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Afterwords: From Cinch to Clench

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That was, unfortunately, very interesting down the stretch

Dallas Stars v St Louis Blues - Game Five Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Chris Thile is Ben Bishop after that one mistake: perhaps out of his element, but still elite enough to be comfortable anywhere.

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[Note: This is a bit brief, but that’s what happens when duty calls early in the morning and the NHL starts games at like 9pm because they only have one channel they have any confidence people will watch their product on. In conclusion, blame the league, as always.]

You never want a game to be in doubt, but every time the Stars hold onto a one-goal lead for a win in these playoffs, it feels like the new, healthier relationship that comes after you’ve finally stopped hanging out with your former, somewhat unstable significant other, right?

After the game started with big hits on Klingberg and company, one wondered if the Blues would be able to bull over the Stars and get a dirty goal to make things tough. But one wondered no more as things matured in the first, when Jason Spezza smartly came down into the low slot ready to one-time a shot after a 2-on-1 chance by Janmark was stopped by Jordan Binnington. Spezza drifted to the right spot, and Tyler Bozak failed to shoulder-check, leaving Spezza wide open for Seguin’s pass. Spezza went down to a knee to ensure that he elevated the puck, and it did indeed get over the pad and through Binnington.

Jason Spezza only played seven minutes tonight. He is, understandably, not the sort of player Jim Montgomery looks to for holding leads in defensive games, and Spezza’s postgame interview was telling in how the veteran forward is handling that. He more or less said right away, in response to Pierre’s question about his fourth-line role, that everyone has a job to do, and he’s glad to do his and to help the team keep playing games. It’s rote, but it’s no less true for being expected. Spezza scored one goal in a few minutes’ time. He has three in five games so far this series. That’s huge, especially considering how many players didn’t manage to beat Binnington on their own chances, from breakaways to odd-man rushes to rebounds. Spezza is a leader in that locker room, and healthy scratches past haven’t changed that one bit. His smiles are my smiles and yours, the assurance that even after the darkness, the sun also rises.

Spezza’s goal gave Dallas a lead, but along with it the ability to open things up. Chances galore followed, and that’s not the Blues’ game. Dallas will exchange rushes with them all night long in every game, gladly. In fact, that’s exactly what happened until things got interesting.

The Stars really are a team who can make you pay on the rush, as they eventually did, but they should have scored far more—I counted at least nine great chances on breakaways or rushes, and I may have missed one or two. Still, you have to cut them a tiny bit of slack, considering the injury confusion with part of the roster. Dillon Heatherington drew in after Joel Hanley stayed in Dallas with an upper body injury and Taylor Fedun came down with some kind of issue:

Heatherington played eight minutes. That is what it is, but he did enough to get the Stars through the game when called upon, and you have to give him all the credit in the world for that, considering he last played in the NHL in November, and never in the playoffs. Good for him, and great job.

The choice to play Heatherington was also interesting, as it signaled Montgomery’s preferences: Ben Gleason and Gavin Bayreuther might be good players for Dallas in the coming years, but the playoffs are, for most coaches, a different animal. And if you’re wondering about a certain other defenseman on the depth chart, well, let me just tell you that Dallas used 14 defensemen in the regular season, and I suspect they would have preferred to make that number 15 if needed rather than play the defenseman you’re wondering about. Life is a mystery.

Mattias Janmark also drew into the lineup for Tyler Pitlick, which seemed a mild surprise. Janmark also left the game briefly to head back down the tunnel, but he returned shortly afterwards. He had three glorious chances on the rush, but of course, he couldn’t quite finish any of them. I don’t know if Monty is playing games with Craig Berube, but it is a bit funny that Pitlick and Janmark have seemed to be unexpectedly swapping spots here and there lately. Still, good for Janmark creating chances, even if this is the cursed season where he won’t be finishing as many of them.

Yes, the game ended up being 2-1 because of a mistake by Ben Bishop, but do you remember the play Bishop made right before the Stars scored the game-winning goal?

Bishop was huge in this one, and he must have seemed twice as huge as he actually is to St. Louis. He was in great position all night (again, outside of the one time) and tracking pucks with ease. And the couple of times pucks squirted free near him, there was a defender to clear the puck away.

One such defender, who happens to be leading both teams in ice time this series, was Esa Lindell. The Stars’ anchor would finish off that Bishop play (the good one, I mean) with a well-deserved bounce off Bouewmeester to make it 2-0. Banking pucks in off Jay Bouwmeester: the Jason Spezza Approved© method of goal-scoring. And how about that, eh? I don’t think Lindell ever goes with that rush last season, but here he is in the playoffs, jumping into the play and just going for the jugular. This guy deserves his plaudits. He played 29:20 in this game tonight. Lindell is no late-career Chris Pronger, but he’s certainly being used like it lately.

How frustrated were the Blues? Well, a shot that pretty clearly rang off the post caused a false-alarm goal horn that was, in my opinion, a bit embarrassing. It more or less shut things down for any extended delayed-penalty chance for the Blues, and that little error was only exacerbated by the premature break music on a delayed penalty with play still going later in the game. Sometimes you just want to push the bright red buttons, I guess.

Berube started mixing up his lines in the third, which is yet another indication that the Stars have St. Louis flummoxed. The Blues did get some chances in the third, but outside of the fluke handed them by the netminder, their best chance was saved by the same. And even with some sustained offensive zone time, the Stars continued to look like a team confident in its structure, a team who dares you to try low-percentage plays over and over, because that’s all they’re gonna give you when things are where they want them.

Now, that’s not to gloss over Bishop’s puckhandling gaffe. But there have been enough times where Turco or Lehtonen or even Bishop have taken their lumps for fouling up a puck play. With his play everywhere else tonight, I think it’s fair to say that Bishop earned back any trust that play might have cost him, and then some. It was a bit of bad luck after he tried to make a play he’s made a lot of times. No, it’s probably not the best idea to wait so long before making that pass, but the Stars’ derring-do is kind of what makes this team (now, at least) so much more fun than the safe-is-breath team we struggled through 82 games to watch last year. This team is given license to take chances, to go on the rush. The defense have been marvelous, and how have I not said how marvelous John Klingberg was in this one? Go search for the GIFs, all of them, because Klingberg was unreal tonight, again. Then he was great in his own zone, less flashy but still solid. Defensive defensemen don’t get jeered like Klingberg does for the occasional turnover, because they set the bar so low. But Klingberg just keeps raising the bar again and again, and frankly, I can’t wait to watch him in game six. He’s such a special player, and I really am serious when I say it bothers me to hear Stars fans mock him. Honestly, you don’t get to watch players like this every day. You just don’t.

Anyway, back to the things. The goal gave the Blues life, and an ensuing rush forced Benn to take a penalty, and things got tense in a hurry. It felt disastrous, because we’ve seen it so many times. We know this team, don’t we? Perhaps not, anymore. Some outstanding penalty killing by Mattias Janamark and company got them through those two minutes safely, with the puck being taken up the ice a couple of times, infuriating fans anew. Dallas’s PK was perfect, again, and while Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz and Janmark and Comeau and Cogliano and Faksa are all great forwards in their roles on it, Ben Bishop is, of course, the best insurance policy a PK can have. But Dallas, make no mistake, has not had to ask Bishop for heroics all the time, either:

Bishop did have to be great down the stretch though, and that’s just sort of a feature rather than a bug in the NHL these days with score effects and all. A point-blank chance from Zuccarello at one end was stopped, which led to Jaden Schwarz getting a backhand hcance in tight after Miro Heiskanen got caught leaning the wrong way at the blue line. Thankfully, Bishop did what he does.

Finally, Bishop came up absolutely huge on Sunqvist. Left pad robbery, larceny, pick your Razorism. It was a game-defining save, something that can crush a crowd, a team. Bishop said no, and that was the Blues’ best chance the rest of the way.

One reason for that was that the Stars had a great forechecking shift that killed 45 seconds behind the St. Louis goal as the clock ticked down to the final minute. It prevented the Blues from pulling Binnington as early as they would have liked (though perhaps they ought to have done so with three minutes left, but I don’t know that Berube is quite that avant-garde). It was another heart-stomping from Dallas, who held no regard for the Blues and their fans. You can’t, in the playoffs.

At the end, after more shot blocks and lane closures, the horn sounded and things were finally, blissfully, over. Then, a couple of seconds after time expired, the puck did trickle into the Stars net. They didn’t care. No one cared, even if some of the desperate crowd cheered it anyway, hoping against hope that the clock was wrong. It isn’t, though. Time is running out on the Blues. They can’t lose to Dallas again if they want to keep playing. Their game is meant to wear a team down and create seams off a heavy cycle, but Dallas is standing their ground. Ben Bishop is a hard guy to move, and when he does, it’s usually for the better.

(Usually.)