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Afterwords: The Dallas Stars, Best Offensive Team of the Playoffs

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This really was a team effort just as much as a systemic success

Dallas Stars v Colorado Avalanche - Game One Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

I guess it comes down to

What kind of world you want

To live in

***

A minute into this game, the Avalanche rushed in with a 4-on-2 chance after the Stars’ top line got caught in the offensive zone after losing the puck.

This could have been the start of a long night for Dallas. After playing a compressed six-game series, to start the next round less than 48 hours later, then go down a goal early to a high-flying team like the Avalanche? That could have taken the wind out of their sails.

Instead, Andre Burakovsky missed the net high on a great chance, and the Stars would get the first goal with said top line just a few minutes later.

They never looked back. Even when Nathan MacKinnon scored a superstar-caliber goal soon afterwards, the Stars kept getting looks. And while the first period ended with a flurry of Avs chances, it was Dallas who walked into the dressing room with a 3-1 lead.

How they did it was, if possible, even more impressive that that they did it at all. The Avs were as favored against Dallas as any team against its opponent in the second round, if not moreso. And really, can you blame anyone for that? The Stars looked like an expansion team against Colorado in the round robin game last month. After tonight, that performance looks like so much rope-a-dope.

Jamie Benn had his best game of the playoffs, by a good margin. And while there was still a moment of head-shaking here and there, Benn was a big reason the Stars won this game. That seems like something we all sort of resigned ourselves to never really seeing again, but when you watched the top line leading the way, suddenly hope started to bloom for this team in a way that, even after beating Calgary, had never quite happened since the Winter Classic.

That first goal was great forechecking, hard work by Benn and Radulov, and Tyler Seguin “going hard to the net” or whatever you want to call it, and actually beating a goaltender without hitting the post.

The third goal was Alex Radulov beating Sam Girard back down the ice after the Avalanche defender had pinched just a little bit too far, and Jamie Benn working some stickhandling magic after busting up the ice to get to the puck first. The feed and the goal were also beautiful, but then, we’ve seen those things before. That’s the level of talent that is on that top line, lest you (understandably) forget.

The fourth goal was a great bit of work by Radulov to hop on the ice during a change and help Seguin create a 2-on-1 after a slick Benn hinge pass in the neutral zone to catch Seguin at speed. Seguin’s shot tested Francouz instead of missing the net—that’s some improvement from last series, eh?—and Radulov was once again there in plenty of time to finish the play. Basic stuff, on its face. But again, all of these things happened because everything else was working. The line was working, forechecking, and skating for its life. And they got amply rewarded.

I think we can forget just how dynamic Radulov is, for a 34-year-old player. But you’re reminded of how critical he has been for Benn and Seguin since the departure of Lindy Ruff, on nights like this. Radulov is a playmaker, but he’s also a world-class talent in general, even if he’s capable of making a play almost every shift that would drive a coach batty. But when you’re playing a team like Colorado, you have to have the ability to punch and punch back. Radulov gives Dallas that, even at 34. Tonight, the whole line was great, but don’t sleep on Radulov in this series. Or Seguin. Or Benn.

Anton Khudobin, meanwhile, was just sort of Anton Khudobin, for a whole game. Sure, he got caught too far from his post on that Gabe Landeskog goal, but you’ll happily take one of those when you get the rest of his game. Khudobin’s excellence in this one—he had two dynamite stops on one-timers, and another great push to get back across just in time after overplaying another shot—helped the Stars to demoralize the Avalanche, inasmuch as that’s possible. That’s the goaltending you dream about, even if three goals against doesn’t look quite as sparkly in a box score.

Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar tried to win this game by sheer willpower and talent, and at times, they almost did. But Jared Bednar criticized half his team for not showing up, and you really do realize how hard it is for one or two players to win a hockey game by themselves. Pavel Francouz wasn’t bad at all, and the Avalanche have enough depth to handle losing a third-pairing defenseman like Erik Johnson for much of the game. In theory.

But while each team’s top line got three goals, the Stars got two depth goals, and that was the difference. Blake Comeau’s goal was a bit of a lucky bounce, but then again, it came off of some great work in the zone to keep retrieving the puck, some great defensive activation. That’s what you call an “earned” goal, with no disrespect to Johnson, who was injured after Ian Cole cross-checked Blake Comeau into Johnson’s legs. Bad breaks are tough—just ask Stephen Johns or Ben Bishop—but the playoffs tend to bring a couple of those here and there. You play through them, or they run you through.

Finally, the Stars’ fifth goal came after another great piece of work by a bottom-six line, with Jason Dickinson setting up Roope Hintz for a key goal to reestablish that two-goal lead in the third period. But while it took some hard work from a lot of people, John Klingberg’s great play in the defensive zone earlier in the shift enabled him to also make a great play in the offensive zone, where Klingberg took a big hit from Nikita Zadorov

It’s easy to build narratives around effort and sacrifice, but it’s also easy to discard them. In this game, the Stars beat an Avs team that was rolling as high as any team in the league, and they did it in all three zones. Miro Heiskanen had some fantastic plays—this might have been my favorite—but he didn’t quite have the dominant night we’ve seen at other times this month. Other players stepped up, and it turns out, the Stars have a lot of other good players, too. The Avalanche, tonight, had Nathan MacKinnon.

On our last podcast, Wes and I were talking about how important it would be for Dallas to prove to themselves that they could hang with Colorado, and that’s all well and good. But I think the bigger key, especially considering Colorado’s road so far after stomping Arizona, was to cast doubt over Colorado’s sunny skies (so to speak). The Stars, in this game, made a statement. The Avalanche also suffered some heavy losses, with Philipp Grubauer being, of course, the most severe. (The guess for me: that injury looked like a popped groin muscle to my unfortunately experienced eye, which would be a season-ender at this point.)

We all saw how the series shifted against Calgary when they blew that lead in game four and the Stars came back to win in overtime. For a supposedly offensively challenged team, Dallas found a way to put up five on Calgary, and that had to have disconcerted an already uneven team. Dallas never really looked back after that, even if game five, in retrospect, was a tighter, closer game. The Stars took control of the series, and Calgary had no answer.

If you’re Colorado, how are you feeling right now? Yes, you have the best forward in the bubble, But even when he has a three-point night with two incredible goals—even that deflection was beautiful—the Stars walked away with a 5-3 win. Dallas is already missing their starting goalie, and it hasn’t fazed them. They’re missing a key penalty-killing defenseman, and they’ve just chugged along. Colorado got dealt both of those hands tonight, and I think it’s fair to say they might have some trouble bouncing back.

There are lots of props to hand out, up and down the lineup. Joe Pavelski had another huge block late in this game after a bit of a questionable icing call against Dallas, and heck, the Corey Perry-led fourth line and the Fedun-Sekera pairing led a possession clinic in the Avalanche zone for a full minute, or thereabouts. As much as Sekera had a rough series against Calgary, he and Fedun had an outstanding night in (slightly less) sheltered minutes against Colorado. The pairing only allowed two shot attempts—attempts!—against at even-strength all night long.

(Apologies for the gratuitous self-quoting tonight, but it’s late and I’m lazy.)

Dickinson—assist to Hintz aside—isn’t scoring quite like he did in last year’s playoffs, but he really hasn’t needed to. Even Hintz himself, who finally found a goal with a wonderful release that just flat-out beat Francouz’s glove hand, hasn’t been doing what he did last year. And it hasn’t mattered that much. The Stars got some timely scoring, some needed scoring, and some consistent defense against everyone who wasn’t MacKinnon, and even the big guy himself, in the third period. Dallas held the fort, and didn’t even make a full turtle of things in the third period, to boot.

Some sobering thoughts: Calgary won the first game of the last series, so this guarantees nothing more than a one-game lead. The Stars are also, for all their adversity, just as susceptible to bad breaks as any other team. If that first Avs rush finds the net, this game looks completely different.

But the Stars are the ones who really look different, right now.

This isn’t just about offense vs. defense or whatever. There’s a palpable nature to playoff hockey, and the Stars are really and truly feelin’ it. Radek Faksa’s hungry power play goal in game six, and Jamie Benn’s two slick primary assists in this one. These are plays that happen when you aren’t worrying about anything other than your job. Sometimes, everything just works the way you want it to, and it’s really fun to watch.

If there’s one thing to complain about, it’s that the Stars never really look interested or capable of scoring an empty-net goal, even with multiple chances to do so. Radulov had the best look, with a couple dozen seconds left, but there were enough Avs back to knock the puck away, foiling the hat trick.

As the 2015-16 Stars found out, scoring empty-netters is a great way to avoid having to play tense, lockdown defense against desperate teams. Just find the gaping cage and end the game on the spot, and you’re done. Simple. I get the idea behind collapsing and filling lanes and all that, but you’d hope that at least one or two of the Stars’ players could find their way to doing more than icing the puck every 20 seconds against a team more than capable of putting up two goals in quick succession. Why make it harder than it has to be?

(The answer, of course, is that the Stars really didn’t have that many chances, and icing it was the safer thing, most times. I get that, but at the same time, I’d love to see a tiny bit more risk in the moment for the reward of letting our heart rates drop below 200 bpm, if it’s not too much trouble. High-maintenance fan, I know, I know.)

The Avalanche are going to punch back on Monday, just as the Stars did against Calgary last series. These things seem beautiful and easy when you’re basking in the throes of a nice victory, but every series is a battle, unless you’re the Coyotes. Just to point out one thing: Dallas will have to kill more than one power play at some point over the next week, and if the Colorado power play keeps looking as lethal as it has all postseason, that’s going to be a big problem. Dallas and Colorado both probably deserved another power play or two in this one, but the whistles disappeared, and that favors the team defending a lead.

Demons aren’t conquered just because they’re quiet. The top line will have to keep coming up with answers to the questions that have plagued it all year, and there will be frustrating moments. But the beautiful thing about the playoffs is that sometimes, you don’t have to be frustrated at all. Sometimes, you just get to scream and clap and high-five and hoot, because your team scored five goals against one of the best teams in the league, and it was a whole lotta fun. I think we’re all grateful for fun right now.