After Game 1, things were looking good for Dallas fans. A 4-0 thumping will inspire confidence, and no fanbase needed the provided swagger more than one whose last playoff memory was a last-minute meltdown.
After Game 2, Stars fans were both emboldened and more sober. A tight contest with a lucky break gave the Stars a two-win lead in the series, and Dallas left for Minnesota with their heads held high. Fans already a little irked by the Minnesotan animosity towards Dallas relished the unlikeliest of goals, and so they smirked their way into Game 3.
Game 3 brought a bit of the David/Goliath dynamic, and Minnesota fulfilled their underdog role. Dallas landed two swift punches, but Minnesota buckled down and made their last stand. Their desperate frenzy overwhelmed a Stars team that had begun some premature laurel-resting, giving the State of Hockey a long-awaited playoff game victory for its efforts.
So, after tonight, the series will either be tied with both teams having held home ice, or the Stars will have a commanding 3-1 series lead. The numbers say that the Stars have something like a 60% chance of going up 3-1 in this series, and the numbers get almost inevitable after that. More candidly, if Dallas wins tonight, they can win at an Edmonton Oilers rate for the rest of the series and still progress to the Semifinal.
These are all numbers that you know. The midway point of a series is sometimes the toughest one to analyze, and never moreso than when the home team has won every game. Hockey gives the home coach a distinct advantage if he is capable of using it, and John Torchetti successfully got the Koivu line and the Suter pairing matched up against Jamie Benn:
(Here's how to read this chart.)
In contrast to Game 2, where the Stars' second line was able to victimize the Wild's 4th line and second defense pairing with consistency, Game 3 saw the Wild more or less match strength against strength, and it worked. Mikko Koivu was able to slow down the top line while Erik Haula made his presence felt against Spezza and Co. Dallas was held to less than 20 shots on goal in the entire game, and Minny having the last change played a big role in that.
For tonight, Lindy Ruff is facing the same obstacle, but you can bet that he will try a different tactic. Whether that will manifest itself in line-ruffling beyond swapping Eaves and Janmark remains to be seen, but there is solace to be taken in the fact that the Faksa/Hemsky/Roussel line got the better of play against the Wild's depth. They've also done quite well against the Suter defense pair, so you wonder if Ruff might give them a few more minutes to try to force the issue.
Fans tend to watch primarily their own players during a game, and for good reason. They know the build and stride of their own, and they can recognize a sweater number in an instant. When it comes to the enemy, there are usually five or six players fans can recognize immediately, but beyond that, it's just "the defender" or "the Wild player" until you hear the broadcast name them. (Quick, is that Chris Porter or Nate Prosser?)
Stars fans are starting to get sick of certain names (Niederreiter, for one), but tonight will test the recognition and subsequent adaptation by the coaches in a critical way. Ruff may run occasional 15-second shifts to get John Torchetti crossed up during play, or he may start Ruffling lines if things aren't trending well early on.
Or, of course, he may not do either of those things, instead trusting in his team's superior talent to get the job done despite the more difficult circumstances. Dallas is a top seed after all, and even though they've shown themselves fully capable of getting toppled by an underdog in a game, the Wild have a much bigger challenge in Game 4. Anyone can wound a sleeping lion; it's a lot tougher to finish off an angry one.