One of the things that helped the Dallas Stars beat the Nashville Predators in their first round playoff matchup was Nashville’s inability to synchronize their style of play to the way that the game was being called. The Predators crossed too many lines, wore out the path to the sin bin, and watched as Dallas pushed their way through to the second round.
Going into game four of their second round series with the St. Louis Blues, the Stars find themselves in a similar predicament. The Blues are bringing a high level of physicality, and they have for the most part kept themselves out of the penalty box. In playoff hockey, there is a fine line between just right and too far. To this point, St. Louis has done a better job of toeing that line.
Game three brought several prime examples. The game winning goal by Patrick Maroon began with a somewhat subtle shove that in the regular season might be called interference. In the playoffs, that mostly goes uncalled.
You can argue the merits of a consistent rule book between the regular season and playoffs, but until and unless the NHL makes a conscious decision to go that way, it’s up to the coaches and the players to adjust.
It’s not just the Blues that toe that line. When Andrew Cogliano scored the shorthanded goal to even up game three at 2-2, he benefited from two non-calls. The first, below, shows Cogliano with a pretty blatant trip of Brayden Schenn, freeing him up for a stretch pass that Mattias Janmark catches up to in the right corner.
And here's the trip by Cogliano that went uncalled to help the Stars score shorthanded. I'd be hot if they let that one go on my opponent, personally. pic.twitter.com/Y0nejuOuq6— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) April 30, 2019
Once Janmark corrals the puck, he saucers it toward the net, where both Vince Dunn and Jordan Binnington have the angles covered. Cogliano, however, delivers a subtle slash to Dunn’s right calf, which buckles his leg and opens up a hole for the pass from Janmark.
Maroon's goal was a result of veteran savvy, same as Cogs on his shorty. Note the subtle slash on Dunn that collapses his right leg, which allows the pass from Janmark to get through. pic.twitter.com/5B3ox0rZpj— Mark D Zimmerman (@HitZIceSTAT) April 30, 2019
Cogliano finds the puck and pots it. Whether that’s veteran savvy or playoff compete, those are the types of borderline plays that get made. If they get called, then it’s a lesson learned. You just hope for the call to be made both ways. If borderline plays don’t get called, then players push the edge just a little further.
In some playoff series, the way that a game gets called can be a major advantage for one team over the other. In the first round between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, there were several games where tight officiating played to the Leafs strengths, while in others the jail house rules slanted the game in the Bruins’ favor. Personally, I counted two each way, which left a solid three game series.
In the Blues/Stars series, both teams can play physically and both teams have skill. The only consistent calls have been for delay of game. The Blues, however, seem to have found a comfort level with what is allowed, and that has left the Stars struggling to adjust.
There were a handful of lineup adjustments for game three. For St. Louis, Robert Bortuzzo drew in for Joel Edmundson. Bortuzzo was brought in to play a heavier game, and the Blues should be happy with the results.
Likewise, Craig Berube shuffled Jaden Schwartz to the top line, which paid off with the first goal of the game. Again, the Blues can not be disappointed with the results.
The Stars look to make several changes. Most interestingly, it looks like Joel Hanley will draw in for Taylor Fedun on the third pair. Hanley played 16 games with the Dallas Stars this year and in 60 games with the Texas Stars, put up an eight goal, twenty assist campaign. Jamie Oleksiak is still listed as day-to-day and there is no indication when Oleksiak will be ready for game action.
Dallas also shakes up their top two lines, with Jason Dickinson and Mats Zuccarello joining Tyler Seguin on the top line. If nothing else, this gives the Blues a different look at the start of the game, and could cause some matchup shuffling within the Blues top two defensive pairings.
Dallas Stars Lineup
Jason Dickinson - Tyler Seguin - Mats Zuccarello
Jamie Benn - Roope Hintz - Alexander Radulov
Andrew Cogliano - Radek Faksa - Blake Comeau
Mattias Janmark - Justin Dowling - Jason Spezza
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen - Roman Polak
Joel Hanley - Ben Lovejoy
St. Louis Blues Lineup
Jaden Schwartz - Ryan O’Reilly - Vladimir Tarasenko
David Perron - Brayden Schenn - Oskar Sundqvist
Patrick Maroon - Tyler Bozak - Robert Thomas
Robby Fabbri - Ivan Barbashev - Alexander Steen
Carl Gunnarsson - Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester - Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn - Robert Bortuzzo
Moving Joel Hanley in on the third pair is a bold move by Jim Montgomery, and shows that he recognizes how physically overmatched Taylor Fedun has looked through the first three games. Hanley showed well during his time in Dallas, but he hasn’t seen NHL action since December 18. Hanley has not played with Ben Lovejoy, but he is a natural left handed defender. As a comparable, Hanley spent about thirty percent of his time with Dallas playing with Roman Polak, and that time resulted in more shots at both ends of the ice. This is a gamble, but there are at least some metrics out there that indicate that it could work.
On offense, the O’Reilly line and the Bozak line were both able to set up their cycle game with consistency. In particular, the Bozak line dominated the Hintz line at even strength. Looking through the numbers provided by Natural Stat Trick, putting each line against its corresponding line, on down through the lineup leaves neither team with an obvious advantage. The Stars mix and match new top lines will force some adjustments by both coaches as the first period progresses.
On defense, Dallas is faced with a comfortable conundrum. Heiskanen paired with Klingberg is dynamite, but it leaves two brutal, or at least untested second and third pairs.
Finally, Ben Bishop has carried this team into the playoffs. If the rest of the team can play the Blues straight up, Bishop needs to beat Binnington.
Given the way the game is being called, I’d expect a few Stars to be less passive. It almost goes without saying that one of them will be Jamie Benn. I’d also expect Esa Lindell to move from the embellisher column to the instigator column.
Ultimately, what has been killing the Stars is playing from behind. In games that they have lost this postseason, Dallas has been in the lead for less than two minutes. This is a team that is built to hold a lead. They have been resilient and have clawed their way back into games, but they have been playing from behind and that is a losing formula.