Usually these observations posts will be going up within a few hours of the end of the game but given the late finish last night and today being an actual work day, this first one was a bit delayed.
Onto some thoughts on a very frustrating loss to the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1, in which every single shortcoming and weakness of the Dallas Stars was grossly exposed -- and yet they were within one shot of a tie game in the final minutes.
During all of the build up to this game and to this series, in which I and others prognosticated that the Dallas Stars had a very good chance of actually winning this series, there was always this worry in the back of my mind that what happened in the first period would be the way everything would start. It's happened so many times to teams in a similar position and Dallas is a team that relies not just on speed and tenacity for success -- but confidence, as well.
The Stars took the ice looking like a team that felt the nerves of a first postseason appearance in five years, with nearly half the team never before stepping foot on ice with "Stanley Cup Playoffs" painted on either side of the blue lines. While the Stars certainly controlled the flow of play for much of the period and had plenty of offensive zone ice time, too many bad decisions and mistakes led to quick goals in transition -- goals that completely sucked the life out of the Stars from the very start.
Expanding on that point, the Stars had plenty of energy in this game but it was of the more frenetic kind rather than a controlled and focused energy that has earned them so many victories this season. The Stars for most of the game were out shooting the Ducks but were never capable of creating the prime chance opportunities the Ducks were cashing in on and the chances they did have early in the game simply didn't fall their way -- Ray Whitney hitting the pipe on the power play when the game was still 1-0 comes to mind.
As such, the Stars may have had the shot advantage but were caught chasing the play and the puck far too often. The puck would get deep into their own zone and the Stars struggled to not only get control but to cleanly break out of the zone -- once again, those nerves led to insecurity and miscommunication with the puck and led to some very uncharacteristic miscues that we hadn't seen from the Stars in quite some time. The play behind the net where Lehtonen just...left it...is the first that comes to mind.
Over the course of the season the Stars drew the fourth-most penalties in the NHL yet were ranked No. 23 in actual power play percentage. This is a good example of how the Stars were one of the best possession teams in the league yet struggled to make the postseason; they are capable of controlling play for large chunks of time but ultimately struggle to actually cash in on those chances.
Last night the Stars unveiled a bit of a new look on the power play, with Ray Whitney coming back and the Stars using a rotating scheme at the points. This led to Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin controlling the puck at the far points rather than in tight and the Stars were unable to really collapse the Ducks penalty kill down low until they scored on a 5-on-3 for the first Stars goal of the postseason. The Ducks were masterful at keeping the Stars attack on the perimeter -- but just think how the complexion of the game would have changed had Dallas taken advantage of either of three power plays in the first period?
Also, the 5-on-3 goal for the Stars was the first one they've scored on all season long.
I wonder about whether the second goal scored by Anaheim should have been allowed, but I also don't think the play developed slowly enough for the official to realize what had happened -- and I'm doubting that play is open for review anyway.
The new rule is that play should be blown dead -- immediately -- when the goaltender has his mask broken, knocked off or knocked askew. The initial shot by Matt Belesky broke Kari Lehtonen's mask and it was already falling off his head when Ryan Getzlaf knocked the puck in out of midair for the goal. It was such a bang-bang goal and happened incredibly quickly, but the replay shows that Lehtonen's mask was turned sideways on his face as Getzlaf scored.
Just an unfortunate turn of events for the Stars on that one -- aside from the turnover that actually led to the goal.
Speaking of turnovers at the blue line -- the Ducks did a masterful job of stacking their players at the defensive blue and not allowing the transition game of the Stars to ever gain steam. The Stars are not built to be a dump and chase team and it showed in Game 1, with turnovers upon turnovers at the blue line really being what led to this loss more than anything else. The Ducks were incredibly aggressive all game long, especially as they began to sense the Stars' hesitation with the puck when moving it up ice, and suddenly the problems that plagued this team in the opening month of the season were once again on full display.
The same strategy worked for the Ducks on the penalty kill as well, and then once again in the latter stages of the game when the Stars had pulled to within just one goal. The incredibly aggressive attack on the points to put the pressure on the Stars was perfectly executed, and Daniel Winnik was impressive in the final minute of the game pulling off this exact strategy. It's something the Stars are going to have to figure out how to counter, because last night it left them rattled.
Back to Kari Lehtonen. Overall I thought this was a good performance but like the team in front of him he looked nervous and frenetic in his energy and approach -- especially in the first period. Games like that are very tough for goaltenders where it's not so much a structured attack and is rather a full-on assault on the goal from all angles, the puck was moving laterally across his crease far too easily and it led to a lot of back-and-forth that pulled Lehtonen out of position far too often.
The first goal is one that is tough to give up, but that was just one hell of a play by Kyle Palmieri off one of the prettiest passes you'll ever see on an odd-man rush. The second goal we discussed above -- don't know exactly what Lehtonen was supposed to do after being smacked in the cage like that -- and the third goal was a direct result of what was just discussed above. Only the fourth goal, one that somehow found its way through some light traffic and in, could really be considered one that he'd want back.
Lehtonen settled in, and made some big stops in the third period when Anaheim really seized back control of the game. Hopefully that finish can allow him to regain some confidence moving forward and carry that into Game 2.
Let's just get this out of the way and make this perfectly clear. I don't care how nice Jim Nill thought he was being, or how he "wanted to do right by the player" but trading away Stephane Robidas is really going to haunt this team in the postseason. Sergei Gonchar and Aaron Rome were laughably horrible last night and there's no way to really get around it.
In just nine minutes of play, Rome managed to become the worst possession player out of any player that took the ice last night -- in all three games across the NHL. Sergei Gonchar wasn't too far behind, and Rome ended up with just over nine minutes of ice time after Lindy Ruff realized just how overmatched that bottom pairing really was and limited their exposure. It was downright painful to see.
I don't know what the answer is -- Brenden Dillon getting healthy is a start -- but the postseason is a game of attrition and every team will have their depth tested. Right now, the Stars have no depth on defense and this series will not last very long if the Stars can't even rely on their third pairing for more than 10 minutes a game -- and especially if they just get torched every time they touch the ice.
Oh yeah -- both players are under contract for next season. Go Stars.
We talked a lot about how Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel could be the difference makers in this series, a duo of energy and speed with goal-scoring ability, but last night was perhaps their worst game of the season and it came at the least ideal time. Garbutt cannot take stupid penalties like he did when he was caught spraying Andersen, and it leads to a reputation where he can get cross-checked in the teeth and no call is made by the officials.
Both players were fairly invisible throughout the game and when they were it was for all the wrong reasons. Roussel looked at times like a player completely out of his element and their speed was instantly countered by the Ducks ability to stand tall at the blue line. It was disconcerting to see, especially since I think Roussel can have a major impact on this series. Perhaps this is an example of a young player getting his first taste of the postseason and letting his over-frenetic energy and nerves get the best of him.
As it should have, that horrible first period and then the 4-0 deficit led to Ruff really juggling his lines and he didn't just shake them up and leave them. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were all over the line combinations through the second and third period and were split up a time or two as well, especially since Ray Whitney and Shawn Horcoff were so ineffective as well.
Speaking of which -- three out of the four worst players for the Stars last night were the veterans expected to help Dallas this season and provide the leadership necessary for a postseason series. Horcoff and Whitney struggled even more than Gonchar did, and the fourth line really had their minutes limited -- except for Alex Chiasson, who stepped into the minutes of the demoted Ryan Garbutt.
The juggling worked, as the Stars were able to cash in on some chances and claw back into the game, but you wonder once again how the coaches will deal with this disparity moving forward. The Stars will have no chance in this series if they continue to roll out these veteran players just to see them get steamrolled each time they hit the ice.
Speaking of line juggling, Valeri Nichushkin was moved off the top line at times but it wasn't because he was playing poorly. Aside from a very noticeable turnover in transition that led to a flurry of chances for Anaheim, Nichushkin was one of the best and most effective players on the ice for Dallas last night. He was strong on the puck and was showing some good vision with his passes and more importantly -- he was putting the puck on net.
Nichushkin hasn't had the sort of shot volume this season one would want from a potential gamebreaking goal-scorer, but last night he was more than effective in both getting the puck up and out of his zone as well as actually creating shots and chances when he took the puck into the zone on offense. Nichushkin is getting more power play time as well, a sign that the coaches are growing more comfortable and trusting with the young rookie, and his confidence is growing along with that trust.
Finally...I know that most of this article is negative in tone and nature, but overall I was very pleased with the heart and character shown by the Stars last night. They weathered a storm and came fighting back and while the rally ultimately fell short, I think that Dallas proved they won't just take a tough loss laying down. The Stars were losing 4-0 less than halfway into the game, yet it was a one-shot affair with six minutes remaining in regulation. There's a lot here to build off of and based on post-game comments it seems the Stars at the very least proved to themselves they know they can play with this team and won't let the loss bring them down.
I also think the national media and hockey audience, perhaps chuckling to themselves after that first period onslaught, learned just what sort of team the Stars have become and I think a lot of respect was earned last night.
Game two is going to be crucial; win this one, and the loss on Wednesday will all but be forgotten heading back to Dallas on Monday night.