clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Afterwords: Countdown to Whiplash

New, comments

What is it with this series and flurries of goals?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

‘Cause you’ve been listening for answers

But the city screams and all your dreams go unheard

***

Losing playoff games is the worst feeling in the hockey fan’s world. Or one of, at least. There’s nothing more bitter than imagining the possibilities of Ultimate Sports Glory, only to see the team falter as the stage gets bigger.

So, the Stars lost a one-goal game that looked very different from the one-goal game they were losing by before that. Or the one before that. Or the one before that. They did not win, is the point.

It was a seesaw affair at first, albeit a slow one. Then the seesaw’s fulcrum dropped a bunch of acid late in the third period, launched the seesaw into orbit, and the game drove out the side of the barn as bootleg fireworks exploded. This analogy is about as consistent as the officiating.

Speaking of which, let’s just talk about that and have done with it. We all get what a lot of referees are trying to do by not calling penalties, right? Hockey feels more satisfying when things are close, and the officials prefer to keep games close in how they dole out penalties, as the numbers have borne out. Lots of Playoff Referees don’t want to call a penalty early and set a tight standard, as that would necessitate a tightly called game all night, and that means the power plays could be the story of the game, drawing more scrutiny upon the officials’ job performance. It’s human nature, in that situation, to try to look balanced, but human balance is controlled by an even wilder fulcrum than this game’s, more inconsistent than any of us wants to admit to ourselves.

For instance, this wasn’t called a trip, presumably because the officials rapidly consulted with Ken Hitchcock before calling the penalty and determined that Spezza Needed To Be Better Here, Gravity Notwithstanding:

When folks have been telling me that Esa Lindell Is A Diver over the last 12 hours, I have simply been praising his gamesmanship in response—or at least, his attempted gamesmanship. Lindell’s embellishment wasn’t wrong in principle, from where I’m sitting. It’s one thing to fabricate a hit that doesn’t happen, but Lindell here is slyly trying to get Bortuzzo penalized on a scrum where nothing else is happening. Lindell can either take fifty cross checks in that situation while power play time ticks away, knowing they won’t be called because he’s a tough player and It’s The Playoffs, or he can fight back. He does fight back, but he chose to fight back in a really transparent, almost insipid way. He ends up going to the ice after a pretty weak hit where he was just blatantly shifting his balance to go down at the slightest touch. It’s embellishment, and it was called. Then he did it, uh, again.

It’s all connected, you know? If Lindell has more confidence that he won’t be taking abuse there without penalty enforcement, he doesn’t need to do that. But Lindell’s a competitor, and he’s trying to find a way to beat his opponent. I have zero problem with Lindell’s antics as a tactic—how many players now snap their heads back and reach for their face when a high stick brushes the top of their helmet?—but you have to be a bit better at it than he was. Ah, well. It didn’t end up costing them, and anyone who knows anything about Lindell’s game knows he’s a tough player who doesn’t do this on the regular. It is the playoffs, and players care a lot about winning. Things happen. It’s why Parayko and Benn both went to the ice pretty easily when they felt a stick in their legs in the first period. The only difference between what they did and Lindell’s antics is that they were better at it.

On the upside, Lindell was clearly laughing at a furious Bortuzzo after they both got called for offsetting minors, and I kind of love him for that. Get under the other team’s skin by letting them knock you over, then laughing even after you get called? I am highly entertained.

So of course the final goal came after a bit of a push-off on Lindell by Pat Maroon. But remember, there was also an apparent trip on Brayden Schenn that aided the shorthanded goal by Cogliano to make it 2-2. And besides, power plays ended 3 to 1 in the Stars’ favor, so even if you want to go there, I wouldn’t recommend it. Dallas lost this game because they got outplayed by a good team. It happens, and they shouldn’t be worried, at least in a large sense.

***

In one sense, this game shouldn’t have been as close at it was, all things considered. Dallas generated one shot on goal on three power plays, and only two attempts in total. That’s wild. St. Louis’s penalty kill was huge, especially in the final minute of the game when Dallas couldn’t even really get set up. We’ve seen this before from the Stars’ power play, getting ahead of itself and not quite setting up the dangerous chances, but now is really not the time for such recurrence.

On the upside, give credit to the Stars’ second power play unit (or whatever you call a group with Heiskanen, Radulov and Spezza) for setting up a gorgeous play for a crucial tying goal. I would write a bunch of stuff here about how Jason Spezza was always an elite passer who was best utilized on the power play with guys who could finish, but at this point in the year, I think it’s best to just give credit to Jim Montgomery for creating two power play units that should, in theory, be dangerous.

I loved Taylor’s question in the press conference last night about the power play. It’s at about the 3:00 mark of that linked video, but Montgomery essentially responds with, “the shots weren’t always getting through, but they were looking to shoot.” I wonder if this is a bit of prevaricating from a coach who knows his team just suffered a really crushing loss and a wide swing of emotion, because it certainly isn’t accurate. Two shot attempts is nowhere near good enough, period.

I’m torn on the Stars’ top players in this one, because they really did look like they were putting forth an enormous amount of effort, at times. But the fact is, we’re three games into the series, and as Cody pointed out last night, the Stars’ top line of Seguin, Benn and Radulov has one point at 5v5 so far, that being Seguin’s late goal to tie it at 3-3 after an all-time setup by Miro Heiskanen. That play was just amazing, and check it out in the condensed game below, because it’s a shame that goal was immediately overshadowed by the Maroon debacle. Heiskanen stepped up at the blue line to keep the puck in, then got a nice drop back from Zuccarello, immediately burned Ryan O’Reilly to get free down low, and deliberately feathered a perfect pass to Seguin’s tape for a back-door dunk.

Seguin really looked like he was on his game in this one, but Jamie Benn had a rough night, all things considered. He was battling, absolutely, but he had some of those weak passes for turnovers that have been characteristic of his worse games this year. The top line also lost at even-strength last night in terms of possession, which is a bit startling given the home-ice matchups they had available.

Ultimately, the top line could have decided this game on one of many chances. There was the Radulov-Heiskanen-Seguin play that just barely didn’t go, the Radulov breakaway that Roman Polák created on one of his nice plays up the ice (ed. note: please fact-check this wild assertion), and one of the multiple times Miro Heiskanen waited for the Blues forward to go to the ice to block a shot, and then calmly skated around him to generate a much more dangerous chance.

I think the Stars could have won this game in the second period, as they did so many times in the regular season. Roope Hintz also had a glorious back-door chance, and Cogliano got caught on another breakaway by Carl Gunnarsson.

Speaking of which, the Stars probably need to have a game where their best lines are not their third and fourth ones if they’re going to turn this series around. Faksa, Comeau and Cogliano were really good in game three, but there just isn’t a lot of finish there to be had. Credit to Cogliano for potting the Janmark rush up the ice, but the Stars need to see their top line doing something more at evens than they’ve seen so far, because their depth is not going to a win an extended battle with the Blues’, as Pat Maroon reminded us all. (And by the way, Mattias Janmark has been really great in the last two games, which should have been much more of a story for Dallas than it is, thanks to the losses. His own backcheck to foil a clean shot on the breakaway was massive, too.)

But yes, as for the Blues’ depth, look at the angle Maroon scored that last goal from:

Yes, so much going on there, but that really is a fantastic shot by Maroon. There is no cram play or simple hockey there, just a really skilled shot on a goalie who had no help. Absolutely, you don’t want that situation to be created, but I have a tough time blaming Bishop on that one, as he had to hold the post initially with Maroon coming from behind the net. He stays deep, but large, and Maroon hits the top far corner.

As for Bishop, the only goal I really didn’t love was the Pietrangelo one-timer, but again, that came from the Stars being overwhelmed by a Blues push after a goal, and it wasn’t exactly a soft goal by any stretch. It also came right after a Pietrangelo shot hard off the post, so yeah, maybe don’t put your own goalie under siege? That’s a huge time for a team, with that initial momentum surge, and the Stars couldn’t answer St. Louis’s charge after either of their tying goals in the third. It’s a shame, but that’s really just a credit to the Blues, who have sort of spent all of 2019 rebounding from adversity, blah blah Tampa Bay, blah blah blah. Anyway, probably be better at clearing the zone and get better performances from your third defense pairing at home, or else don’t use them at all. Ben Lovejoy was on the ice for three goals against, and Fedun for two. I suspect Dallas is really anxious to get Jamie Oleksiak back, er, again.

All that to say, Bishop was huge on a couple of stops in the second period to keep this game close, so I don’t have much time for burying him for getting beaten by an undefended player. Bishop was the reason Dallas only lost by one goal, full stop. No, it was not his best game, but goals against don’t happen in a vacuum. Dallas could have scored more goals, and they could have defended their zone much better. They did not.

***

As for the defense, you know how good Miro Heiskanen was, but John Klingberg was also amazing last night, generating a couple of glorious chances himself—remember his play to skate behind the Blues’ net, right out into the slot, protect the puck and generate a shot from the low slot? He also spent some time also reminding us that he has been in the playoffs before, and he is not scared even by the Fierce, Two-Way Player Named Ryan O’Reilly.

Klingberg and Heiskanen were the Stars’ most dangerous weapons in the game, and they are an elite pairing right now, and probably for years to come. If you are not enjoying the Stars’ current playoff run (and you should be enjoying it), just try to savor every minute we get of this nuclear pairing on defense. These players are doing whatever they want with the puck right now against a really good team.

Now, the Stars’ technical game was pretty rough. St. Louis was getting shots from the right spots, and Ben Bishop really did have some fantastic saves that kept the game within reach when it would have taken just one bad positional play to submarine their chances.

This is really starting to feel like the St. Louis series from three years ago, isn’t it? Dallas went down 2-1 in that series as well, losing game three in a demoralizing 6-1 catastrophe. In a way, this 4-3 defeat Monday was Dallas’s version of that. A bit better goaltending (this is an understatement), a few more bounces, but overall, just not a good enough game. But Dallas rebounded with a Cody Eakin overtime goal in game four to make things interesting, and Dallas only has to win one home game in front of Ben Bishop to make this series equally interesting.

They have been here before, both against the Blues of yesteryear and against the Predators of last week or whatever. The maddening thing about this team against St. Louis has been that every game could have gone either way, but they have done just enough for the games to go the wrong way. After all the smoke cleared in the third period, Dallas was down in the series, again. If they lose the series, it’s probably going to be a close battle where they don’t get the bounces and the Blues make some great plays, like in this game. If something better should happen, we will be grateful. Either way, this 93-point Dallas Stars squad is in the exact same spot as their Regular Season Western Conference Champion brethren of three years ago. That wouldn’t have been comforting back then, but I suppose it can be, now. All you can do is take it one game at a time, and the next game might be their best game. It certainly was last round. Anything can happen. Sometimes, I promise you, that ends up being a good thing.