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Afterwords: It’s What You (Don’t) Makar of It

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John Klingberg started the Stars’ Scoring, and Makar finished it

Colorado Avalanche v Dallas Stars - Game Four Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I’ve been sitting here so long

Wasting time, just staring at the phone

And I was wondering should I call you

Then I thought, maybe you’re not alone

***

It was in that first goal, or the lead up to it, that I think I started to really believe the Stars could win this series in the five games I predicted.

John Klingberg, for so long this season a point of mysterious but justified concern, discarded Nazem Kadri’s forecheck like so much hockey detritus, and ended his rush by similarly ignoring Cale Makar’s paltry defensive efforts to stuff the puck into the net.

It was the sort of goal no team should allow, and the type Colorado have too often been conceding. It was, in short, a signal that the Avs were going to have to overcome more than just the other team’s strengths, once again.

Pavel Francouz quite simply can’t allow that puck to get loose. The defense can’t allow Klingberg to get to that puck before anyone else.

But you have to give a ton of credit to Klingberg, both for the beautiful zone exit and for the incisive decision to bust to the net. Klingberg’s balance has always made it look like his hips were crafted by the gods themselves, and his ability to contort himself to get just enough on that puck to tap it home was a fitting reward for hit play in that whole sequence.

It was similar to Radek Faksa’s goal, in principle if not practice. Faksa, on the power play, collected a loose puck after finding it first, and he easily stickhandled around the bewildered goalie with a minimum of harassment.

And of course you had the Jamie Benn goal, which was just great puck movement and a great tip. Did you know that Jamie Benn is second on the team in playoff scoring, by the way?

And the Roope Hintz goal—oh the Roope Hintz goal:

Look at Colorado just falling to pieces here. It’s easy to understand, to some extent, why commentators have focused more on Colorado’s faults than the Stars’ virtues in this series, given how widely favored the Avalanche were beforehand.

But once again, this game wasn’t the Stars taking advantage of a shooting percentage dip by Colorado, or getting outright heroic goaltending to steal a game. Instead, it was just the Stars putting up their customary five goals, and Anton Khudobin making the heroic—because really, he has been, contextually and practically at times—look routine, or at least routine for him.

This game was John Klingberg, seeing the Avs coming, and finding a way to make progress just the same.

Or at least, it was for most of the night. But the real back-breaker, and perhaps the goal that deserved game-winning credit even before a garbage-time fourth goal made it literally so, was the Denis Gurianov biscuit-in-the-basket.

Write it off as a rookie mistake by Makar, or a nervous backup-goalie mistake by Francouz, or both. Either way, it gave Dallas a 5-2 lead and eventually made this the least stressful third period of the series.

Ditto for the first period, actually, as the Stars skated Colorado out of the building after hitting them into next week to begin the game. Colorado looked completely shaken, not even getting a shot on goal until 18 minutes into the first. And, unlike Calgary in game six, the Stars were able to follow that up with solid goaltending and largely sufficient defense to make that lead stand up.

Part of the decreased drama had to do with the fairly adequate officiating, which is probably the first time in the series I can say that. A lot of calls in both directions have been ignored at seemingly arbitrary times, but in this one, the officials more or less evened the playing field (thanks in large part to Corey Perry, who drew(???) four penalties, and that is not a typo).

And when push came to shove, the Stars’ penalty kill made the Avalanche power play look a whole lot less fearsome than it did at the start of this series. The 5-on-3 Colorado got (with the extremely rare double-dip power play with two different penalties called on the same sequence) looked better, but that’s just it: Colorado has needed that kind of ice-tilting to stay in this series. You may recall Miro Heiskanen getting cross-checked into next week after, well, last week’s game four with no call. You may recall a certain 8-3 power play advantage in a game before that. The recipe has been there for the Stars to be trailing or tied in a series where bitterness would lead fans to say they should be doing better.

But in fact, Dallas is better, because they have been better. The Stars’ penalty kill hasn’t gotten enough credit for its outstanding work against a terrifying offense, and likewise Anton Khudobin. The Stars have solved a lot of the Colorado attack, and while conceding 3.75 goals per game might not seem like that, the Stars really have done what they’ve needed to do. The top line is scoring—Alex Radulov in particular has been a force in this series in ways he wasn’t always against Calgary—and the rest of the lineup is filling in the gaps (or maybe the top line is filling in the gaps).

Colorado may feel that Corey Perry ought not to have the benefit of the doubt to the extent that he draws four calls, but then again, which of those four penalties could you really say wasn’t illegal? The Avs have gotten away with a lot in this series, and the Stars were just the better team last night. The Stars, in fact, have been the better team at all facets of the game, through four games.

Of course, the Avs can win three straight, so there’s no point getting ahead of ourselves. And sure, Colorado’s injuries are unfortunate, and that’s not nothing. But of these two teams, Dallas has time and again looked like a team that’s willing to do what it takes to win, while Colorado has too often looked like a team that is going to make mistakes. And it turns out, the Stars are a whole lot better at mop-up duty.

That’s really it, I think. Dallas has had to deal with so much garbage this season that they don’t get into scramble mode that easily. They’ve made adjustments to their penalty kill and neutral zone play—think about how much tougher it was for Colorado to enter the zone last night on the man-advantage—and the Avs haven’t been able to counter them effectively.

For the first time all series, I thought Nathan MacKinnon looked mortal. Troy may not have fallen just yet, but Hector can only run ‘round the city for so long, you know? And unless divine intervention shows up soon, the Avs may be heading back to the drawing board.

Oh, speaking of which: do you know the one Dallas Stars player who hasn’t been on the ice for a 5v5 goal against in the Colorado series?

Well, it’s Andrej Sekera. Yes, that player who looked like the Stars’ biggest weak point against Calgary has suddenly become part of a stout penalty kill and an effective third pairing. True, that pairing has been getting some time with the top line to help protect them, but they’ve done their job well, and Sekera deserves all the credit in the world for that.

Just like this series, really. The Avs haven’t taken advantage of all their chances, certainly. But the Stars have found a little luck and a lot of clutch play, and when they really decide to dominate the ice, they’ve been able to do so.

With a 3-1 series lead, the Stars look ready to bump Colorado off the season’s precipice into the rocky crevasse of the mountains below. That’s not because the Stars have dominated Colorado the way the Avs dominated Arizona—but because the Stars have shown that they can handle the best Colorado has to offer.

Back in 2006, a top-seeded Dallas team was facing Joe Sakic and the Avalanche in the first round. The Avs jumped out to a 3-0 series lead behind two overtime victories. And, as I recall, Dave Tippett had the Stars players skip practice and head up into the Rocky Mountains for the day, just to clear their heads. Dallas responded with a rousing 4-1 win in game four. But the Avalanche, with a 3-1 series lead, closed out the series in game five with their third overtime win in five games, because even a good team is going to have trouble winning multiple must-win games in a row. It was heartbreaking, but the fanbase might have forgotten about that series thanks to the even more agonizing seven-game loss to Vancouver in 2007. Still, I haven’t forgotten just how disappointing that Colorado series was, so you’ll forgive me if I dare to dream of a bit of a revenge.

Any team can find a miracle in the playoffs, as we’ve seen. But the whole idea of the first half of a playoff series is to force the other team to start needing one. And, like Dallas 14 years ago, I’m not sure Colorado has that many places left to look.