About halfway though the game last night, I thought to myself: "The Edmonton Oilers is the exact team the Stars needed to face, at this exact moment."
After two of the worst performances I've ever witnessed from the Dallas Stars, ever, the question became whether the team could rebound and recover enough to show that it was all just a blip on the radar and head into this break with feelings still on the positive side after one hell of a great month. The Stars were fighting injuries to two key forwards and the goaltending, so stellar all season long, had failed to save the team from any number of inconsistencies in their performance in two straight games. Now a cloud of doubt had settled upon the team and the fans, and with no practices after the 7-1 loss in Vancouver who knew how the Stars would play on Wednesday night.
I'm almost 100% certain that if the Stars were playing the Florida Panthers, or the Columbus Blue Jackets, or the New York Islanders last night that the team would have been in some serious trouble. Make no mistake, the Stars feed off their chemistry with one another and the emotions they build up as a team during a game. We've seen it all season long; the Stars come out flat, get down a goal and then seem to wake up and suddenly play like a team on a mission. That's happened between games as well -- the Stars recover from a painful loss with a convincing and determined win the next game.
For this game, after the two losses in Calgary and Vancouver, the Edmonton Oilers were the perfect opponents for the Stars to wake up, get motivated and recover from one hell of a disappointing weekend.
Wednesday night marked the third game in three weeks these two teams had faced off and just like it should always be in the hockey universe, the Oilers and the Stars had started to build some very bad blood between them. Following the final whistle last week in Edmonton, with Brenden Morrow and Kurtis Foster taking on each other at the end of the game, the Oilers made public note that they played two more game this season.
The Stars were coming off two games where it all fell completely apart. No teamwork, no chemistry and no 'fight' existed on the ice or on the bench and afterward the team silently made the long trip back to Dallas. No practices with which to regroup and refocus on the details of the game, plus the fact that the Stars would be without two key forwards made things even more worrisome.
So what proved to be the best game the Stars could have to get them back on the right track? How about a physical, knock 'em out fight of a game against a team the Stars obviously don't like very much.
From the start of the game you could tell the Stars were approaching this game differently than what we witnessed in Canada. The Stars were focused and motivated, not only with controlling the play of the game but motivated to prove that they are not a team to be pushed around and messed with.
The Oilers attempted to pull the Stars into a physical game that would supposedly get them off their game and give the Oilers a chance to get the win. Yet the Stars built of the physicality of the game in the second period en route to a 3-0 lead, bolstered by the amount of players on the ice ready to stand up for their teammates at the slightest hint of transgression by the Oilers.
Said Marc Crawford after the game (via Mike Heika):
"I think it's a combination of us probably not responding in the way we should have to the physical challenge in Vancouver and tonight, saying hey, teams are not going to play us that way. The right guys got in and battled hard tonight. It's not the guys that you always think of _ Matt Niskanen, coming in, jumping up and getting in that fight. We were sitting on the bench and saying that other guy's no Sidney Crosby . On the other side, you had (Mark) Fistric jump in, battle for his teammates tonight, James Neal. Those things go a long way. When teams come after your star players like Brad Richards, you have to stand up to that. That's just the game. We did a good job of that tonight and it was a physical game. Edmonton, they've battled all year along and they battled again tonight. They got the power play goal and got themselves back into the game. It made it exciting right there until the end. Again, our guys, we've buckled down every time we've gotten these guys into the third period and we've made it difficult for them to get anything sustained going and we've got to continue to do those things. It wasn't a masterpiece by us tonight. Our goalie was terrific but it was a real gutsy effort right through our lineup."
Crawford obviously had a lot to say on the subject, especially after such a physical game by everyone involved. It's obvious, however, that no matter you might think of the guy that the fact that Matt Niskanen was willing to fight -- once again -- for his teammates really sent the message of just how much they wanted to win this game.
His determination in that fight was a perfect microcosm of the game itself; the Stars were more determined, worked harder and wanted that win more than the Oilers and the final score reflected the effort in the game. If it wasn't for a blown 5-on-4 opportunity in the third period, the game would have been even more lopsided.
Brad said after the game he felt that the Stars getting into such a physical game wasn't exactly a good thing, and if this were the way the Stars tried to play every game then I would have to agree. Yet for this one game, this one very important game after such a horrible road trip, the Dallas Stars desperately needed a game in which they could prove to themselves and to the league that won't be messed with and they can and they will pull together as a team if their backs are against the wall.
Of course, it's all for nothing if the Stars don't build on this and continue winning after the break. The Stars should use this game to get back to the style of play that's been so successful this season and while we all love for the Stars to be physical, four fights a night is not what we need moving forward.
The determination, the fighting spirit, the chemistry amongst teammates? That's exactly what the Stars need, however.