Going down 3-0 in the first period is bad, 4-0 midway through the second period is bad, giving up two power play goals is bad.
Wednesday night was tough on a lot of us. Riding high after watching the Stars clinch their first playoff appearance since 2008, many of us spent the week leading up to the playoffs dissecting the different possibilities for the series; and a lot of us saw the Stars upsetting the Anaheim Ducks at the end of the day.
That's why the beginning of the game Wednesday was so shocking. I went over to a friend's place for an evening of awesome playoff hockey. We started with a half and half split of the Montreal-Tampa game one and Columbus-Pittsburgh game one. I got to see my family's hometown team beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in thrilling overtime fashion, and I got to once again enjoy yelling at the Pittsburgh Penguins for being a whiny paper tiger of a team (although they ended up winning).
Then, it was 9:50pm (eastern standard for me) and we switched to the Dallas-Anaheim pregame. The friend I was with is a diehard Boston Bruins fan who also loves the Minnesota Wild (yuck) and has a Ducks shirt because of how much he likes Teemu Selanne and "Scorey" Perry.
So as the fan of the underdog, I took to justifying my opinion that the Stars could beat the Ducks. I cited the advanced stats, Kari Lehtonen vs a rookie, the Benn-Seguin connection, team speed, confidence, and a much more focused group of defenders. You know, what we've been talking about here for quite some time. My friend was nice enough to go with it, smiling and nodding while telling me he'd happy if I was right.
Then, 1:53 into the game I looked at my friend with a kind of "oh my god, reality is setting in" type face, and things started to get ugly. Things continued to get worse, as the Ducks scored two more in the period and were carrying all the momentum. The Stars started to look a bit like the team that dropped games to Carolina, Florida, and the New York Islanders at important points of the season.
Given that it was a late night and both my friend and I had to wake up early today, my friend looked at me after the Ducks' fourth goal and said that he was sorry, but if the Stars didn't score at least a goal before the end of the period he was going to have to drive me home so he could go to sleep.
That would have sucked, but I agreed because I was pretty bummed myself and it wouldn't be fair to force him to stay up while I complained about Aaron Rome and Sergei Gonchar looking like they were actually trapped in ice every time they played.
Then, an Alex Chiasson shot on a 5-on-3 deflected to Jamie Benn who ripped the puck in, and Colton Sceviour took a turn around shot which fooled Frederik Andersen, and we were both at the edge of our seats. Sleep could wait, this was playoff hockey.
Here are my "glass half full" observations on the Stars' first playoff game since 2008:
One of the big questions going into the first round of the playoffs was whether or not the Stars' dynamic duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin could stand up to the Ducks' (slightly more) dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. While the Ducks got the last laugh on the scoreboard, Benn and Seguin proved that they could handle it. Getzlaf was huge for the Ducks, scoring a goal and picking up another assist, while Perry picked up an assist, but the Dallas duo stepped up to keep the Stars relevant. Benn scored a nice 5-on-3 goal to start things, and Seguin got a beautiful tip on Trevor Daley's third period shot to bring the Stars within one.
While neither necessarily dominated the game, both players had some very good opportunities, most notably Jamie's shot and then rebound in front of the net, and Seguin's power move to the front of the net from the goal line. Obviously you'd like to see both guys generate a few more chances, but their scoring chances weren't low from lack of trying or being in the right place. The Ducks played some great defense and Andersen had a helluva game, but Benn and Seguin were always around the net and always looked dangerous.
This is probably the best thing to come out of the game Wednesday. In the past few years and for a lot of this season, the Stars have been a team that has trouble coming back once they've given up a few goals. They've had a tremendous ability to bounce back after a bad game, but usually when they've let in a few goals, especially quickly, it's been pretty safe to say that the game was all but done.
Wednesday night was different, though; they may have made some sloppy errors, but the hunger to win was there throughout the game. Both Lehtonen and Seguin noted in their post-game interviews that the Stars had a lot of pressure and a lot of good chances early on even though they gave up some goals, and this was key. After bad turnovers gave the Ducks some rushes towards the net which they capitalized on, the Stars didn't falter in their efforts to drive the play. They picked themselves up and went right back to work.
When Butch Goring interviewed Lindy Ruff on the bench after Anaheim's fourth goal, some coaches might have been fuming, some might be stoic and look like zombies, but not Lindy Ruff. He was positive and just looked at Butch and said that the score didn't matter at that point, they were down and all they needed was to focus on the next one. They did just that and they got the next one, and then the next one, and then the one after that. Their comeback ultimately fell short but they showed a lot of mental toughness by erasing the memory of some bad plays and powering forward.
It's pretty remarkable that after finding themselves in a 4-0 hole to the best team in the Western Conference a single shot, deflection, or bounce could have put the game into overtime. That's the resiliency and elasticity you want to see from the Dallas Stars right now.
Lehtonen Bounced Back
Lehtonen didn't have the start he or anyone involved with the Stars wanted him to have. Kyle Palmieri beat him on a beautiful backhand off of a great pass from Nick Bonino, but the puck went five-hole right under Lehtonen's stick and it looked like he could have gotten it. The second goal was a fluke since Matt Beleskey's shot knocked Lehtonen's helmet off, but it wasn't fully off before Getzlaf punched in the rebound. Mathieu Perreault added to the lead on a cross-crease feed that Lehtonen almost got over in time to stop.
The fourth goal may have been the softest to let up as Lehtonen didn't really fight through the screen to get his eyes on the puck. Still, that shot went off a shin pad and into the net and there wasn't much he could do about it. You would like to see the Big Finn get one or two of those back, but none of the goals were really his fault.
Aside from those bad breaks, he was very solid in net. His rebound control was a bit helter-skelter at first, but he calmed down and showed us why he was such a big factor in getting the Stars to the postseason. When the Stars started pushing to get back into the game he was perfect. He started playing like the Lehtonen we all know and love - calm, compact, and challenging shooters. The last time he was in the playoffs he let in 11 goals in two games, so when the Ducks put three behind him in the first period I got worried that his past experience would haunt him and he would break down a bit.
He did the opposite and his ability to forget those goals and play like he did in the second and third periods will be key to the Stars' success going forward in this series.
Young Players Produced
A lot has been made of the Stars' lack of playoff experience. Nearly half of their players came into this year's playoffs without ever having played in the postseason at the NHL level. For the most part they played well in their debuts. They all made mistakes (nobody had a perfect game by any means), but as the game wore on they seemed to get more and more comfortable. Chiasson got things started when he took a shot off of a Seguin pass on the 5-on-3 which deflected off Colton Sceviour and fell to Jamie Benn at the side of the net where the captain ripped home his first playoff goal.
Benn scored his first playoff goal off of Chiasson's and Sceviour's first career playoff assists. Granted, Chiasson was trying to shoot and Sceviour just happened to be there, but points are points and it still means they were doing the right thing.
Under two minutes later, Sceviour scored his first playoff goal on another weird one. The assists? First career playoff assists for both Cody Eakin and Jordie Benn. In the third period, Valeri Nichushkin collected his first playoff point with an assist on Seguin's tip in goal. Chiasson and Nichushkin both finished with four shots on net while Sceviour and Garbutt had two apiece.
While there was a lot left to be desired from the young guys in their debuts, they did a lot of positive things on the ice and held it together well enough to keep the game close. As Brandon mentioned in his observations yesterday, the guys who had the worst games were the old veterans brought in to provide stability and experience to a Stars team that is still very green (pun very much intended).
Veteran Instability Hopefully Means Rookie Stability
With Brenden Dillon out of the lineup, Lindy Ruff turned to Rome to fill in as a bruising, defense-first player on the back end. We can criticize it all we want but it made sense given his options. Kevin Connauton had some good moments in limited action this season and looks like he might become a mainstay next year, but in this situation Ruff wanted to replace Dillon's bruising with Rome's. On top of that, Rome played pretty well down the stretch; he wasn't flashy but he played mean and nasty while being positionally sound.
That fell apart Wednesday night, though. The pairing of him and elder-statesman Gonchar was a disaster.
They were constantly over-matched and taken advantage of, and neither seemed to be able to keep up. That was very bad in the context of the game but it might lead to some of the younger guys asserting themselves. Even though Gonchar somehow escaped with an even +/- and Patrik Nemeth ended up a -1, the Swedish rookie looked much more comfortable out there and saw more and more ice time as the game progressed, ending with an impressive 19:20.
That's not exactly ideal for the Stars, since you'd like experience to prevail, but in this case it seems like the better option is to have Nemeth playing bigger minutes. Jordie Benn made some questionable plays, but he also seemed to settle in a bit as he took more shifts. Hopefully after having gotten a taste of playoff action, Benn and Nemeth can play as a serviceable and safe second pairing while Dillon heals up.
The trial by fire the Stars' inexperienced duo had to endure in their first game wasn't ideal and they didn't come out of it unscathed, but they proved to be a better option than Rome-Gonchar, so hopefully we'll see more of the former pair than the latter for the rest of the series.
When Dillon comes back, Rome will probably be the odd man out, and things should look better as Nemeth will be able to slot back into the role of stay at home guy who cleans up Gonchar's mistakes -- a role he got pretty good at with his callup near the end of the regular season.
At the end of the day, there's still a ton of work to be done. The Stars are far from perfect and played a very critique-able game. They had trouble playing as a cohesive unit, and the mistakes they made ended up in the back of their net. Every player is going to have to play better in order for this team to advance to the next round.
That being said, there was a lot to like about their effort.
They never quit on the game no matter how bad things got and everyone chipped in on offense. Everyone from the defenders to the forwards to goaltending got better as the game wore on and took it to the Ducks in the third period. This team showed that they're not going to sit back and watch a one seed run them over. They showed the willingness and ability to make this a tight series, and it should be an exciting one.