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Afterwords: Here’s Looking at You, Miro Heiskanen

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Heiskanen and Hintz were everywhere in this one, and Nashville went nowhere.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

But boys will be boys and girls have those eyes

That will cut you to ribbons sometimes

And all you can do is just wait by the moon

***

If you’d forgotten how brutal the playoffs can be, this series brought you up to speed right quick.

Nashville came out firing, fueled by a raucous crowd worn weary with playoff almosts over the last couple of seasons. The Stars had to weather the initial storm, and that wasn’t just a Filip Forsberg post or a Roman Josi goal. Dallas was getting hit, and hard. In fact, the Jason Dickinson obliteration was the capstone project of a period-long effort by the Preds to systematically target Dallas’s lineup with physical play.

Mats Zuccarello took a hard hit into the boards from P.K. Subban, and Miro Heiskanen had to dust himself off a couple of times, too. Players like John Klingberg can handle this sort of targeting within reason, and Klingberg even danced into the zone with an early foray that didn’t gain much. It was important, I thought, for Klingberg to remind Nashville that they couldn’t scare Dallas that easily. There were counterpunches to be had, and Dallas found more than one. Klingberg, in fact, would get called for just that, later on.

Considering that this roughing call on Klingberg came pretty recently after Bishop was tagged with embellishing what I thought was a pretty clear-but-not-too-violent goaltender interference call against Colton Sissons, I can see why Klingberg was steamed. Arvidsson is flopping here after an incidental bump, and Klingberg wants to let him know what Dallas thinks about the nonsense he’s seen in Bridgestone. After a couple more players get involved, Klingberg ended up putting Arvidsson in a headlock, which isn’t that uncommon in scrums after the whistle. But Arvidsson goes limp, and Klingberg ends up getting tagged for malfeasance. Klingberg definitely went a bit too far, but hey, given the Predators’ toothless power play, maybe it was a strategic effort by Klingberg all along. You can’t prove it’s not.

It wouldn’t be Klingberg who extracted satisfaction for Arvidsson’s debt, but his defense partner. I mean, how about Esa Lindell playing a one-on-one perfectly against Viktor Arvidsson late in the third period before pasting him? Lindell makes sure Arvidsson doesn’t get around him with the puck, poking it free in the process, then finishes him along the boards, after which the Stars would (eventually) clear.

As usual, Esa Lindell ended up making a patient play that gave the Stars what they needed. Dallas was able to temper the Preds’ forecheck by the second period, and the game finally found a weird rhythm where Dallas would sustain pressure for a little while, generating a couple of dangerous chances, only to have Nashville then hold the puck for long stretches in the offensive zone, but only generating much in the way of quality on the occasional shot into traffic (or a periodic breakdown). It was, really, what Dallas Stars Hockey is supposed to be, for now. Ben Bishop held things together, and the Stars got him three goals. Don’t tell Anton Khudobin about that last part.

As for the forwards, I thought it was worth pointing out this bit of Jamie Bennery:

That sequence led to a Ben Lovejoy primary assist, and a Mats Zuccarello goal through the wickets of a rather ill-prepared Pekka Rinne in the crease. Rinne really looked vulnerable all game, to my eyes, and three goals almost felt like the small end of what he could’ve given up in this one. Anyhow, Mats Zuccarello scored the game-winning playoff goal for Dallas, so probably Jim Nill is not currently losing sleep over what draft pick(s) he has yet to lose.

But disaster almost struck for Benn, too. Klingberg hit the post on the power play (off Subban’s stick) late in the second after a great piece of work by Radulov along the boards, but the scored was knotted at one. Then, late in the second, Dallas surrendered a shorthanded breakaway to Ryan Ellis, of all people. (Though really, shouldn’t we expect it to be a defenseman by now?) Benn caused it when he tried a bump pass to Klingberg at the blue line on the power play and missed pretty badly. Seguin didn’t jump on it in time, it went into no-man’s-land, and Ellis was ultimately sprung for the break in on Bishop after a 2-on-1 in the neutral zone, only to be stopped because Ben Bishop.

Had that chance been converted, Benn would have had his work cut out for him in the dressing room during the second intermission. Instead, the Stars entered the final 20 minutes with the score even, and the game waiting to be grabbed. They would grab it.

On an offensive zone faceoff, Montgomery rolled out his top line, and the Predators paid full price. After a lost faceoff, Radulov went berserk along the boards to keep Austin Watson from making a play with the puck, and a sprawling Janmark managed to fork the puck out to Klingberg at the point, whom Montgomery had paired with Miro Heiskanen for the offensive zone draw. The decision paid off, as Heiskanen’s shot sizzled through traffic, off Radulov—who had sprinted right back to the front of the net after the puck went back high and cleared P.K. Subban from the area with a little push-off—and right past Rinne’s head. The Stars, at last, had the lead, thanks to a couple of great plays by a teenage defenseman. Just your standard game one, is all.

In fact, it was all defensemen, all the time. Nashville’s two goals (both from the blue line) in particular were pretty ones, with Roman Josi beating Zuccarello off the boards to get a partially screened backhand past Bishop in the slot, and Subban discarding Tyler Pitlick and Taylor Fedun en route to a highlight-reel goal. If you’re gonna be taken to task by two Perds d-men, those are probably the two you’d expect it to be. The Stars might expect it a little more, after this one. Bishop clearly did, as he made a massive stop on Roman Josi right after the Subban goal to keep the Stars in front. That felt like the precise chance that was going in against Dallas in playoff series past, either against Anaheim in game six a few years ago, or against St. Louis in Game 7, or honestly in a lot of those games in 2016. This year, we have a bit better idea of what it will take to beat Ben Bishop than we did with Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi, whose aptitudes could range from “Unbeatable” to “Translucent” at the worst possible times.

What I didn’t expect in this game was for the Stars’ power play to outperform the Predators’ thanks to the second unit, sans Spezza. I guess it was inevitable that Miro Heiskanen would end up impressing us, as he always seems to find ways to do that, but still—what’s next? Is he going to carry the bottom-six forwards, too? Play 40 minutes a night? I’m scared to draw the line, because all he seems to do is exceed conventional limitations. I’ll settle for marveling, for now.

Special teams did end up mattering quite a bit, as the Stars had a couple of huge kills on the way to going 4-for-4 on the PK. I do think the Stars’ defensive structure is a bit overblown this year, but there’s no denying that they have found something that has worked, so far. Much like Roman Polák’s outright heroic block late in the third, the Stars are not perhaps operating optimally, insofar as they still allow shows and chance against without generating quite as much as you might prefer. But last night, as they managed to do often enough to make 82 games worthwhile, they found a way to amke it work.

In this game, perhaps the biggest things that worked were the younger players. Say what you will about playoff experience and knowing what it takes to win: NHL-caliber players are, by and large, NHL-caliber players. Roope Hintz in particular was next-level, backing off Nashville players or burning them on the outside. He deserved a point or two in this one, as he tied for the most shots on goal in the game with six. That he tied for the lead in shots on goal with the scuffling Kyle Turris, of all people, is as comical as it is remarkable. Especially when you consider that this one didn’t count as a shot on goal at all:

Somewhere along the line, the Stars made adjustments, and Nashville couldn’t keep up. Dallas went from a more passive approach in the first 20 minutes to a 2-1-2 forecheck that terrorized Nashville for the first quarter of the third period. Whether this is just a quirk of iim Montgomery’s approach, a savvy adjustment, or just hockey players finding ways to win, you can be the judge.

***

We waited for game one for hours, days. It arrived, and it brought some pain, but much more joy. Even Jason Dickinson somehow found his way back, clearing concussion protocol and looking more or less like himself down the stretch. I’m not sure if he’ll be back in the top six or not, at this point. Janmark can do good things up there. He was the Stars’ fourth-highest scoring forward last season, in case you forgot.

As for the Predators, Austin Watson, when he wasn’t doing accidental spin moves next to a goal-scoring Miro Heiskanen, was doing his best to get physical, too, laying a hit of his own up high on Hintz. If you’re looking for players to put on your List for this series, he and Boyle are looking like great bets so far, along with the other usual suspects. More hits are coming. There will be nonsense. Relish the nonsense.

Hintz also had a moment early in the second, during the 4-on-4 portion of the Bishop/Sissons rubbish, where he, Lindell and Klingberg fairly well cirumnavigated the Predators in the Nashville zone for 40 seconds solid (with Benn ensconced near the crease). It all culminated in a tipped shot that trickled through Rinne but just wide of the net. Hintz did so much good-to-great in this game, but hard work sure had better be its own reward, because the score sheet bears no gifts this time. Wins are pretty nice, though.

This game was oddly inspiring, not because the Stars outright dominated Nashville—they didn’t—but because the Stars hung with Nashville on the road, weathered early and late storms (sometimes of their own making), and got goals from people other than the top three guys. That’s been more or less the white whale for Dallas most of the year, or years, now. They are a threat on different forward lines, on different defense pairings, and in different periods. (The second and third, we mean. Clearly they still need to replace Connor Carrick’s coffee supply in the first period or something.)

In the regular season, we sometimes look at wins with two or three different lenses. But the playoffs are a tournament, and no one cares how unsustainable one method might be if you’re piling up the wins. One win, so far, is not a pile. But it’s the beginning of something. And, for Dallas, it’s the end of something else. They no longer have to look back for positive playoff memories, reflecting on what has been with melancholy or nostalgia. They are in the throes of “doing the playoffs” right now. These in-between days are tough to bear, but wins make everything better. The Stars’ immediate future isn’t looking too bad at all today thanks to Ben Bishop, Miro Heiskanen, and everyone else.

The playoffs are here, and the Stars are leading their series 1-0. It’s literally the best possible result they could have at this point, out of two results. I’m oversimplifying, but that’s what tournaments are. We’re here to watch them win. The process was for the 82 games we churned through. Now, it’s time for the results. They’ve gotten one, and that always makes it a bit easier to get the next one.