The Dallas Stars will come into game four of their Western Conference Semi-Final series, in a familiar spot. Down two games to one, against a quality opponent and in need of a rebound effort to even the series. However, this deficit looks and feels a bit different, as the St.Louis Blues appear to be a much stiffer test than the one the Predators presented in round one.
The Blues are big, strong, and physical; using their size and work ethic to battle for each and every loose puck. The Blues also cycle the puck to death, and use their team strength to shield the puck away from defenders and open up space around the ice. Their defense is towering, with Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and co. presenting a much different physical challenge than that of the smaller Nashville unit.
However, the Stars do not face an impossible task in beating these very good St.Louis Blues. It’s not as if the Stars have played poorly in the first three games of this series, but something does look a bit off with the club. The Stars do not look as crisp, Ben Bishop looks human, and the club seems to have gotten away from what made their first round series a resounding success.
If the Stars hope to even this series before the show shifts back to St.Louis, the Stars will have to make these four improvements to their game in game four.
Clean Zone Exits and In Zone Coverage
Game three was a display of the Blues out working the Stars in their own zone. The Blues cycle was excellent from the get go, using it down low and on the half wall, to create space in the middle of the ice for top notch chances. It happened over and over again, and the Stars simply could not keep up.
Couple the strong offensive zone play of the Blues, with their furious puck pursuit and the Stars not matching the physicality in puck battles, the goals that the Blues scored throughout the game should come as no surprise. The Stars just could not take the puck away from the Blues, and when they did have chances to clear, the Blues puck pursuit and pressure made it difficult to get the puck up the wall.
In a way, it was masterful work by St.Louis.
The good news for the Stars, is that this is correctable.
The Stars need to counter the pressure of the Blues forecheck by moving the puck quickly and crisply. Making good first passes, chipping the puck up the wall and supporting that chip with pressure from the forwards. When it comes to the Blues cycle, the Stars do not have the bodies to outmuscle some of the big forwards the Blues possess, so strong in zone coverage and structure is a must for the Stars. Forcing the Blues to the outside of the rink, and packing in the middle of the ice, will not allow the Blues chances from high danger areas. This is something that the Stars did very well against Nashville, but failed to do in Game three against the Blues.
Sagging After Goals
I’m going to keep this one nice and short.
The Stars seemed to respond each time the Blues scored a goal, almost like it shocked them back into the game. It was textbook Stars hockey, but it is wholly unsustainable at this time of year.
However, the problem wasn’t after the Blues scored a goal, rather after the Stars tied the game three separate times.
The first shift after a goal is so important. The team who is scored on, will come back with a strong push as they try to make up for the last error that was made. The push will come, and it will come hard and fast.
That is exactly what happened in Game three, and all three times the Blues responded in spades and the Stars collapsed on that first shift. This must improve if the Stars have hopes of tying this series in Game four. The Stars relaxation after their goals came at a high price, after fighting back three different times. In a game where the club did not play very well, the Stars should have had more urgency in their game.
They did not and it showed.
Re-establish Pressure on the Forecheck
What made the Stars so successful in their first round series, was their quick and relentless forecheck. The Stars came in waves, crashing the puck carrier into the boards with their first forward, retrieving the puck with their second forward, and setting up their third forward for a quality scoring chance. It was methodical and wore down the Predators to the point where their vaunted defense turned pucks over at alarming rates as the series went on.
We just haven’t seen that type of pressure to this point in the series against the Blues.
St.Louis in game three was able to clear their zone rather easily at times, their defense making easy first passes out and working seamlessly through the neutral zone with speed.
This might have something to do with the size of the Blues defense, but I tend to think that the Stars simply aren’t executing at the level they did against the Preds. In fact, the Alexander Radulov goal and Tyler Seguin goal, were a product of this strong pressuring forecheck from the Stars; demonstrating that the club is capable of forcing the Blues into mistakes when they forecheck correctly.
The Stars should come out hard and fast in game four, but in order to be really successful and take control of the game, the club must establish their relentless forecheck that has made them so successful up to this point.
Top Line Must be Better
The Stars do not win their first round playoff series if the top line of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Radulov do not take over the series in the last three games.
The top trio was a force, unstoppable, and carried the Stars over the finish line. It was masterful to watch, with each piece working seamlessly and giving the Stars a true advantage that the Predators simply did not have.
So far against the Blues, the line has not been a factor at all.
This has a lot to do with the way the Blues have played the line, having a favorable matchup against the line for the majority of the series. The Blues are also clogging the neutral zone with bodies, not allowing the Stars best players the space to create and gain speed as they attack the blue line.
Jamie Benn has one goal on the power play, Seguin has one goal at even strength, and Radulov has recorded one power play goal. Their combined effort in the series accounting for one even strength goal.
Not good enough.
The Stars top line is arguably the best line in this series, and by far the line that can literally break a game and series wide open. The Blues line of Vlad Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly, and Jaden Schwartz is great, but the Stars trio has them beat in overall talent and skill. However, to this point, the Blues top line has been the most productive and is a big reason why the Stars find themselves down 2-1.
If the Stars have their sights on a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Stars top line must be the difference once again. If not, the Stars will watch from a distance, but if the top line does get hot (and they can in a hurry), the Stars might have the edge they need to gain a real foothold.
The Dallas Stars have not been the better team through the first three games of this series, being outplayed and outscored at even strength to the tune of 7 to 3. The Stars haven’t look clean in their own end, and they haven’t been able to solve a difficult Blues defensive structure. It’s not even that the Stars are playing poorly, they just don’t look like the Stars club that fans have seen in the previous month and change.
For the Stars to tie this very even and competitive series, they must make the required improvements to find their game.