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Stark Reminders: The Scorianov Strikes Back

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Goals. So many goals. And almost as many Star Wars references.

Dallas Stars v Calgary Flames - Game Six Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The Dallas Stars compensated for the late puck drop by packing the hockey energy equivalent of seven cups of coffee into Game 6 on Thursday. Once Miro Heiskanen scored on the power play in the first period, the Stars poured octane into the tank and never looked back. They set a National Hockey League record, individual players picked up career nights, and they sent the Calgary Flames packing, winning the series 4-2. They will advance now to the second round of the 2019-20 playoffs and face the Colorado Avalanche.

It was a night to remember. For some, like my mom — the long-suffering Flames fan — it was a night to forget. For some, like myself and pretty much every Stars fan, it was a night to remember. For those keeping track of our banter and bet on Twitter, I ended up with the Seattle Kraken puck, t-shirt, and hat; my mom got the water bottle. Not too bad considering she spent the majority of the last week chirping me about Dallas’ scoring woes. She did get the last laugh though. During our FaceTime call in the second intermission, when I chirped her about the Flames, she said, “Love you, hate your team, bye!” and for the first time in my life, hung up on me. C’est la vie. I’ll take the hang-up and the series win, although I’m pretty sure I’m getting coal in my Christmas stocking from now until eternity. Family rivalries aside, the Stars won a tough series and dismantled the Flames in memorable fashion during Game 6. So let’s dive into the reminders.

Reminder No. 1: Flip The Script

The Stars were caught looking half-asleep in the first three minutes of the game. Calgary scored all three of their goals within 2:52. That’s it. It only took eight seconds shy of the three-minute mark for the Stars to panic, call a timeout, and look like a team on the verge of a blowout in the game and the series as well.

While there is a happy ending to this reminder (spoiler alert: they won), it is still a bleak one too. The Stars cannot coast or chase from behind in the first period of the game. Over the season they’ve become a team known for their comeback in the second period. There’s a formula for Dallas games — survive the first, stage the comeback in the second, turtle for the third — and every part of it has been on display more than once in this series. Incredibly, it has worked for the Stars — barely. However, they cannot continue to rely on this three-step plan moving forward.

Colorado is known for smothering offense and rattling not just a line or a goaltender, but the entire lineup. They are also known for eating teams for breakfast in the first period. One only has to look as far as the first periods of Games 4 and 5 in their series against the Arizona Coyotes. In both games, Colorado had three goals by the end of the first period. In Game 4, they held Arizona to three shots on goal in the first period. Let that one sink in. After 20 minutes in Game 4, Colorado had three goals while Arizona only had three shots.

That’s not smothering offense, that’s the Hulk smacking Loki into the concrete in Avengers before saying, “Puny god.” In Game 1, if the Stars play the first three minutes the way they did against the Flames, the probability of the Avalanche burying them in goals and snuffing out their shot count is as high as the Rocky Mountains. If the Stars hope to win any games against the Avalanche, let alone the series, they will need to drastically redraft that formula of survive, comeback, turtle.

Reminder to the Stars to storm onto the ice in the first, keep that pressure in the second, and also in the third. (Don’t let Nathan MacKinnon do the hockey version of a mic drop to you in the series.)

Reminder No. 2: Trust In Me, You Do

I know I’ve talked in previous “Stark Reminders” about the importance of trusting Anton Khudobin and letting him do his thing in the crease. Game 6 against Calgary not only underlined that point, it italicized it, bolded it, and enlarged the font up to size 64. After allowing three goals in the first 2:52 of the game, the Stars didn’t pull Khudobin. Instead, following the timeout called by Dallas, he returned to the crease, shook it all off, and never gave Calgary an opening after that.

It was clear in that moment, watching Khudobin skate back to the Dallas net, that not only do the players trust him to clean up after their defensive errors and collapses (again and again and again), but that the coaching staff in Dallas also trust him. Ben Bishop has been unfit to play since his time in net during Game 2 of the series. Instead of rotating in Jake Oettinger for at least one of the games, interim head coach Rick Bowness went with Khudobin for Games 3 through 6. That also underscores how much the coaches trust Khudobin’s capability to shake off the bad goals and keep Dallas within the area of a fighting chance to win games.

On the opposite side of the ice, Calgary did, well, the opposite. They pulled Cam Talbot and put in David Rittich, then pulled Rittich and put Talbot back in. Not only does that rattle both goaltenders, it put the Calgary defense on the fritz, sending them into overdrive trying to protect the net and not let the puck near their already spooked goaltenders. In the process, Calgary fell apart at the blue line and Dallas capitalized on that again and again in the second and third periods. “Trust in your goaltender or not, there is no try,” is what Master Yoda would say if he were a hockey fan.

Reminder to the Stars to trust Khudobin, no matter how scary the Avalanche offense might be in the upcoming round.

Reminder No. 3: Singular Chaos Meet Entropy Chaos

In case you missed it, Matthew Tkachuk was not amused by his team’s performance in Game 6. Seriously, he was so beyond not amused that he quite possibly could have outdone Queen Victoria herself at her own oft-repeated saying. There were quite a few tweets circulating during the game with the GIFs of Tkachuk losing his marbles, his chill, and his hat as he watched his team fizzle out on the ice. However, this tweet might be the best of the lot:

(Matthew, wear your mask properly. Set a good example for the kids, please.)

If you think that’s a great tweet, check out this one by the Flames from the first period and Scott Wheeler’s correction to it in the second:

In all seriousness though, the Stars beat the Flames without their best player on the ice. That is both great (they didn’t have to deal with Matthew “Chaos Incarnate” Tkachuk on the ice), and terrifying (they had to fight for some of the wins in the series against a disorganized lineup rotation).

While Tkachuk being relegated to the press box was undoubtedly a blessing for my blood pressure, it did not bode well for the second round of the playoffs. Dallas had to work for each of their wins before Game 6 in the series against Calgary. They struggled to maintain consistent offensive pressure. They failed to rally in the face of back-to-back goals by Calgary, which would have been exacerbated if Tkachuk had been on the ice. Tkachuk’s ability to irritate players and break up plays has made him one that all lines and defensive pairings have to work hard against during their shifts.

Dallas absolutely cannot get ahead of themselves after the astounding win in Game 6. Why? Because waiting for them in the next round is Colorado, and Colorado has some excellent players for whom irritation and chaos are muscle memory. Nikita Zadorov is at the top of that list, and he’s followed by Erik Johnson, Samuel Girard, and several others who have taken to getting under the opposition’s skin with delight. Dallas almost needed Tkachuk in this series just to build up a tolerance and immunity to that style of play. If Dallas takes the ice in Game 1 against Colorado with an oversized ego? Prepare yourself for the penalty box to install a revolving door once again, and for some truly bonkers plays and goals by Colorado.

Dallas will not be able to capitalize on scrambled lines from Colorado, like they did in the wake of Tkachuk’s move into the press box. The Stars (and Stars fans) might think they have nothing to worry about as Dallas won the regular season series against Colorado. Think again. Colorado played most of the regular season with some of their most powerful players on the injured reserve. All of those playmakers and goal-scorers have returned now and it is blatantly clear.

Three players on the Avalanche have more goals individually than Arizona did in the entire series. Nathan MacKinnon (13), Nazem Kadri (11), and Mikko Rantanen (10) outscored the Coyotes, and Andre Burakovsky and Gabe Landeskog both had eight goals apiece to tie Arizona’s total offensive output in the series. That’s five forwards in the top half of the lineup already in double digits or close to it after five playoff games, and the rest of the lineup is just as powerful. If that isn’t nightmare fuel for a team struggling on consistent offense balanced with defensive stability, then I don’t know what it. So no, the Stars cannot rely on the regular season series against the Avalanche as an accurate litmus test for how they will perform in the playoffs.

Reminder to the Stars to be ready at the opening face-off and for the love of all things hockey, do not let MacKinnon, Kadri, and Rantanen get the puck. Ever.

Reminder No. 4: Ice, Ice Baby

While Denis Gurianov wouldn’t be born for another eight years when Vanilla Ice released his mega-hit, I’d like to start a petition for it to be his goal song from now on.

If you’ve just emerged from a media and hockey blackout, welcome. Yes, the Dallas Stars won the series. Yes, they rebounded in a dazzling fashion in Game 6. And you can thank Gurianov for that.

Gurianov struggled to get top-line or even standard minutes on the ice throughout the regular season. He hovered consistently between nine minutes and 12 minutes (give or take 30 seconds on either side). Inexplicably, he led the team in goals (19) despite barely getting on the ice. Last night, Gurianov peaked at 13:27 time on ice. He scored the first three goals of his four-goal night in only nine minutes on the ice. The Stars only gave him so much time to work and Gurianov demonstrated to them why he deserves top-line minutes from this game forward.

While the small overall time on the ice is nothing new for Gurianov, the shift length was an entirely different story. Most nights, the Stars’ shifts last anywhere from 30 seconds to under two minutes, though usually on the longer side. Last night? His average shift length was 34 seconds. That’s barely enough time to hop the boards, slide into the current play, and look for opportunities. Forget trying to score a goal or set one up. And yet, incredibly, Gurianov pulled off the impossible and scored four goals on shifts lasting half a minute in length (and he tallied 23 shifts in the game).

There is a reason we tweeted this out after his fourth goal last night:

We can’t take credit for this tweet, but we do think it deserves an honorable mention:

Aside from displaying Gurianov’s charm and reminding us that the Stars do score goals, the tweet above gets at a deeper issue. The Stars are an immensely talented team when it comes to goal-scoring. However, as I’ve mentioned before in this column, the current defense-first system circumvents all of that raw talent. Gurianov is a gifted player who is elevating his game and he is still very early in his career. By all rights, he should be averaging close to 18-20 minutes on the ice per night and racking up goals like they’re stripes and solids in a pool table rack. Instead, he’s given less time as he’s more offense than defense in his playing style, and now has the added difficulty of comically short shifts.

Most of the Stars were in the same situation in Game 6, working with half-minute (or close to thereabouts) shifts. The shorter the shift, the less time you have to let the play mature. That means the Stars have less time to set up a cycle and work it deep into the offensive zone. The Stars’ work on the cycle is good, but we’ve seen more than once that it needs time to be effective and often a few extra passes to get it in the right place. In addition to that, the longer a line’s shift is, the more time they have to camp in the offensive zone. The longer they spend in the offensive zone allows them to wear down the other team’s defensive pairings while building a screen in front of the goaltender to give them ample coverage for a shot. With shifts as short as the ones in Game 6, both sides were pretty much operating on the principle of chaos first, setups later. No one benefits from that short of a shift.

Except Gurianov did — and so did Miro Heiskanen, Joe Pavelski, and Radek Faksa. The only real reason the chaotic line changes didn’t come back to haunt the Stars was that the Flames were so discombobulated from the surge of goals that they were unable to connect passes or mount a decent offensive strike.

Reminder to the Stars to trust your young stars with more ice time, lengthen those shifts, and give the cycle a chance.

Reminder No. 5: Denis Gurianov Is Elite

Like I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to type that sentence again.

Game 1 between Dallas and Colorado will begin at 7 p.m. CT on Saturday, August 22. In the meantime...