The Dallas Stars have improved each game in their first-round series against the Calgary Flames. As much as the team has outplayed Calgary, the series is tied at 2-2, and easily could be a 3-1 deficit.
Losing Matthew Tkachuk is likely to blame for many of Calgary’s issues. Tkachuk brings an edge to Calgary’s second line, and with the young winger out, the third line is the only group driving play.
Dallas has largely neutralized 5-on-5 threats, leaving Calgary dependent on special teams to drive their offense. The Stars have proven vulnerable, whether on the penalty kill or on the power play, so as much as Dallas has dominated possession, there is still reason for concern.
Calgary blew through the play-in round by keeping play to the outside. Against the Stars, that has disappeared. The Flames have collapsed to the crease, but that has opened up Dallas defenders at the point — and they’ve used that space to put pucks on net, and more importantly, generating rebounds.
Tightening up that gap is one change to expect going into Game 5. Shot blocks are part of Calgary’s team identity, but Dallas has found ways to get pucks to the net or off the boards to create high-danger chances.
Doubling down on physicality is also something to look for out of the Flames. John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen have avoided serious damage to this point, but Calgary doesn’t seem to have any other answers to the mobility of Dallas’ mobile defenders.
All four lines rolled in Game 4 on Sunday, and after such a dominant advantage in shot share, there is no expectation that the Stars will change things up.
Defensively, Dallas continues to have issues with their third pair, especially Andrej Sekera.
The conundrum for the Stars is multifold. Sekera is a veteran, and it could be argued that he’s earned a chance to play his way back to the level that he showed during the regular season. Dallas has a reputation for riding veterans and the number of times where a veteran has been moved aside for a younger, less experienced player is limited at best.
Beyond that, circumstances related to the bubble leave few options for the Stars. Going in, Stephen Johns was slated on the third pair, with duties on the second unit for the penalty. With Johns “unfit to play” and Roman Polak having opted out of the postseason altogether, the Stars don’t have many choices on the penalty kill without Sekera in the lineup.
Taylor Fedun is not a realistic penalty kill option, and John Klingberg is already putting in major minutes (and taking serious physical abuse). In putting together their bubble roster, Dallas rewarded Thomas Harley with a slot, perhaps looking for lightning in a bottle. There was a taste of his potential in the single round robin game where he slotted in, but there was nothing there that would indicate that he’s ready for playoff hockey, let alone time on the penalty kill.
The team taking a flyer on Harley put Dillon Heatherington outside the bubble, and his size and physical game is something that Dallas could have used as an option. Joel Hanley and Gavin Bayreuther are available, but neither is a penalty kill workhorse.
Last year, in the middle of the series against the St. Louis Blues, the Stars faced a similar issue with their third pair. Ben Lovejoy held down the right side of the third pair, but Fedun was overwhelmed by the physical play. In Game 4, Hanley drew in and put up reasonable numbers, but not enough to keep him in the lineup. Heatherington played Game 5, with limited minutes. In both games, Esa Lindell ended up double-shifting on the penalty kill.
Fedun was back for the final two losses, but the Stars never solved their issues with the third pair. One year later, the team faces similar issues, again against a team that plays a heavy game.
All of this comes down to a leap of faith. It’s always dangerous to look ahead, but the Colorado Avalanche are lurking on the horizon. Getting through Calgary without a third pair solution just prolongs the inevitable.
Dallas Stars Lineup
Jamie Benn (14) - Tyler Seguin (91) - Alexander Radulov (47)
Mattias Janmark (13) - Joe Pavelski (16) - Denis Gurianov (34)
Andrew Cogliano (11) - Radek Faksa (12) - Blake Comeau (15)
Roope Hintz (24) - Jason Dickinson (18) - Corey Perry (10)
Esa Lindell (23) - John Klingberg (3)
Jamie Oleksiak (2) - Miro Heiskanen (4)
Andrej Sekera (5) - Taylor Fedun (42)
Anton Khudobin (35)
Calgary Flames Lineup
Johnny Gaudreau (13) - Sean Monahan (23) - Elias Lindholm (28)
Tobias Rieder (16) - Mikael Backlund (11) - Andrew Mangiapane (88)
Milan Lucic (17) - Sam Bennett (93) - Dillon Dube (29)
Zac Rinaldo (36) - Derek Ryan (10) - Alan Quine (89)
Mark Giordano (5) - T J Brodie (7)
Noah Hanifin (55) - Rasmus Andersson (4)
Derek Forbort (20) - Erik Gustafsson (56)
Cam Talbot (39)
Keys to the Game
Calgary adjustments. Expect the Flames to up the physical game and to not let the Stars drive the offense from the point. Klingberg and Heiskanen need to avoid the hits, and the Stars need to establish their speed game.
Alexander Radulov. Dallas doesn’t have much of a cycle game, but Radulov has exposed a soft underbelly on the Flames defense. Specifically, his ability to get pucks into the crease from behind the net has been notable. The Stars haven’t taken advantage of these opportunities, but they’re there, and they’re dangerous.
Special Teams. Calgary has dominated on special teams, and for a playoff series, there has been a parade to the box for both teams. Playing even-strength should play to the Stars’ advantage.
Foot on the Gas. More of the same. The series is tied at 2-2, and dominating shot share doesn’t finish off the series.