There is no question that both the Dallas Stars and Minnesota knew the importance of coming away with two points in tonight’s match-up. The fans knew it too. Tonight’s game was the closest we’ve come all season to it sounding like a playoff game in the American Airlines Center – and the first period set the tone of a playoff game on the ice, too.
After a scoreless first period, in which both teams seemed to have their share of scoring chances, the Stars offense finally punched one past the Wild goaltender, Alex Stalock. They would find the back of the net three more times (four if you count a waved-off goal by Jason Spezza), and ride that big four-goal period to a big win over their Central Division rivals.
The importance of taking two points from tonight was threefold:
1) The Stars needed to improve their record versus their Central Division foes. A losing record against divisional mates as the stretch run of the season comes will only hurt their chances to make the playoffs this year.
2) They took advantage of a team on the second half of a back-to-back that had to travel for tonight’s game. That kind of situation is when the Stars needed to dominate the opponent, and they haven’t always done that this year (see Maple Leafs, Toronto in your Stars dictionary as proof perfect of this). Not to mention, they beat a back-up goaltender, another situation they’ve struggled with this year.
3) Most importantly, they took two points away from a team trailing them in the standings. That’s exactly what the Stars will need to do as they finish off the other 29 games left on the schedule if they want to control their own playoff destiny at the end of the season. Most nights, they aren’t getting help from the teams playing the Central that night. They seem to constantly have nights where all the teams playing that night win – and only lose when there’s two of them facing one another.
Just look at tonight’s scores: the Nashville Predators are leading the New York Rangers late in the third period, the Winnipeg Jets beat the Colorado Avalanche (that helps Dallas for sure), the St. Louis Blues beat the Buffalo Sabres (does not help the Stars), and the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames are still battling it out in a late one.
Win, and the Stars can control their own destiny. Lose too often in these last games, and they’re going to be doing a lot of scoreboard watching – and it hasn’t been friendly most nights.
The first period ended 0-0, but Dallas had the better puck possession time in the opening frame. The Wild and Stars seemed to have an even number of quality looks at each other’s goaltenders, with both Stalock and Kari Lehtonen coming up big for their respective teams when needed.
What really stood out to me in the first period was how Dallas won a lot of the second and third battles for the puck. They did a great job supporting each other when the puck was along the boards, something that had been missing in their game against the Leafs and Los Angeles Kings in this last stretch of games.
It was a very evenly played 20 minutes of hockey, and that felt like a playoff game. Both teams were doing their best to limit quality chances against, playing a bit more of a tentative style hockey to feel each other out. That tight game play is what the Stars will face when they make the playoffs, so their response to it is even more heartening.
Because their response to that first 20 minutes was a four-goal offensive outburst in the second frame. The Stars used their power play to open the scoring when Mattias Janmark redirected the patented John Klingberg Point Shot past Stalock.
A fantastic individual effort goal that run around the net by Stephen Johns, a Jamie Benn power play goal, and a Tyler Seguin goal off of a great passing sequence by Benn and Alexander Radulov capped off the second period scoring.
There was a fifth goal scored in the frame, though. Jason Spezza seemed to pot one past Stalock after battling with a Wild forward all the way to the front of the net, but it was immediately waved off. It seems that Spezza commited the lightest of hooking penalties on the ankle of the Wild forward he was going up against, and the referee blew the play dead at the same time in which Spezza scored.
In my book, it seemed awfully light of a penalty to result in a goal being disallowed, but with the score the way it was, it wasn’t super surprising that the call was made, either. After all, it seems that referees tend to give the trailing team power play chances as the game goes on, though that could be more anecdotal than analytical analysis there.
The good thing about the third period was that the Stars didn’t seem to let off the offensive gas pedal too much. Jason Zucker did score in the third period to bust Lehtonen’s hopes for a shutout, but the Stars got that one back just three minutes later when Radulov scored one for himself.
They’d tack on a sixth goal when a Dan Hamhuis shot from the blueline got past Stalock. Not a good night for the Wild backup goaltender, but the Wild were unable to contain a lot of Dallas’ puck movement tonight. They left seams open too easily, gave the Stars space to work with, and left lanes open too often.
It was a big win for Dallas tonight. Let’s all enjoy it for 24 hours. Then it’s right back to battling for another two points when the New York Rangers hit Dallas in their Central Division swing on Monday night.