There was a moment during Wednesday night's game when that disastrous first period could -- and should -- have gone much, much different. After surrendering the first goal on the first Anaheim Ducks first shot just minutes into the game, the Dallas Stars were handed a 4-on-4 and then a full power play by the midpoint of the first frame. Down 1-0, it was the perfect opportunity for the Stars to seize back momentum from the Ducks and quick stem the onslaught that would be coming their way.
Instead, the Stars failed to score on either opportunity and less than a minute after the penalty against Jakob Silfverberg had expired the Ducks once again scored off a big rush to the net and suddenly the Stars found themselves in a 2-0 hole.
Once again, the Stars were handed another opportunity with a full two-minute power play after Erik Cole
dropped had his stick slashed out of his hands by Daniel Winnik. Once again, the Stars failed to take advantage and the officials found their opportunity to even up the penalties a bit -- and the Ducks promptly scored on their power play and with less than 30 seconds remaining in the period, the Stars were down a demoralizing 3-0.
Continuing this special teams journey, we venture into the second period where play was somewhat even between the two teams as Dallas found a way to slow down the endless odd-man rushes allowed in the first. Seemingly unprovoked and in a moment of superb poor decision making, Ryan Garbutt sprayed the Freddie Andersen, the Ducks then scored on that power play and suddenly a rather insurmountable 4-0 deficit was born.
For all of the focus on the "big two" on each team, goaltending and depth scoring, it was the special teams play of both teams that truly defined this game. The Stars were one of the best teams in the NHL this past season in drawing penalties yet ranked No. 23 in the NHL in actual power play efficiency, a testament to just how much this team has struggled with actually finishing on the chances they can create -- and it all materialized in prime fashion on national television in a rather embarrassing manner to the 2014 NHL postseason.
Head back to that full power play for the Stars in the first period, when the score was still 1-0, and witness the shot from Ray Whitney that snaked through a crowd and rang off the post. Hockey is a game of inches, like any sport, and a luck can play a very large role in winning or losing -- just check out any stats guru and their take on the Anaheim Ducks this season. There, right before our eyes, we witnessed just how a team that was the "luckiest" in the NHL this past season could in fact finish with the most points in the West.
They made their own luck. While the chances and shots created might have technically been fewer, they were of a much better and higher-percentage caliber than that of the Stars. The boxscore will tell you that for most of the game the Stars actually controlled possession and somewhat outplayed the Ducks overall; most of us came away from the game feeling very enthusiastic about the state of each team heading into Game 2. One simple fact remains, however -- the Dallas Stars special teams must find a way to do what it hasn't done all season, and finally become effective when it is absolutely needed the most.
What is the answer to the power play struggles? A tough part of figuring that out is owed to the fact that the power actually doesn't appear to be as bad as the numbers suggest. They move the puck well and can actually gain long possession time in the zone, especially with the Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin unit, but the Stars second unit is so far behind that of the first that only about half of any power play can actually be counted upon to be effective.
The Stars and the coaches have worked on trying new combinations and new methods; Valeri Nichushkin is getting considerable power play time now on the second unit and at times appears to be it's quarterback from the half wall -- whether that is by design or just how it's worked out is unknown to those not at these practices, but I can't fathom that's looked upon as a recipe for success. It's the Stars' lack of depth brought full on display when the power play is in action, and perhaps there's really only one way to truly solve it.
Funnel. Crash. Simplify.
The Stars are now looking for that perfect play, moving the puck around the umbrella on the point and back trying to open up the penalty kill to find shooting lanes. Yet the puck movement is not nearly fast enough and the Ducks penalty killers were masterful in putting the pressure on the points -- where they knew the Stars were weakest. The Stars finally found a way to get pressure down low on the 5-on-3, resulting in the first goal of the game for Dallas, but overall Benn and Seguin were left ineffective during most of the power play time.
Game 2 is going to be very interesting, for a number of reasons. We've seen this season that Lindy Ruff and company are capable of getting this team to adjust beautifully between games, and this is one of the first times this season the Stars will have that chance against the very same team from the game before. The other: a 6-2 destruction at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche was followed by a fairly dominant 3-2 win at home the very next night -- a win that sparked a nice run for the Stars heading into the New Year.
Special teams is going to be the force that ultimately swings the pendulum in either team's direction, and tonight is the perfect chance for the Stars to pull the weight back into their favor.