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Afterwords: Lavish Gifts from a Stingy Team

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Everything the Stars were missing in game three showed up in this one

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

The other night, I was at a party

And someone sitting silly looked at me

And said, “Is this the end of all the love in me?”

***

Playoff wins are a rare gift. Coming into this year, the Stars had won but nine playoff games in the last decade, seven of which came in the ephemeral 2016 season. Thus far, they’ve added two more, and buckets of momentum along the way. The next game feels possible, and that is in itself another gift! It is like Gift City over here, which is probably a terrible name for a community but a great one for a retail big box chain looking to run those shady gift-wrap mom & pops outta business, once and for all.

Think about it: If you’re Nashville, what is there to build on now? Your goaltender just got shelled, your power play is scoreless in four straight games with no signs of waking up, and Dallas looks like a team with a plan to pour it on. How does Peter Laviolette get everyone back on track for game five? This is why NHL coaches are paid a lot of money, I think.

As for Jim Montgomery, he and Todd Nelson (and Rick Bowness, and Stu Barnes, and Kelly Forbes, etc. etc. etc.) came up with some Big Answers on Wednesday, and make no mistake. The Stars looked confident on the power play, and that led to immediate success, and that success begat more success, which begat more power plays, which begat...well, I’ll leave the genealogical ramblings to someone else. The point is, the Stars cooked and fed themselves a big bowl o’ Victory Stew, and we all got to smell the savory spices.

Go on, watch the highlights again. And again. This is the most recent Stars playoff game there is, and it was a wonderful, glorious celebration. This is almost as enjoyable a game-watching experience as there is, in the moment, with most tension felt while dwelling on the positive side of the ledger.

It’s the marginal things, you know? A marginal call on Mattias Ekholm (Comeau might disagree), and a silly delay of game penalty on a stretch pass attempt that grew wings, and it was 2-0, with the Stars feeling utterly rejuvenated.

If the game goes another direction, who knows where we are? If the power play stays dry and the frustration creeps back in, and if Nashville gets another fortunate bounce or two? Then this series is looking bleak. Things went differently, though.

I wonder if the thought behind mixing up the power play units was just to shake the players out of the funk the top unit was sitting in. Spreading out Radulov, Hintz, Benn and Seguin seemed to at least get everyone working a bit more concertedly on the details. To wit:

  • Before the first goal, in the net-front battle in which Pekka Rinne lost his stick, Jamie Benn reached out to hamper a clearing attempt. The puck stayed in the zone, and was put home shortly afterwards (with, I might add, a Jamie Benn screen in place). We have said it, but let us say it again: Jamie Benn is a playoff hockey beast.
  • On the second goal, note how Esa Lindell(!) helps to win the puck back to Radulov. That is a defenseman in a very un-defensemany spot (which is probably why the NBC commentators got some of the players mixed up) working hard and getting the puck to a dangerous spot off a faceoff. Putting Esa Lindell in a forward spot on the power play is a novel idea, and it’s a pretty effective one, so far. This is why Todd Nelson gets paid a certain amount of money.
  • And on the third power play goal, you can’t miss the Jason Spezza pass to get everything moving. Taking the relatively dangerous option there was clearly the right choice, but not every player is able to see that lane (or even to look for it) under pressure with the puck. Spezza can, and he did. Rinne’s glove hand might have been crumbling like old clay by that point, but setting up Zuccarello for that shot is a fairly great object of any power play that one takes when one can get it, I would say. Great poise and passing on the presumptive second unit (if we’re going to assign Seguin to the top unit regardless).

By the way, who cut up Dan Hamhuis’s favorite pair of shoes last year? I’m pretty sure it was Seguin, and Radulov took a penalty for giving Hamhuis the business after Hamhuis gave Seguin a facewash just prior. But the PK did PK things against, er, PK and friends, and the Stars moved along.

Ben Bishop, by the way, had a big game, too. He didn’t have to make a ton of heroic saves—praise be!—but he was very composed and positionally solid, and when you combine that with his puck-tracking ability and size, you get, it turns out, a really good goalie. Shame he lost the shutout on a tough screened shot, but this game was the best bottle of mouthwash the team could have ever bought.

***

As for depth scoring outside of the power play, how about Andrew Cogliano finally putting up a plus in the checking line’s ledger? That goal was another “sum of its parts” event, as Esa Lindell made a great stretch pass to Blake Comeau, who then tested Rinne with a wide slapshot that was, in my opinion, intended to generate precisely the rebound it did. It was, to be fair, an awful rebound after a smart shot, and Cogliano’s rebound was likewise good enough for government work. Why Rinne wasn’t pulled after that goal is yours to determine, but it’s not as though it really mattered in this one. Dallas had the momentum, and Dallas had the will.

And hey, Rinne had a moment or two. He robbed Lindell off a Spezza feed from behind the net. Sure, Lindell had to double-clutch on the puck after it hit a defenseman’s stick on the way to him, but he still elevated it enough to hit Rinne’s arm. That’s sticking with it.

Another Predators player who could stand to have this game expunged from memory is Mattias Ekholm, who took his fifth minor of the series after high-sticking Dickinson Comeau for the second time in the game. The first call might have been a bit iffy, as Ekholm lobbied for the “follow-through” exemption, which would have been a sketchy call on a backhand from the low half wall. The second call was almost a double minor, a solid ka-thunk to the pumpkin. Comeau also blocked a key shot early in this game. It’s hard to find fault with anyone when you demoralize the other team this completely. And even the one instance where Comeau had an issue was, in turn, a great example of Klingberg’s defensive capabilities, as he slid over to the ice to defuse a chance given up by Comeau, who had fallen down in the neutral zone by a loose puck. John Klingberg was quite fantastic in this game, just in case you weren’t sure if every redemption story got written all in one game. Yeah, they basically did. Even Jamie Oleksiak had a couple of nice pinches in the offensive zone along with some solid physical play along the boards to win a puck or two. The team was ready to play in this one, even if they had to ride out a minor stretch of puck possession by Nashville to start. We’ve seen worse, you know.

***

  • Hintz, in addition to his two goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that you should still be reveling in, put a shorthanded chance off the post. Signing veteran PK specialists in the future when you have the kids in house might be a terrible idea, just a thought.
  • It was interesting to compare the two odd-man rushes that Klingberg led. After an uncharacteristic 3-on-1 (in the sense that even the possibility of all such rushes is anathema to both coaches’ systems right now) for Klingberg, Pitlick and Spezza, Klingberg passed to Pitlick in the middle. But the puck wobbled, and Pitlick chose to try a backhand rather than shoot the unstable puck, and he ran out of room. As someone who remains traumatized by a certain 3-on-0 chance in overtime a few years ago, I would kindly request better results in the future. Now I just need to find a stamp and figure out how to mail a computer screenshot.
  • The second rush to make the score 5-0 came on some really diligent forechecking from Jamie Benn, who led the team all over the ice tonight (and even from on the bench, if you saw him barking during a couple of stray altercations). But the real catalyst for that goal was its, well, catalyst. John Klingberg made a brilliant pinch to keep the zone, then walked down and fed Hintz on the back door for a dunk. That’s just chutzpah and genius from a defenseman, right there. That play was really the Stars, in this one. You could tell the coaches were preaching that sort of pacey, hard forecheck all night. The Stars are at their best when they are pressuring a nervous team and brimming with confidence.
  • We’ve gone this far without talking about P.K. Subban, so okay. One of Nashville’s best players fed off the crowd’s hatred, hitting whoever he could and generally trying to be the change he wanted to see. It was genuinely entertaining when it wasn’t terrifying, such as when Jamie Benn faked a slash that got an anticipatory wince out of Subban, who shortly thereafter hit Benn against the boards with the puck miles away. No call, maybe because Subban didn’t quite finish the hit, but Benn would have a bit of revenge later, tossing his nemesis a puck from the bench that had been shot there. I read that as Benn treating Subban as a kid at his first game, but with a wry smile up and down. The Winter Classic should be fun, eh? Smart of the Stars to have ticket sales be ramping up right now, gotta say.

But Roope Hintz would have the last word here, much as he had the first one on the scoresheet.

For all of the antics, it seems like players came out of this one relatively unscathed. Aside from Rinne, at least. That sets up either a series of escalating violence that culminates in something regrettable, or a continually edgy, nasty series that never quite crosses the line from tough to brutal until the Predators are down by three goals in an elimination game. I refuse to state for the record whether or not I believe Brian Boyle is planning to throw his removed appendix at the Stars’ bench in two games. But the dude is a great team player, for the record. Do anything for the boys, you know. Just giving you information that you Really Need here.

It is the first round of the playoffs, and it feels like we’ve explored the universe. We haven’t, of course. Just because this game was packed full of much-needed good home vibes and goals galore doesn’t mean the next game won’t be a toss-up. The Stars flexed, and they flexed hard. The Predators will do the same in game five. Dallas answered a lot of questions last night, but they will have to take at least two more tests before we can really start to interpret those test scores. Maybe the only thing we can say for sure is that this series is as close as it deserves to be, which is to say very close. Except for Wednesday night. Wednesday night was cool.