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Afterwords: Why the Stars Lost Game Three

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You want to blame someone, because of course you do

Nashville Predators v Dallas Stars - Game Three Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I don’t know if this all will end

I don’t know who to call my friends

I don’t know how to choose my sins

I don’t know how much more I can bend

***

The Stars lost last night because they scored fewer goals than the other team. The Stars lost last night because they allowed more goals than they scored.

Both are true, as they always are in a loss. Many things went right, and more went wrong. The defense and goaltender’s wrongs ended up on the scoreboard, while the offense’s did not.

Tyler wrote a good piece this morning reminding all of us that the Stars wouldn’t even have a playoff game to lose if it weren’t for Ben Bishop’s heroic work down the stretch. It’s true, absolutely. And yet, it’s also kind of cruel that the Stars are losing these games this way. They didn’t really deserve to be in overtime last game, but Bishop and the penalty kill dragged them into it, before they finally lost.

In this one, they really deserved to win like 5-3. Here’s something: Bishop allowed three goals last night for the first time since February 4th, against Arizona. He put up 14 straight games in which he allowed 2 or fewer goals after that, and that’s why the Stars are playing Nashville right now.

It’s like this: imagine if your dad saved up money for three months straight, giving up his post-work beer or happy hour or Starbucks milkshake thingy, just so he could save up enough money to take you to Six Flags or something. Then, after you get there, he misreads the park map a few times, and you end up going on some disappointing kiddie coasters that really underwhelm you. You know your dad knows you aren’t having as much fun as you want to, but you also don’t want to whine too much to the person who brought you there. You both know it could be better, and you both want it to be. But you’re trapped in line for Jungle River Cruise for 60 minutes nonetheless.

It stinks, right? Most kids in that situation would have trouble keeping perspective. As soon as they enter the park, all they know is that THERE ARE AWESOME STUFFS HERE LET’S GO YES. If anything interrupts that binge, that heartbreak is all that matters, in the moment. It’s the same reason why dumb adults with amazing seats climb on top of children to steal loose pucks for souvenirs. It was all about seeing the game from great seats until something shinier came along. Then it became, in the moment, about getting the shiny thing. Nothing else matters.

No, that doesn’t mean you should have a “Just happy to be here” attitude at all. Your attitude is your choice, and I’m not here to shame any of us for being upset at Bishop for breaking out hearts last night. I guess most of all, as I went to bed last night (or this morning, as the case may be after an absurdly late start time on a Monday night), I was feeling morose because the game ended up making us upset at the person who brought the team there to begin with. It’s understandable to be sad that this third roller coaster of the series was wildly disappointing. But it’s really, really tough to swallow the fact that our disappointment had to be located, in the moment, upon the one person who deserves the most credit for getting us onto the roller coaster in the first place.

***

Alex Radulov continues to be the best free agent signing of Jim Nill’s career, and if you want proof, look no further than the game-tying goal last night:

More specifically, here is the play that jumped out to me. Look at what Radulov does here to win a battle behind the net:

Lots of players who wind up prone like that just stay down. But Radulov is some kind of ox-strong, and he makes a fabulous play to even the game up. If there’s a better story this season than Radulov’s return to glory after being sat for a game for showing up late to a team meeting, I’m not sure what it is.

The Stars have a fabulous group of six players at the top of their lineup. Zuccarello has successfully given them a threat on a second line, and that’s been huge, obviously. But the reality is that, aside from a Ben Lovejoy assist in game one, only those top six—Klingberg, Heiskanen, Benn, Radulov, Seguin and Zuccarello—have a point in the series. That’s better than only having the big three and Klingberg like last year, I suppose, but you still need to be able to score against the other team during the other 40-60% of the game, eventually.

In fact, even with that assist, Lovejoy is still a -2, along with Fedun, Faksa, Polák, Pitlick and Comeau. Dowling is sporting a -3. The Stars have been losing the battle when their top guys are off the ice. Some of that is on Bishop for allowing two bad goals and one too-easy goal to Forsberg (who is elite, of course). But the plus/minus here isn’t to talk about mistakes, but to tell the story so far: and the story is a short one. The Stars cannot generate goals without their best players on the ice, whereas Nashville has gotten a goal from literally Rocco Grimaldi in two games straight. However those goals came about, the Stars play a defensive style of game that has very little margin for error.

It’s a risky style of play, as we said so much last year. When you intentionally keep scoring low, you’re risking a loss if one or two flukes go the other team’s way. The overtime winner Saturday was a fluky goal, but Nashville was controlling play enough to generate shot attempts, and one of them bounced right for them. The goals last night were on two relatively harmless shots and one breakaway that came on a defensive lapse. You can play tight defense for 95% of the game, but you will lose games (and a series) if you can’t outscore your problems. For the Stars so far, they haven’t been able to outscore much of anything.

That brings us to the power play, which has scored only once this series, and that on a long shot from Heiskanen that deflected in off Mattias Ekholm’s knee. On the one hand, I don’t want to get too amped up about the Stars’ top unit underperforming. They are facing the Preds’ penalty kill, which has been planning for them every day for like two weeks now. And the power play as a whole is leading the NHL in xGF, with 3.95 (meaning, given their play thus far, you’d expect them to have scored three more goals than they have). You can, as you should, give a lot of credit to Pekka Rinne, who has certainly rebounded from game one to drag his team back into the catbird seat. But you should also reflect on the fact that Dallas has slumped on the power play multiple times this year, and be just a little bit concerned.

Overall though? The second unit is looking fantastic—they have that only goal—and the top unit will score eventually, you’d think. Todd Nelson has surely watched hours of video on the Perds’ PK, and you’d expect the Stars to make some adjustments accordingly.

That said, how maddening was the 5-on-3 last night? While they hit a post and almost got a bounce to go underneath Rinne, it was very clear, as Taylor said to Montgomery in the presser last night, that the Stars were fixated on the back-door chance. That said, Rinne still came up with two fantastic saves on it, including one glove stop on Heiskanen, which brings me to another curiosity: are the Stars employing Shootout Logic with the two-man advantage, now? They have Spezza and Zuccarello waiting on the sidelines, two fantastic setup players who have carved up 5-on-3s for most of their careers. Heiskanen obviously had his best game of the series last night, but I really didn’t understand the logic of going with three forwards and two defensemen after going the whole season with the standard 4F/1D look. Anyway, it’s not like I’m going to say you ever improve anything by taking Heiskanen off the ice, but it was maddening to see the team be so oblivious to a basic low-high one timer by Klingberg or Seguin in favor of circuitous passing that gave Rinne time to stay in position. If you can’t create multiple seams, you’re making the penalty kill’s job far, far too easy. Of all the places you could find a lack of confidence in the power play, the refusal to just feed a one-timer from the side of the net to a pinching defenseman was the most glaring. Even if it doesn’t get the goalie moving left-right as much, it is far more likely to generate a rebound with Net-Front Presence, which is every coach’s Shangri-La.

Of course, the other side of the coin is the penalty kill, which has been perfect. Had the Stars scored just two more power play goals in the last two games, they could very realistically be up 3-0 in the series, thanks to a penalty kill that has kept a lifeless Nashville power play under heavy sedation. The Stars are one of only two teams with a perfect PK in the playoffs (Columbus), and the Stars’ also have the fourth-lowest xGA/60, so it’s not like Bishop is having to put on a cape all the time, either. The Stars are 3rd in power play time thus far, and 10th in PK time. They’re winning the special teams battle massively everywhere except the score sheet, where they are winning it by only a single goal. That sounds about right.

So, we look ahead. The Stars will get a break or two as the games go on, surely. They got a beautiful one with the Zuccarello goal already, which shouldn’t be overlooked. John Klingberg made a beautiful stretch pass to spring him, and Zuccarello’s cagey move to draw the puck inside Ellis’ backcheck and beat Rinne was exactly what the Stars needed. That, along with Benn’s hit on Jarnkrok early, were two huge moments where the Stars shouted from the rooftops that no, they were not quite dead yet. Another win could be another such moment. It’s not like this series has really shown either team to be dominant, even if it’s at 2-1. Nashville is one killed 5v3 and insane Rinne save from being behind in the series and facing a 3-1 deficit if the Stars win one more home game. All is far, far from lost.

It’s up to the team, as it has been. The building exploded when the Stars tied it up last night, and that was a beautiful taste of what we remember about playoff hockey here. Unfortunately, the result was also rather familiar, as the Stars have gotten a bit too used to losing playoff games on home ice. In fact, the Stars have been eliminated from the playoffs on home ice in every one of their last three playoff runs: in 2016, in 2014, and in 2008. So, maybe you sensed some concern among the fans at times last night, but it’s hard to blame them. For this generation, home ice has been rather unkind when the stakes are high.

Jason Dickinson is a boon to the putative shutdown line, if only because he can do things while holding onto the puck that Comeau and Faksa have had trouble doing for much too long, now. Nichushkin was, for me, not much of an upgrade over Pitlick, though he did have a great chance to score a goal, which would have brought the house down rather instantaneously, I think.

Ben Lovejoy and Roman Polák are both out of their element in the top four, which is a glaring flaw in this team (and was last year with Greg Pateryn, too). Maybe Stephen Johns would have grabbed that role had he been healthy, but the Stars’ defensive acquisitions since last year consist of hoping Honka would figure it out, deciding he wouldn’t, and subsequently trying out Carrick, Fedun, Oleksiak, Lovejoy and Polák. That’s four righties and one Large Lefty, if you’re counting. It seems clear that Nill wanted to bolster that part of the lineup, but the Stars right now are having to reckon with the fact that they have the nuclear weapon of Heiskanen and Klingberg as a top pairing, the immortal Esa Lindell playing top minutes, and then All The Rest. It’s a glaring vulnerability against the team with the deepest defense in the league, and if the Stars can’t find more than two goals a game the rest of the series, even two Ben Bishops aren’t getting them to the second round.

Their identity might be a defensively sound team, but everyone needs to accessorize for big occasions. Bishop won’t be this bad most nights, certainly, and you really can’t do anything about it even if he is. The offense’s future is less certain. We’ll see what solutions the Stars can find tomorrow, in the fourth bonus game of this season. We can always be grateful for bonus hockey.