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Afterwords: Dogmatic Dominance

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What do you need to win the playoffs? Through five games, the Stars seem to have a lot of it.

Dallas Stars v Nashville Predators - Game Five Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

I can’t stop the dogs of war

I can’t stop the dogs of war

Hmmmmmmm

***

I remember back in 2013-14, the refrain about the Dallas Stars in the playoffs was this: they were a one-line team with a young defense, a team that needed great games from Kari Lehtonen (and often got them) to have a puncher’s chance of moving past Anaheim. In short, there were good reasons why they were the eighth seed, and those reasons would hold up in the playoffs.

They did, more or less. Dallas won two games on home ice thanks to Kari Lehtonen and Jamie Benn, along with the pitbull line driving Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to distraction, and Getzlaf then missing game four (with a nasty jaw injury that Ben Lovejoy felt free to crack wise about). The Stars then dropped an ugly game five in Anaheim that involved the Garbutt spear on Perry, and you know the rest. It was a series that still stings a bit because of how winnable it felt, even with Anaheim being the number one seed.

Nashville feels like another crack at that series. Here they are, once again facing the champs of a division in the first round, and with some folks thinking (and then retracting) that Dallas is still a one-line team asking a lot of its defensemen and hoping for a Vezina-caliber performance from its goaltender.

This game wasn’t just a huge win to take a 3-2 lead in the series; it was a statement game on NBC on a Saturday afternoon, a cumulative message that These Stars Are Not Those Stars. After a power play stomping in Dallas on Wednesday, the 5-3 win in Nashville felt, in a way, like an even bigger margin of victory. Nashville had already been a bit shaken, but in this one, Dallas just looked like a better team until the Predators’ big push came in the latter portion of the game. And even then, Dallas looked plenty strong enough to bend without breaking, locking down the juiciest parts of the slot and staying out of the penalty box, just as they’ve done all series.

Conventional hockey wisdom says you can’t win on the road as a one-line team. Maybe this is true against teams with better shutdown lines than Nashville has, but that wasn’t even pertinent in this one, as Nashville chose to match its top line against Benn, Seguin and Radulov. It did not go well for Forsberg, Arvidsson and Johansen.

I mean, look at that. Those are great players doing great things against the likes of Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg. Many of these players played in the team’s eight playoff series across the last three seasons. And yet here they were: P.K. Subban failing to stick-check a hell-bent Alex Radulov, Mattias Ekholm taking another penalty and giving a puck away like a rookie defenseman hemmed in his zone, Ryan Ellis doing a prescient Dougie Hamilton impression, and even Nick Bonino losing a race to the front of the net. That’s what this Stars’ top line can do when it’s in high gear, and it is a sight to behold.

But you know what? I don’t know that Dallas wins this game without Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz, and wow, just roll those words around in your heart for a bit. Maybe folks weren’t so crazy back in 2017 for ranking Roope Hintz and Miro Heiskanen atop the Stars’ prospects, eh? I love reflecting back on the tentative hopes of those days and then relishing the recent fruition. It’s been fun to see Roope Hintz turn into a key piece of this team. The whole cycle—it was a great shift for a while before the goal—to set up his linemate was pure confidence, just accelerating past Ryan Ellis to create the passing lane to Dickinson, and nailing it.

And if that play was as much (if not moreso) Hintz as Dickinson, then let’s not forget Dickinson’s bomb that beat a certain former Vezina-winning goaltender after an egregious turnover by Austin Watson:

I’ve included clips of all the goals here because I think it’s important to enjoy this stuff. I’ve spent way too much time writing about this team and talking about the nice things that used to happen, and how a current nice thing is a little bit like that. Well, these are huge nice things right now, and they have brought the Stars one game away from the best possible result they could get from this series (which is a victory, for all you kids out there).

Tyler Seguin was a bit quiet in that Anaheim series five years ago, if you recall. He scored a goal and two assists, but it wasn’t quite as dynamic a performance as one would’ve hoped for a player fresh off a team criticizing him for being too soft to score goals because he cared too much about scoring goals to play hard, or whatever tautalogical garbage Boston was spewing back then (and also always). In this series, so far, Seguin has gotten better with each game. His five-hole shot on Rinne looked sneaky to me on first blush. Does he seem to fake high-glove, maybe look Rinne off a bit? I’m still not sure, but that was my first thought. Either way, his lightning-quick release got the puck where it needed to go, and the Stars won the game. He also had a really nice assist to Radulov, which you may have watched up there. Watch it again. Tyler Seguin is on your team, scoring big goals in the playoffs. These words are fun to write.

The series isn’t over, no. And hockey dogma says the fourth game is always the toughest one to win, so it would be a fool’s errand to start talking as if things were all said and done. Nashville probably won’t be as awful with the puck as they were in this one, and the Stars probably would prefer that Mats Zuccarello not get laid out again, if possible.

Nevertheless, this team got two massive goals tonight from now-former prospect Jason Dickinson to take a 3-2 series lead against the Central Division champs. That is a ding-danged gift, both because of how Dickinson was perceived by the previous coach and because of how uncertain this team’s season was at different times. It is time, once again, to hot aboard that infamous Jason Dickinson Moderate Levels of Hype Trolley. I don’t think I’m raving, am I? Okay, good, just wanted to make sure you all were fist-pumping as strongly as I was tonight. That we are watching so many players playing so well, on this stage, is something that comes rarely. Let the play bathe upon your palate like a fine whiskey, and feel that frisson when you see those goals go in. This is the good stuff.

***

Not that there weren’t, ah, other moments. Tyler Pitlick had a pretty bad unforced giveaway of his own; Jamie Benn had an overambitious breakout attempt in front of his own net that nearly backfired; Jason Spezza looked a bit befuddled at why his offensive zone passes after an entry were somehow ahead of the other four players on the team a couple of times; and Ben Lovejoy continues to look like a Regrettable Veteran Option waiting to happen, in his shakier moments. I hope this does not happen.

Miro Heiskanen also got a bit played by Rocco Grimaldi, which at least puts him in good company with roughly “everyone on the Stars” at this point. Grimaldi is the Predators’ leading goal-scorer through five games, which is pretty not-great from a Predators’ point of view, and pretty Amazing Yes This Is Hilarious from an everyone-other-team point of view. Grimaldi, in fact, is the only Predator other than Roman Josi to have more than one goal so far. Considering he has played one fewer game than most of the other guys, I would say that is sub-optimal. Maybe the Predators are a one-line team, but the one line is the pencil mark on the doorframe in Rocco Grimaldi’s childhood home showing how much he’s grown since last year. I guess Turris did bounce a puck in off Oleksiak’s skate though, so probably everything is fine in Nashville.

The game also had some scary moments for different reasons. Blake Comeau’s missed empty net was concerning primarily for how much of a focal point it could have become had the Predators made a miracle comeback. You need to bury those chances in the playoffs, even if I wouldn’t be able to score that backhand more than like one out of ten times with no one defending me, so I guess I’m saying that in all my haplessness, I would still be tied for like fifth on the Stars in empty-net goals scored this year.

Pekka Rinne’s absurd series of stops early in the game on the top line, with the score already 1-0, had the smack of “here we go again” to them if ever a series of saves did:

Most alarming for me might have been the Alex Radulov blocked shot that briefly hobbled him, but apparently isn’t going to be a problem. It was especially concerning in the moment given that he’s been playing like a man possessed, and the Stars are just a different team with him driving play and winning battles and races all over the ice. With that said, it’s a shame that Radulov is still refusing to do his required media availability, as I’d like to hear about whether he thought his foot was broken in the moment and if they checked it out after the game, among many other things. It’s a small thing in a way, but it’s also pretty irresponsible of a player to shirk a small duty like that. It creates more drama than it avoids, especially considering Radulov’s history this season. Ah, well. If you score two goals in a playoff win, I’d imagine you’re probably feeling pretty invincible.

***

John Klingberg was also quietly great in this game. He’s been battling really well along the boards in ways that he got beaten more quickly a few years ago, and his puck movement is still second-to-none from the back end. Seeing him and Esa Lindell has become rather reassuring when Dallas is protecting a lead, and that’s a testament both to their respective growth and top-pairing abilities as much as anything else. Klingberg also had another early rush into the offensive zone that kept the Predators honest, along with his always-great movement along the blue line on the power play. Dallas didn’t score this time, but things are looking far less forced, and that’s as it should be right now. Be good to those around you, and let happiness and goals come as they may. Klingberg’s is a stoic philosophy back there. Did you know that Klingberg was the Stars’ playoff points leader going into this game? I bet you did not.

Comeau, Cogliano and Faksa continued to do their jobs, nerve-wracking though they may be. Cogliano in particular has a level of desperate puck pursuit in the defensive zone (where this line is a lot) that really is quite admirable, and that defused and frustrated a lot of Nashville efforts tonight.

Bishop was getting bumped into quite a bit in this one, but the officials were pretty stodgy in their refusal to start a penalty parade. Maybe there were some offline lectures being given that held folks to some sort of standard, but at this point, you just hope nobody goes nuts and plows into anyone vulnerable. Specifically one person.

The Predators don’t really have an answer for Ben Bishop, and it’s getting late for them. They’ve won two games in this series, one of which required overtime just to make it to two goals (on a fluke play, no less) and another that required a couple of grade-A murphs by Bishop just to eke out a one-goal victory for the Perds. All that stuff about their confidence we were talking about after game four? Yeah, order another one o’ those, please.

It’s crunch time for both teams, now. It’s going to be a dogfight in game six no matter what, and Jim Montgomery just needs to do what he did before this game, and get the team ready for whatever Nashville brings while taking it to them in the ways they’re capable of. This Dallas team can burn you if they want to, and they have taken everything Nashville’s thrown at them and bounced back, faster and more potent each time.

The Stars averaged two goals per game in the first three games of the series; they are averaging five in the last two. Recency bias can distort things, but in this case, I choose to celebrate the recent games much more heartily, on account of each win is more worthy of celebration until you hit 16. Three is not a large part of 16, but it is also not zero, which is what Dallas had for three of the last four years. Celebrate wins and watch the goals. It’s why we’re here, after all.