Lost in the process of the Dallas Stars building their former 3-1 series lead is that they built the lead largely by surviving the abandonment of their identity. In saying this, one shouldn’t come to the conclusion that the goal-scoring has been forgotten, that the wins weren’t impressive, and that the Stars still find themselves in the driver seat.
This shouldn’t excuse the fact that the Dallas defense has not looked like themselves for the better part of this series, and Game 6 will now happen with the Stars looking to eliminate the Colorado Avalanche.
It is fair to question interim head coach Rick Bowness and his decision to start Ben Bishop on short notice. It is fair to criticize a coaching staff for the lack of preparation when it came to the line-shuffling that worked so well for the Avalanche. It is also fair to question how in the world the Stars players failed to answer the bell and were outshot 19-4 through 20 minutes.
That will all be parsed out, dissected, and answered for as the Stars approach a Game 6 that desperately needs to go well for the hockey players in green.
However, defense is in the details. The Stars’ identity is in the details, and no matter how fun Games 1 through 4 seemed, the Stars survived the sloppiness.
In Game 5 they did not.
Missed Assignments, Missed Chances, Missed Rebounds
The Stars’ issues began pretty much from the beginning when Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored the opening goal of the game.
The Stars had just worked the puck below the Avalanche defense, but failed to retrieve it, sending the Avalanche on a three-on-two up the ice. Attacking the Stars’ line with speed, the Stars were actually in good position as the play developed.
The critical mistake happened when Alexander Radulov failed to recognize that he was late marking Bellemare. By the time he did, Bellemare already had the puck and all Radulov could do was hopelessly wave his stick in his direction.
Radulov should have been aware that Bellemare was the natural recipient of a back-door pass, and therefore, should have taken a more direct angle. Radulov, in a perfect world, would have skated directly at Bellemare, tying up his stick and forcing a more difficult attempt on net. This isn’t to say that Radulov needed to negate a shot, but a better marking of his man probably makes the shot stoppable for Bishop.
On the second Colorado goal, there were a couple of events that led to disaster for the Stars by putting them in a two-goal hole.
The Avalanche won the face-off and rotated the puck up top at the point. Cale Makar then threw a rather harmless puck on goal that Bishop stopped. Bishop then committed the cardinal sin of directing the puck back into the slot off of his chest.
However, the goal isn't squarely on the fact that Bishop didn’t properly handle rebounds throughout this sequence. No, the goal actually lands on Miro Heiskanen for being late to Andre Burakovsky. In the tenth of a second after Makar let his shot go, Heiskanen was standing still while Burakovsky was breaking towards the net. By the time Heiskanen realized this, (as is the theme) it was too late and the puck was already on its way into an open net.
These goals are just two fatal examples of five fatal breakdowns in the first period. The Stars in zone structure broke down in a big way in Game 5, and the Avalanche were simply too good and too talented for the Stars to survive mistakes like the ones they made on Monday night.
Dallas Forecheck Non-Existent
As to not appear as if the complete weight of this loss falls on the shoulders of the Stars’ defense, the Stars forwards and forecheck were noticeably absent in the first 20 minutes.
This is due to two factors.
1. The Dallas forwards constantly bobbled pucks at their own blue line and in the neutral zone.
2. The Stars were a step slower than the Avalanche defense and were not able to work the puck below the hashmarks and retrieve it.
The first issue is most likely the most glaring one, as even the most casual fan can see that the Stars cannot successfully cross the blue line with any regularity. To their credit the Avalanche were able to match the Stars at the red line, causing the Stars to carelessly dump the puck in, or create a turnover. The subsequent turnovers fed the Avalanche rush, which further compounded the defensive issues in the defensive zone for Dallas.
The second issue combined with the first issue is what truly killed the Stars in the first frame. Whenever the Stars did cross the blue line, they were simply unable to attack the Avalanche defense with any speed to disrupt the zone exits. Unlike the opening period of Game 4, when Dallas overwhelmed Colorado with their speed and physicality, there wasn’t a hint of any of that in Game 5.
Colorado was able to quickly retrieve the puck, work it up to their rush, and feed their speed game through neutral zone. With their ability to build speed through the first two zones, the Avalanche attacked the Stars’ defense, backing them off and forcing mistakes as the Stars’ defense stressed about the state of the game. It was a masterclass of transition hockey that Colorado has displayed in spurts in this series, but not for a full frame.
If the Stars want to close out this series, the puck pursuit, five-man structure, and team speed have to come back to their style of play or the Avalanche will have a repeat performance in Game 6.
Looking Ahead by Looking Back
This series has been a weird one for anyone who has watched the majority of the games.
The games have been back-and-forth wild affairs, with both teams counterpunching as best they can. To this point, the Stars have used their goal-scoring spurts to truly overwhelm and break the will of the Avalanche. In the games that the Avalanche have won, they have been able to rely on their identity and jump out on the Stars. Even in the games they've lost, the goals scored by Colorado are goals that they score routinely.
Dallas in Game 5 completely abandoned their identity, while Colorado played into theirs and the better team that night won the game. It shouldn't come as a shock.
On the plus side of things for the Stars, the team was seemingly able to recover a little bit in the second period and played more of their game. The Stars were able to establish their cycle, were the more physical team, and started making gains into the interior of the Avalanche defense. In the second period, the Stars registered 11 shots, two of which were goals by Joe Pavelski and Miro Heiskanen.
Overall, the Stars were able to find their base in the second period of the game and they won the period because of it. That is the definition of a moral victory, but when you surrender five goals in the first period, that’s what you are playing for. Moral victories that a team can build on going into the next game.
Speaking of Game 6, the Stars would be best served by going back to their base. A base that they’ve found, abandoned, flirted with, and found again, throughout this series. So far this relationship with their identity has been fun and has worked for them. However, as Game 5 showed, the Avalanche are going to bring nothing short of their best game from here on out and the Stars would be wise to find their best game.
The Stars can score goals, they've demonstrated that now, and they do it by playing to their identity. Yes, they’ve opened up their game by activating that fourth defensemen. Let’s not kid ourselves though, the Stars have played fundamentally well for spurts and have scored goals. Yet Dallas has found themselves in trouble when they open up too much and decide they want to play Colorado’s game.
If the Stars want to close out this series, they will have to dictate their game to the Avalanche in order to do it.
Game 6 is scheduled for Wednesday, September 2nd at 7 p.m. CT.