These past few games for the Dallas Stars have been mirrors of certain moments and games throughout the season, only this time played out on a much bigger stage with the stakes at the absolute highest. On Wednesday night against the Anaheim Ducks in a pivotal Game 4, the Stars once again reached down deep inside and found the heart and character we've seen so many times this season to win the biggest game for this franchise since 2008.
A loss and heading back to Anaheim down 3-1 in this series would have been all but the final nail in the coffin of this season and after 20 minutes it seemed that perhaps that big performance on Monday might have been just a fluke. Yet faith was rewarded when once again the Stars stormed back against the Ducks and this time not only tied the game but skated away with a huge two-goal victory and now have all the momentum moving forward.
Onto the observations:
The Stars really started the game well but about midway through the first period just sort of...stopped skating. Suddenly the puck couldn't stay on their sticks and the players were overskating the play and couldn't get an actual puck on net the final ten minutes of the period or so.
This also allowed the Ducks to get their forecheck and cycle game going hard in the Stars zone and once again goals were scored directly off of some rather egregious turnovers. The Stars were getting beat to the puck in all three zones and suddenly found themselves down 2-0 and staring down the barrel of the potential of a rather unfortunate outcome -- similar to the two games in Anaheim where the Stars gave up multi-goal leads but couldn't get the equalizer.
Turning to Brad in the press box, however, I mentioned that it was going to be interesting to see how Lindy Ruff would get his team adjusted going into the second. All series we've seen how the Stars have changed their approach a bit after the first period and sure enough, the Stars scored four unanswered goals for the win. After the game, the Stars coach talked a bit about what was said during that first intermission.
"Obviously we didn't play our best first period," said Ruff. "I thought we were slow to move the puck and didn't quite get our feet moving. We had a couple of good offensive chances that we were just a little bit slow to. We talked about trying to get a little more speed through the neutral zone and getting more pucks in behind their defense and then that was probably one of the better second periods we've played."
Shawn Horcoff did not have a good start to this series and in fact was the worst possession forward in the NHL postseason after two games, and it seemed as if he really wouldn't be able to be that successful veteran presence he was expected to be. Perhaps it was feeding off the crowd, a change in scenery -- but Horcoff was the best player on the ice for the Stars on Wednesday and continued some strong play against the Ducks from Game 3.
Ruff had shuffled things around a bit and with Cole being scratched and Chris Mueller drawing in as the fourth line center, the Stars coach decided to stick Horcoff and Vern Fiddler together along with the young Colton Sceviour. Their game tonight against the Ducks was nothing short of brilliant, especially in the second and third periods.
"That was a line that we used late in the year," said Ruff, about that third line. "I thought that line played well when Sceviour got a couple in St. Louis. When Erik [Cole] came back and the lineup...to have a fourth center I had moved Horcoff down. I just felt that putting him back up there, because it was working so well, it was important for our team. And you can see the chemistry they had, the plays that they made, they like playing with each other. I really thought the last couple of games they've had some great plays inside the game and have been able to make the difference for us."
The trio finished with an absurd Corsi For of over 60% in the game, with Sceviour grading out as the most effective possession forward in this game despite not getting the prime minutes he needs. The Stars simplified their game and just drove the net and put as many pucks on Freddie Andersen as possible and in return were rewarded with a massive four-goal outburst that had Boudreau pulling the Ducks goalie.
We talked a lot before this series about how the difference between the two teams would be which team could lean the most on depth scoring and so far -- that's been the Dallas Stars, and we can't overlook the game that Horcoff and company had on Wednesday night.
That includes Vern Fiddler, who has drawn the ire and frustration of so many this season and mostly for good reason. But he's stepping it up in a big way these past two games and his pass to Goligoski to put the game away in the third period was nothing less than gorgeous -- not to mention his game-tying goal in the second period.
Horcoff is now tied for the lead in points on the Stars, by the way.
Jamie Benn has been the best player in this series between both teams and once again showed on Wednesday why we never should have doubted whether he was fit to be The Captain. Taking Lindy Ruff's intermission message to heart, Benn seized an opportunity off a faceoff and ripped one of the most beautiful wristers I've ever seen from the high slot and less than 30 seconds into the second period the game had quickly changed in tone, demeanor and the building absolutely came alive.
That goal was absolutely crucial to the comeback, with Ruff commenting after that he felt if the Stars could just get an early goal in the period they'd have a good chance at taking control of the game. I doubt he expected that goal to come as quickly as they did but he was right about it waking up the arena and getting the crowd going again.
Benn has been amazing in his first postseason series and he continues his trend of scoring big goals that kick off a Stars rally. The players said after the game that the goal really woke them up on the bench and injected some energy and motivation into their legs as well, and it showed in the most dominant period the Stars have played in quite some time.
And that crowd, oh my that American Airlines Center crowd. We talk a lot these days about how great Reunion Arena was and how loud it got and lament the cavernous AAC, but I'll challenge anyone that these past two games have been the loudest any Stars games have ever been.
Not just loud though, the crowds this week have been downright hostile and it's been amazing to behold. Perhaps it was the five years away from the postseason but these Stars fans are hungry for success and more importantly -- it's clear how much the fans absolutely and completely have come to love this team. You want to talk about how to win over and quickly rebuild a fanbase? Watch what happens if the Stars have a chance to actually win this series on Sunday.
The AAC crowds have been a difference maker in these two huge wins and the players know it -- they feed off of it, they fuel themselves with the energy and after years of half-full stands it's been amazing to see just how fast all of that has changed
There was a lot of talk about how the Ducks would "respond" after Game 3 and for the most part, not much was different than anything else you'd expect from the fourth game of a hard-fought series. After the Stars went up by two goals the Ducks seemed to be a bit more interested in engaging after the whistle and the Stars will take that approach any game -- instead of focusing on, you know, actually making a comeback and scoring the Ducks wanted to goon it up a bit. Let them.
"That's just playoff hockey," said Ruff when asked if he was upset about the antics at the end of the game. "It was fun for everybody I think. It's just playoff emotion. I really feel like we're in a playoff series now."
Let's talk real quickly about Trevor Daley and how he's suddenly channeling his inner Richard Matvichuk and leading the Stars defense in tenacity and grit while playing the best hockey of his career. Daley has become the emotional leader of this defensive corps and not only has he stepped up his physical game, but he's making the sort of plays both defensive and offense that we've been expecting of him for quite some time now.
The postseason is when teams need players like Horcoff, Fiddler and Daley to really step up and be a difference maker for their team and the lone survivor on this roster from the 2008 postseason run has been incredible. When Daley is leading the charge up the ice, when he's crashing the net and joining the rush he looks like one of the best defensemen in the NHL and now he's doing it consistently, while adding a very noticeable physical edge to his game.
Which brings us to...
I know that Alex Goligoski is not a true Number One defenseman. You certainly know it and I'm sure he does as well. But until that magical golden goose arrives, he's going to do his best to fill that role and for the past four months it is Goligoski that has truly been the difference for this team.
Goligoski played over 32 minutes on Wednesday, picking up extra time after Patrik Nemeth was hurt and his shot to put the game away in the third period was another example of how far he's come since the start of this season. In fact, the game itself was a microcosm for his career so far in Dallas -- the first period featured some classic Goligoski miscues with the puck but the final 40 minutes showcased the speed, aggression and physical play in his own end that has frustrated the Ducks so much in this series.