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Afterwords: Unevened Up

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Okay, hear me out: what if the fact that they didn’t allow any shorthanded goals means the six power plays were wildly successful

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

When the stars ain’t shinin’ bright

You feel like you’ve lost your way

When the candlelight of home

Burns so very far away

Well, you got to let your soul shine

***

Everyone experiences sports differently. But for me, experiencing a painful loss in the playoffs always compares closely with being dumped by a significant other. You’ve put the time in, you’ve worked hard to keep up with each other. And then, right when you can sense things getting a little tense, heartache.

I suppose, then, that this wasn’t the most gut-wrenching, out-of-nowhere breakup one could ever go through. It’s not like the Stars didn’t make their intentions clear.

The team is secure in its identity, which has wended its way through the woods of Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock to become a low-scoring, shot-quality team. In theory. And if ever that theory were put to the test, it was in this game, in which Nashville out-shot Dallas 42-23 in a game that was tied almost the entire time. And in which Dallas had six power plays to Nashville’s three.

Jim Montgomery, to his credit, was not happy with the Stars’ effort in this one. He talked about losing races to pucks and having poor support, and that’s before reviewing any game footage, keep in mind. So, in a way, it’s a bit unfair to look at this game as some sort of archetype for what the Stars want to be. They want to be better than this, really. Much better.

And good thing, too. Because even when you try to look at high-danger chances or something like that, it still speaks ill of the Stars’ work Saturday night. Which is to say, it communicates what you saw: the Stars barely generated anything outside of the Jamie Benn goal. That is, aside from one surprisingly very good aspect of their game:

Now, look. It’s two games. You shouldn’t just toss out everything you’ve spent 82 games fine-tuning just Because Playoffs, but you do have to consider how the opponent is matching up in order to exploit any weakness or mitigate any of your own.

In this case, it appears the Stars’ power play is working insanely well the minute all the best players come off the ice. It’s wild, and I can’t really remember seeing anything like it over more than one game—particularly on a team with as big a talent disparity between the top and bottom six as Dallas.

The second unit of Lindell (who doesn’t really play the point), Dowling, Heiskanen (who was briefly moved to the top unit later in the game), Faksa and Hintz was fabulous, nearly scoring multiple times. Yeah, the “nearly” is an important thing to note, but when you go 0-for-6, you’re forced to rank failure on a sliding scale. Hey, at least I’m not hitting you with the Stars’ goals-per-game average of 2.00 thus far. That would be pretty ugly, ha ha ha.

The second unit, in addition to the stats Matt listed up there, generated more shots and scoring chances than the first unit in about half the minutes. I’m not sure how much analysis you really need to do in order to conclude that “they need to be better,” but that’s a good starting point.

To sum it up, this is what I saw: a second unit that had Miro Heiskanen and/or Roope Hintz attacking with speed, thereby backing off the penalty killers to make zone-entry easier, or to make dump-in recovery simple if the Preds tried to hold the line. It’s a luxury, in a way, of having nothing to lose. When you’re the second unit, you just know you’re not supposed to screw up. That emboldens a group like that, I think. And when you have Hintz and Heiskanen (not to mention Lindell, who has a crafty creative side) playing like that, they’re going to wreak some havoc.

The trouble, in the end, was the same issue throughout. The Stars, when they managed to create chances, couldn’t score, couldn’t sustain pressure, and couldn’t control the Predators, even as they withstood them for 64 minutes. The one bright moment, in fact, came on a ghastly turnover by the best part of the Nashville squad: its defense. Under pressure from a hard Alex Radulov forecheck, Mattias Ekholm blindly rimmed a puck up the boards right to Seguin, and his saucer pass to Benn was picked out of the air with precision.

It was great work by Radulov, who also created a golden chance for Seguin that Pekka Rinne robbed early in the third. Alex Radulov may have gotten some boos in Nashville, but he’s still looked like the Stars’ most consistent forward in terms of impact and scoring chance generation. Though Seguin and Benn have also been quite good.

That line, by the way, was really all Dallas had in this game. Every other line got buried, with the purported shutdown line of Faksa-Comeau-Cogliano being throttled to an unwholesome degree. High-danger chances with them on the ice were 5-1 to Nashville, which is, uh, quite problematic, even if you were willing to swallow the 25-4 drubbing Comeau in particular took in shot-differential. You don’t get to claim a defensive zone-start exemption when you have issues playing well in your zone. (And let’s not even talk about the extremely disappointing 3-on-1 and 3-on-2 chances that line got on the counterattack, in which they failed to generate either a chance or a shot both times.)

The Stars created a lot of matchup problems for Nashville in game one by playing strong throughout the lineup. In this one, the shoe was on the other foot. The Stars were a one-line team, and they created one goal. That’s more or less what Nashville did on Wednesday before Subban created a second all by himself, and it wasn’t enough for Nashville then. Neither was this, for the Stars.

If your checking line isn’t shutting down its hard matchup, then you’re going to be chasing the puck a lot. It all has a ripple effect. If you’re icing the puck all night and asking Bishop to make 40+ saves, even on low-quality shots, you’re not going to have as much energy (or opportunity) in transition, because you’ll be so busy playing a Prevent Defense that you don’t have time to build momentum throughout the lineup.

Special teams were a big reason for that. Almost a full period was played on a power play for one of the teams, and that makes for a nice, awkward game that can prevent Dallas from building the sort of attack they managed to do in game one. Taylor Fedun and Tyler Pitlick saw peanuts for ice time, considering they don’t play on special teams, and with the Stars’ lineup no longer in “win and you’re in” mode, you have to wonder who’s coming in for whom, by which I mean who besides Jamie Oleksiak might draw in, since we know that’s happening if we know anything in this world. Lose a scrappy, chippy game and get beaten by a nice reversal move? That’s a recipe for the big fella if ever I’ve heard a coach speak a word in my life. I’ll guess about the forward when we know more about Mattias Janmark and his magical ankle. Dude’s a warrior to get back out there.

Still, I can’t help but shake my head at the fact that the behemoth Brian Boyle drew out of the lineup with an illness, making way for one of the smallest players in the NHL—who scored a goal on the fourth line. Grimaldi had a couple of chances in this one, and you have to think he’s going to be seeing a bit more of the lineup for the next couple games. His speed was one of the few things able to penetrate the phalanx Dallas puts up around the slot, and that’s not nothing. That said, I think you can put some decent blame on all of Fedun, Lovejoy and Pitlick on his goal. Not that we’re here to do that, but just saying. Pitlick fails to block the pass, Lovejoy takes a loopy route back to the front of the net after pursuing the puck up the wall (and still letting it get reversed back down), and Fedun gets embarrassed by a sly reversal by Austin Watson. Take your pick.

***

There were adjustments in this one, to be sure. Nashville was cagier in its attack, sending different looks on the forecheck and stretching the neutral zone even more dramatically on the breakout to keep Dallas from sending too many guys in, lest the neutral zone get opened up and one of the Perds’ mobile defensemen jump up and beat his forechecker back down the ice for an odd-man rush.

The penalty kill obviously gameplanned for the top power play of Dallas, which has been using a couple of entries that don’t utilize a heavy drop pass system (which is probably good, since Jason Spezza’s vision and stickhandling acumen was the main thing that made that work so consistently). The Stars had major issues getting into the zone, and as a result, the power play was rarely a momentum-builder—for the Stars, at least.

Also a momentum builder? P.K. Subban, who was really good in this one, even if you may have been annoyed at his second iffy “fall-down” in two games. I go back and forth on how much of an embellishment this might be, so I guess I’ll let you decide.

Regardless, I have trouble getting too worked up about penalties in a game with nine fruitless chances. Get it together, hockey boys. The goals are the thing.

Overall, for an overtime game that was always within reach for both sides, it felt a bit lacking. As best I can tell, it was the fact that the chances were just lower, and the finish almost entirely absent. We stopped expecting anything to happen, or for the puck to go in when something did, and outside of one two-minute stretch in the middle period, that was how regulation went.

There were almost some heroes, though, Jason Dickinson nearly channeled Joel Lundqvist on a slick wrister off the crossbar that would practically have sealed things, and John Klinberg did hit a post of his own on the four-minute double minor to Ekholm (who voiced more than mere displeasure, apparently). Dallas’s gameplan was to keep things in hand, and to tip the balance without exposing themselves to risk. Overall, it kind of went down that way. Even the winning goal was a stupid bit of happenstance, with a Roman Polák swat sending the puck over right to Craig “I punched Blake Comeau in the face like, so hard, man” Smith before anyone else could find it. It was a fluke, but it came from possession of the puck, as shots generally do. It was, in the end, what will always happen if you let another team shot—even from outside the slot—with that level of impunity.

Dallas has to figure out how to re-adjust to the Predators’ new looks. Surely Jim Montgomery will not be taking an off day tomorrow in any sense, even if the team isn’t practicing. Dallas was one shot away from going up 2-0, and that’s something. Mats Zuccarello said himself in the postgame interviews that, yeah, you take a split on the road to open a series every time.

And really, given this team’s newfound identity, going out to a big lead would have been really weird. Best to stick with what you know. Keep the series even, and hope you can pull it out later with some heroic efforts. Certainly you have the goaltending to hold such hopes. But a goaltender can’t be a hero by himself, you know? This relationship is starting to feel a bit like one person is doing all of the work, without assurance of support or reciprocation. That is unsettling. I feel like we’ve had this talk before.