The first Dallas Stars playoff win since mid-May of 2008 was a satisfying one Monday night, pulling them to within a game of the Anaheim Ducks and assuring handshake avoidance this evening.
Dallas used a huge game from Kari Lehtonen and goals from Jamie Benn, Ryan Garbutt and Valeri Nichushkin to retire the Ducks 3-0, giving themselves a chance at tying the series on home ice before heading back out on the road.
The Stars won the game, but the Ducks changed the series with their mouths in the locker room at the conclusion, bemoaning the physical challenges of a minority fraction of the Stars' roster. Headlines like "Ducks need to stand up to bullying" [OC Register] and statements like "unwritten rules were fudged Monday night by the Dallas Stars" [Los Angeles Times] permeated the media after Dallas greatly out-chanced Anaheim at even-strength Monday night.
Duck's forward Patrick Maroon took it a step further adding "It's playoff hockey, but I think guys need to step up and play that role and do it right back to them, to their star players."
Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have minded their own business to this point, but must be mindful this evening.
And so the wonderful chess match that has been line-matching through three games between two smart coaches gets even more interesting, probably after the whistles. Probably where special teams are concerned.
Dallas watched Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry play their hybrid game of pestilential peevish behavior to go with their skill on Monday night- standard operating procedure for the two- and gave it right back to them in the form of Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt.
The trick, for both head coaches, is keeping their troops in line now, lest it boil over and create opportunity for one side more than the other. Roussel and Garbutt have the reputations (as do Perry and Getzlaf) but without the effects of star-power and skill to protect them. They are at risk in this one after the publicity. They must walk the line.
If they can continue to match up with the Ducks' top trio effectively while distracting them through frustration the Stars could be going back to Anaheim at two games a piece. A conga line to the penalty box and the series effectively ends tonight.
It's a tricky line to walk.
Hey, this rivalry stuff is getting fun, no?
Off the ice Brenden Dillon is making strides but is being called a long shot for game four this evening. He skated at the team's optional practice Tuesday and is planning on taking part in the morning skate Wednesday if health allows.
"I am going to plead my case, for sure," Dillon told media yesterday. "It's the doctors, too, that I have to prove it to. Like I said, I am feeling better and better, which is a good sign. I am taking care of what I can and controlling what I can control. Hopefully I can get in here and help my team."
He'll have his first opportunity at a real practice tomorrow, if the Stars have one before departing for Anaheim. Then game five, be it an elimination game or not, could see his return, possibly.
That being said, the Stars have competed with the Ducks every step of the way and know they can hang without him, but with so many minutes piling up on Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley the dependable presence could be a powerful temptation for the coaching staff.
Ruff also indicated yesterday that Erik Cole's scratch Monday night was his decision, though related to injury.
"That was just my decision, a coach's decision," Ruff said. "What was behind it was, I don't think since he's come back from injury his play has been where I needed it to be. In fact, there was some situations that have been tough on the team."
Whether that's a motivational tool or not is unknown. Cole has been good at home this season and the team could always use more finish and skill- So we'll see where he lands tonight.
Anaheim will do something to replace Stephane Robidas on defense, but they won't tell you what it is.
"[Luca] Sbisa hasn't played a lot this year, but he's a proven NHL guy," Boudreau told media Tuesday. "Mark Fistric just finished his rehab stint and I'm glad he did because that makes him eligible. We could still call Sammy [Vatanen] back [from Norfolk]. We have options."
Frederik Andersen will be looking to bounce back in the Anaheim net after Val Nichushkin's goal from distance and the scrambly play on the Garbutt goal. Kari Lehtonen will attempt to duplicate his heroics on Monday night to earn a potential second career playoff win- A mark already attained by young Andersen.
Neither team, it's fair to say, has thrown their best punch yet. Anaheim was not impressive in their wins, getting out-possessed by the Stars while taking advantage of the few quality chances they had. Dallas let the Ducks dominate play for long stretches Monday night in their first win. Seeing things lean heavily one way or the other with an A-game from either side would not be a surprise.
One thing to take out of that game Monday- a thing that's not been discussed much- Was Anaheim's defensive play in the opening minutes. It was stifling and complete, frustrating the Stars forwards while denying the middle of the ice wholly. If Anaheim is able to stay disciplined and duplicate those minutes it could slow the pace and turn this into a war of attrition.
At the end of the day, however, it comes down to the Eakin line again. They had the game in their hands and controlled Perry and Getzlaf Monday. What they're able to refrain from doing tonight could be just as huge. The Stars must stay out of the box.
7:00pm start tonight. Come early. Get loud. Like Monday. It's another virtual must-win for the young Stars.