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Afterwords: You Can Go Home Again

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The Stars don’t have as much recent playoff history as we’d like, but they just added another wonderful series to their franchise lore

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

So I call up my preacher I say: “Gimme strength for Round [two]”

He said: “You don’t need no strength, you need to grow up, son”

***

In 2000, the defending Cup champion Dallas Stars clinched all three of their Western Conference series on home ice, taking down Edmonton, San Jose, and Colorado in Reunion Arena before finally falling at home against New Jersey.

Since 2000, the Stars had only clinched two series on home ice: Anaheim and San Jose in 2008. That’s it. Every other playoff series that ended in this building since then ended in defeat, until Monday night.

So, sure, it’s just one series, and the teams only get better from here; but I say all that to try to understand how much pent-up jubilation was released Monday night when John Klingberg scored in overtime. The American Airlines Center is home, but homes are usually messy, even (or especially) the ones that look great on the outside. It was nice to make a new memory in this one.

It’s fitting that I mentioned Anaheim in 2014 the other day, because this game six really did end up exorcising some of those demons. When the Predators got a late power play for the final two minutes of regulation, you could just see their power play finally finding a goal when it counted, grabbing momentum and heading back to Nashville with it. It wouldn’t even be a great goal, just one of those thousand perimeter shots they’d been generating all series, but this one would find a hole, or get deflected, or bounce to the perfect spot, or any number of things. The familiar disaster was right there at the door, and we were all prepared to walk over and let it in, because that’s all we’ve really known in this situation. But when the doorbell finally rang, it was John Klingberg, and he was smiling.

Stanley Cup banners hang forever, but memories burn brightly when we need them most. The banners are really just a catalyst for us to access those memories, for us to live in the sort of moments we just lived through. Yes, the Stars still have work to do, and we know they all have to say that. But I hope you celebrated on Monday night with everyone else, vicariously or otherwise. I hope you got some unabashedly giddy high fives as the streamers were raining down inside the AAC, or that you at least got to sip your drink, shake your head, and smile with relief. You’ve earned that much, watching this team.

***

This game started feeling special when Ben Bishop made a wonderful save four minutes in on Calle Jarnkrok, who danced Alex Radulov on his way in to the net. That chance was something that just felt like a goal from every angle, but Ben Bishop held on. Sometimes you just get a world-class save, and that can win you games no matter how good your team is. Dallas needed magic from Turco and Belfour in a couple of prior game sixes, you may recall. Heck, even Kari Lehtonen stole the show against St. Louis in game six three years ago, before [file not found] in game seven.

So it was Ben Bishop tonight who deserved the first star, and yet it was Ben Bishop who was the last to get some of those post-game hugs, because how easy is it to take the goaltender for granted when things are going well? About as easy as it is to blame them when they’re not, I’d say.

Ben Bishop made too many great stops in this one to count, but here’s a short summary: the enormous stop on Craig Smith on a delayed penalty, the 2-on-0 save on Colton Sissons, the glove stop on Smith right off a faceoff, and about half a dozen more shots that screamed to my heart, “this is going in” before Bishop stated otherwise. Ben Bishop is carrying the Stars like he has for a lot of the season, but right now, they’re scoring enough to make this team dangerous. That says a lot about how far the team has come, but as with the whole season, the Dallas Stars’ playoff threat level is only at midnight because Ben Bishop just finished his first series looking every bit like a goalie who can win three more. That’s what Dallas was hoping for when they signed him to that six-year deal two years ago, and on Monday night, he gave them every bit of it.

Bishop’s puck-handling and intelligent freezing when the Stars needed it was its own weapon, giving Dallas a third defenseman when they needed it, which was fairly often at times. It is just the first round, but Bishop channeled Marty Turco and Ed Belfour for most of this series, and you really cannot dare to ask for any more than that.

***

Nashville really did come with the push of/for their lives at times in this one, but that confidence from Bishop was rabidly contagious. And by the time the Predators did get that power play at the end of regulation, you could feel their despair like a wobbly boxer’s final punches. They were staggered,

So when Austin Watson did score shortly after that Bishop save on Jarnkrok, it was annoying, but there just wasn’t that stink of death about it. And Dallas, like a heavyweight boxer, shook off the punch, and kept coming back at Nashville knowing they might have to take a couple more, but trusting they could handle it. And they did.

I mean, look at John Klingberg’s confidence here in the third period.

He was one of the players whose coverage probably should have been better on that goal for Watson, and there he was, stepping up and two-stepping Brian Boyle like he didn’t just pass within an inch of the obliteration Jason Dickinson knew so well.

A word on that first goal: Spezza’s pass came after he pick the puck away from the referee’s skates, then had to make a quick decision. Razor pointed out that Spezza went up the middle when the safe play was along the boards, but I would counter that with the fact that Nashville had been taking away the boards for the last two games on Dallas breakouts, and specifically in the first period Monday night. Spezza here is assuming Pitlick would have a stick for him as he loops into the zone, but Pitlick takes a tight turn in hopes of getting a pass and going north 2v2, and Nick Bonino’s brilliant step up caught him off guard.

Should Spezza have gone up the wall? Absolutely, in retrospect. But given the huge hit from Watson he was about to take, and the fact that he lost valuable time because he had to pick the puck away from the referee’s skates, I can at least understand how he thought his pass to tape would be a better breakout option than a chip up the wall.

Also of note: Dowling and Pitlick are skating to basically the same spot there, which isn’t how breakouts should typically work. Anyway, this isn’t to say Spezza played great or anything, as he’s had a bit of an up-and-down game in the last two matches. Nonetheless, I think you take him over the Stars’ other fourth-line options at this point, and it shouldn’t be that close.

As for someone else with some ups and downs, how about Jamie Benn: two posts and a shot that went five-hole just wide after beating Rinne, and no goals to show for it. This was a player who decided to end the game in overtime on a wicked wrist shot off the rush, only to have the posts deny Dallas for the third time in the game. Given that this was the same Jamie Benn who surrendered an awful turnover for a 2-on-0 shorthanded breakaway, I don’t really know what to say about him at this point. This is almost an entirely different player from the Jamie Benn in the first half the season, but not altogether. Yes, he still has a tendency to force passes that he doesn’t need to force, and to take chances with no support. But that sort of bullheaded confidence is also what makes him such a respected leader in the room and in the NHL. And if you watch the winning goal again, you might notice Benn’s hit on Mattias Ekholm (who else?) to free up the puck for Seguin to take it north with Radulov. And on the end of it, you might also notice Benn busting to the net and taking Ekholm with him, which is a big part of opens up the lane from Radulov to Klingberg.

You may remember some talk on the radio, podcasts, and even here earlier this year about whether the Stars should look to trade Jamie Benn if possible. That such an idea was floated seems embarrassing now, but it’s pretty telling of just how disjointed the Stars (and Benn) looked for the first few months of the season. Now that they’re in the playoffs, now that they’ve advanced to the second round for the second time in the last 11 years, it’s easy to brush that aside as momentary frustration. But the question that will come up again, whether in the next series or the next season, is this: are you willing to take the bad with the good? And the answer, as with most things, is a lot easier when the good is so very good.

Blake Comeau falls in that camp, too. He played an Antti Miettinen sort of role in this one, capitalizing on an inexcusable Nashville breakdown by P.K. Subban while getting more golden chances that Pekka Rinne was able to stop. His shot on the 3-on-1 was smart, though even he said postgame that he was initially looking to pass again until he saw Mattias Ekholm (the poor guy) go down onto the ice. Thank goodness for Mattias Ekholm in this series, eh? And good for Comeau, who got a ton of chances in the game. It’s nice to know you can beat a Vezina-winning goaltender, right? Here’s hoping Comeau’s shooting confidence only grows from here, given how many odd-man rushes his line has gotten, at times.

***

The Stars may have been the ones booing P.K. Subban all series, but you have to wonder what Nashville’s going to do this summer. Change is coming, and while they’d probably be foolish to get rid of a great defenseman like Subban when his value is a little lower, you have to think they’ll be willing to make a Jones/Johansen sort of trade again to boost their forward depth. Rocco Grimaldi really was fantastic in this series, but that’s like those who say the Stars’ third line was the big difference in this series. Sure, Comeau/Cogliano/Faksa was great in this game thanks to Dallas largely going power-on-power with the top lines, but the Stars’ top line was the most dangerous one all night. If Dallas had gotten one more power play in this game, I’m convinced they would have buried it. That’s how locked-in Benn, Seguin and Radulov looked.

(By the way: Radulov spoke to the media after the morning skate Monday, and it’s safe to say it didn’t disrupt his play too much. I think everyone is glad we can move on now.)

If I’m Nashville, then yeah, I probably have to look at this series as pretty symptomatic of my ills. The power play was lost at sea, the forward lines still feel almost as thin as they did before the Ryan Johansen acquisition (thanks in large part to Kyle Turris’s disappearance), and the NHL’s best top-four defensemen had a nice collection of embarrassing moments, from Subban to Ellis to Ekholm. Roman Josi was probably their best player in the series, and while that’s a good reminder of just how good Josi is, you also have to think there’s an imperative to get some scoring and playmaking throughout the lineup. But I suppose that’s the same for most teams, even if the strengths are located differently. Depth is hard to acquire, and harder to sustain.

Nashville was led in goals by Rocco Grimaldi, who was their 13th forward to start the series. They were led in points by Roman Josi, with four. You should never make franchise-altering decisions based on one series, but man, you can see some Hockey Men being pretty flummoxed by how a Stanley Cup favorite going into the season wound up here. Maybe that’s indicative of some roster construction and coaching issues, but maybe it’s also indicative of the Dallas Stars, too.

As for Dallas’s depth, things are also a bit mixed. You can look at the scoring and say that the Stars were led with six points apiece by Benn, Seguin, Radulov, and Klingberg, or you can point to the fact that no one else got more than three points. That gap reminds us of the last couple of seasons, when Dallas’s secondary scoring was among the worst in the league. But as much as you can bemoan a one-line team, Dallas sent two timely reminders about having a great top line: when they score, you have a great top line, and that’s something even Nashville wasn’t able to get from theirs. Sure, you’d love to have top-six scoring from every line, but the scoring should be tilted a bit towards the high-dollar guys. And when you also remember that Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson potted a pair apiece, things look a bit more balanced. But here’s the real kicker: of Dallas’s 18 goals in the series, nine of them were scored by Zuccarello, Comeau, Cogliano, Hintz, and Dickinson. That’s an average of 1.5 goals per game in this series scored by the team’s putative depth. Yeah, Dallas’ll take that.

Radulov, Benn, Seguin, and Klingberg scored eight goals, and the depth scored nine. The one remaining goal was scored by a player that’s hard to categorize, because what do you say about a player who is doing things like this:

Heiskanen didn’t have his best game of the series on Monday, and he didn’t need to. He led the Stars to victory in game one, and he had another couple of world-class games in the rest of the series. Maybe the best thing I can say about Miro Heiskanen is that he always has multiple tools in any situation. He has elite vision for pass/shot decisions in the offensive zone, and his skating allows him to create chances that wouldn’t exist for most other players. Likewise, you could see just how easily he defused chances in the defensive zone, either skating the puck into open ice to make breakouts with ease, or just to subvert the Nashville forecheck by staying in position and letting them skate themselves out of prime areas. Miro Heiskanen is a astronomical gift.

Unlike Nashville, Dallas didn’t need their defensemen to drive play all series, or to score the majority of their goals. Yes, they got some clutch goals from Heiskanen and Klingberg, but the story of Dallas’s defense in this one spanned a lot more than that, too. Roman Polák played 4th-defenseman minutes, but there was a four-minute ATOI gap between him and Klingberg. Rick Bowness had no problem rotating defensemen between pairs, which enabled Dallas to keep their bottom three a bit less vulnerable than they might otherwise have been. Ben Lovejoy was probably the most exposed player on the blue line, and his -3 reflects that pretty solidly, I think. Still, it could have been worse. In fact, even with Polák’s horrible move to skate over to Heiskanen’s man and leave Craig Smith open on the delayed penalty, he looked more or less serviceable in game six, and that’s all you can really ask of the bottom half of the defense as they’re constructed.

John Klingberg deserved the game-winner. He is still an elite defenseman, and his hockey IQ is way up the charts, as always. If there’s a flip side to P.K. Subban’s play in this series, I’d say it was Klingberg, who also took some big risks, but judged his moments correctly and saved another couple of chances (and created them for his own guys). Klingberg was a massive weapon in this series, and you have to be pretty amazing to make Nashville’s defense look as subpar as the Stars did this last week and a half.

Esa Lindell looked every bit like someone who had seen 20 playoff series before. His game is still so unique in this league, but I’m continually impressed by how he finds ways to get things done so quietly. His breakout pass to Comeau the other night that set up the Cogliano goal was sneaky good. He also shot a backhand over Rinne’s pad and off the post in game six, remember that? Lindell has turned into this crazy hybrid of a big, stay-at-home defense partner for John Klingberg and some kind of Zdeno Chara in the offensive zone and on the power play. It doesn’t really make any sense, but the Stars’ faith in Lindell back in the 2016-17 season is reaping huge rewards. Esa Lindell is only 24 years old.

But yes, his defensive play in game six was absolutely wonderful. He even stood up Austin Watson along the benches. But the Stars have some size on the back end that was able to withstand the piddly physicality from Nashville, in different ways. Jamie Oleksiak, for instance.

Taylor Fedun is still a great player in that Justin Dowling mold, someone who has learned a thing or two despite not always having the chance to learn it in the NHL. But if the Stars keep him in the press box for the Jamie Oleksiak we saw on Monday, that decision makes a lot of sense. For my money, this was the best game of Oleksiak’s career in Dallas, unless you want to give extra credit to his monster game against St. Louis with that amazing goal. He was dependable, physical, and smart. That is exactly what Oleksiak needs to be to maximize his value, and I’m genuinely excited to see if he can build on what we saw. Good for Jamie Oleksiak.

***

St. Louis is much better than Nashville. Mats Zuccarello will need to step up against a bigger, better team, and I’m excited to see what he can bring. We know his arm is still bothering him at times, but if he can chip in another three goals, that’ll do just fine. The Stars actually had a second scoring line in this series, even if it was composed of two players who ate healthy scratches earlier this season. Jim Montgomery’s coaching staff has adapted as things have progressed, and that’s all you can ask of coaches, right? Take the information you get, and make good decisions with it. Roope Hintz took a nasty headshot from Watson (who would probably be getting a game from Player Safety if the Predators hadn’t been eliminated), but he returned and kept the second line moving along. Jason Dickinson was intimidating. These are the things you need from a second line, and they also opened things up for the third line, which again, got tons of chances and scored the goal that evened things up. Andrew Cogliano was wonderful, and as much as his numbers don’t always bear it out, you have to enjoy what he’s brought to the team during the last six games. That’s a player I find room for.

Tyler Seguin—how have we not talked about Seguin yet?—finally won a playoff series in Dallas.

This postgame celebration was six years in the making for Seguin. Look at that picture. There are crease and lines where there weren’t a few years ago. Seguin tied for the team lead with six points in this series, and his moves up the ice to create the Klingberg goal were more than you might remember. He had some shoulder shakes that kept the defense backed off as he entered the zone, and he busted to the net as Radulov passed the puck to Klingberg. And then Seguin jumped.

With that, Seguin leapt into another series, and another narrative. There was Tyler Seguin, incorrectly blasted by a malcontent in the front office for not going to the net, at his most Net-In-Frontiest. This was Tyler Seguin doing what it takes to win, as he’s done without reward for many years, and the world was watching. And more importantly, so were we.

***

This series is one of hopefully four. We don’t know where it’ll rank when the season finally ends, but Dallas will be playing hockey in May this year, and this series is what got them there. We’ll have time to prepare for the next battle in the coming days, but for now, don’t miss the opportunity to pump your fist and laugh with joy. The Stars beat the Predators 4-2, and they proved a lot of people wrong. It’s not like this was Columbus over Tampa or anything, but a harsh fandom is all the sweeter when vindication arrives. The tension and gut-wrenching games will return later this week, but for now, your job is simply to love this team and celebrate what they’ve done so far.

Home is where the heart is, and the Stars have captured all of ours once again. However long it lasts this time, it’s been too long since we’ve been here. Let’s take a little longer to smile about last night. This team deserves our smiles, and theirs.