughts.
“I guess let’s put it this way: He made a mistake,” DeBoer said. “Feels really badly about it. I don’t think anyone in the building feels worse than he does about it.”
There was no way for the public to know how Benn felt about his egregious mistake. The Stars captain declined to speak to the media after the game. Alternate captains Tyler Seguin and Joe Pavelski stood in the dressing room and answered questions about Benn’s inexcusable play, as did backup goaltender Scott Wedgewood.
“I don’t know — tied up and engaged and went for a little extra,” Pavelski said about the play that got Benn ejected. “Emotions get the best of all of us at some point. We move on. He wears it as much as anybody. He’s a tremendous leader. We never questioned that. Now as a group, we’ve got to rally together.”
Pavelski was asked if he was disappointed in Benn.
“No,” Pavelski said. “You guys ask if I’m disappointed in a guy that I got so much respect for, and we battle so hard. I got no problem with (Benn). We needed to be better from there, and we weren’t.”
Pavelski didn’t hide from the fact Benn made a mistake, and it’s understandable that Pavelski, a former captain himself in San Jose, wouldn’t publicly throw his captain under the bus. Seguin took a similar approach.
“Jamie’s one of, if not the best captain in this league,” Seguin said. “Top leader. Collectively, we lost as a group tonight.”
DeBoer also remained diplomatic.
“I’m not going to pile on him,” DeBoer said. “He’s been a leader here for his entire career. Leads by example every day, on and off the ice. Made a mistake. Fortunately, Mark Stone is OK. We’ve got to live with the consequences, and the consequences were a big hole.”
The consequences, as DeBoer acknowledged, could extend beyond Tuesday night.
“We will live with the consequences, whatever they are,” DeBoer said. “We lived with them tonight, and we’ll live with them going forward if there’s any other supplemental discipline.”
There should be supplemental discipline. Benn’s play was blatantly unnecessary and extremely dangerous. It deserved the game misconduct it received, and if a suspension follows, that will be well deserved as well. As DeBoer mentioned, the good news is that Stone is OK.
The Stars, on the other hand, are not.
Benn’s penalty was the headliner, but the Stars’ troubles began before it. After days of talking about the importance of a good start, the Stars gave up a goal just 71 seconds into the game to fall into an early 1-0 hole. Benn’s penalty came less than a minute later.
The Stars killed off four minutes of the five-minute major. Ty Dellandrea, freshly inserted back in the lineup, even had a prime opportunity at a short-handed goal, which Vegas netminder Adin Hill blocked. The rebound just missed rookie Wyatt Johnston’s stick. The Golden Knights went the other way and scored 12 seconds later.
“What goes unnoticed in there is the save by Adin Hill short-handed two-on-one on Dellandrea,” Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You’re looking at a 4-0 game. We come down and score and that 15 seconds of hockey has a huge impact on the game.”
Seventy-three seconds later, Vegas got its third goal and ended Jake Oettinger’s night just 7:10 into the game. The Stars went on a power play a few minutes later. Evgenii Dadonov, who has been one of the Stars’ best players this postseason, replaced Benn on the top unit. He collided with Roope Hintz in the slot and went straight down the tunnel. He didn’t return, leaving Dallas two forwards short for the remaining 50 minutes, already down 3-0.
“Yeah, I’m not sure you could script much worse,” DeBoer said.
Chaos ensued in the final minute of the second period. Max Domi was called for cross-checking Nicolas Hague. Domi wasn’t happy about it, so he went at Hague again and picked up a roughing minor and a 10-minute misconduct.
It was a careless play by Domi, who had to be situationally aware that his team was down 4-0 in a critical game and fighting for a miraculous comeback. The Stars were already playing with a twice-reduced short bench, and Domi extinguished all hope, if there was any, when he shorted the Stars a third forward for half of what remained in the game.
Embarrassment went to new heights in the aftermath of Domi’s sequence. Fans started pouring all sorts of garbage, food and drinks, among other things, onto the ice. Fans were tossing things from the upper sections, either getting their trash on the ice or dousing fans in the lower sections. Officials had to pause the game and were unable to complete the remaining 21.6 seconds of the second period until after the break. Teams went in for the intermission, and when they returned, a Stars fan (or fans) dumped popcorn on Hill as he prepared to take the ice.
“Everybody in the building was frustrated tonight,” DeBoer said.
A lot went wrong for the Stars on Tuesday night, but it begins and ends with Benn.
The Stars’ season, in large part, has circled around Benn. His resurgence has been one of the biggest storylines. He finished the regular season with 78 points, second on the team, behind only Jason Robertson’s record-setting 109 points. The Bennaissance, as so many Stars fans labeled it, was real. Off the ice, this was Benn’s 10th season as a captain in Dallas, establishing a new franchise record. In February, Benn played in his 1,000th NHL game. As people marveled at the rise of Johnston, a lot of the credit from the organization was directed at Benn. He’s a great player, yes, but he’s also a leader. He’s the leader. Nobody would dare mess with Johnston on the ice because they knew if they did, Benn would be there.
Tuesday night, Benn — by choice — wasn’t there.
He chose to commit the awful penalty in the second minute of a game in which the Stars were hoping to begin to claw back into the series. The officials officially ejected Benn, but in reality, Benn took himself out of the game. He wasn’t there to provide the Stars with a full stable of forwards. He wasn’t there to be a factor on the power play. He wasn’t there to help drive his line, which has been one of the best for the Stars this season. With the season all but on the line Tuesday night, Benn wasn’t there.
The Stars lost without him, putting their season on the brink after falling to a 3-0 series deficit. After the game, the Stars captain had the choice to be accountable.
Benn wasn’t there.
Benn’s teammates and coach were put in a difficult spot. They had to answer for Benn’s actions. They had to field the tough questions. They had to find a way not to excuse a play that was blatantly dirty while also not throwing their captain under the bus. They had to answer for a game that spiraled out of control because of Benn’s actions. With all of the tough questions being bounced around, Benn wasn’t there.
Throughout Benn’s captaincy, his teammates have routinely given him their unwavering support. They’ve scoffed at the negative outside perceptions of Benn and talked about a leader who would do anything for them. Anything to help the team. They’ve talked about how he sets the tone. How Benn goes, that’s how the Stars go. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that Benn’s ejection deflated the team. It shouldn’t be surprising that Domi committed an unforced error at an inopportune time. That’s the tone Benn set.
Only four times in NHL history has a team down 3-0 in a series come back to win. That’s the hole Benn put his Stars in Tuesday. After Benn’s first-period actions, the Stars are bracing for his suspension. If that’s the case, the Stars will still take the ice Thursday on the brink of elimination. They will need all hands on deck.
Benn won’t be there.
(Photo of Jamie Benn and Mark Stone: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)