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Afterwords: Defying the Lies of Gravity

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Shots on goal are suggestive, but not always decisive

Vegas Golden Knights v Dallas Stars - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Something has changed within me

Something is not the same

I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing

Too late to go back to sleep

It’s time to trust my instincts

Close my eyes and [shoot]

***

There’s no point denying Vegas’s elite status. This team is built, and this team is dangerous. Game two proved just how feckless you can look when Vegas is on top of their game to the the degree that you have to start scrambling for solutions.

But the best thing about hockey is also the worst thing about hockey: Anyone can win any game. I mean, this Vegas team didn’t get pushed to seven games because Vancouver is a sleeping giant or anything; they got pushed to seven games because they aren’t as good at puck-shooting as they need to be in order to become Tampa Bay, or because their defense isn’t quite as deep as it might be, or because their goaltending isn’t quite figured out, or because of any number of other reasons.

Dallas, meanwhile, has continued to look, for the majority of these playoffs, like a team that has chosen to target the most decisive parts of a hockey game from their roster construction on down, choosing some overall imbalance in favor of the ability to beat just about any team. When you think of it as the “high ceiling, low floor” approach, their whole season makes a lot more sense.

Dallas doubled down on goaltending depth, and thank goodness they did. They found a defensive lineup with enough dynamism to where The Actual Jamie Oleksiak is scoring breakaway goals at even-strength but where Joel Hanley and Taylor Fedun are key players, in a sense, and somehow that has allowed Andrej Sekera to turn his game around in a wonderful way.

The Stars are a team that can’t usually overwhelm you for 60 minutes, but who can sting you at any time, in a number of ways. That’s what Calgary learned, and that’s what a depleted Colorado team had to reckon with after going down 3-1 in their series. The Stars are defensively formidable, but they have, it turns out, enough goal-scoring acumen to end a game 31 seconds into overtime, because the things that make Alexander Radulov Alexander Radulov are still true three years after he was signed.

The biggest story of this game was probably Anton Khudobin responding to the NHL’s vague approach to goaltending interference review by almost singlehandedly killing off the resulting penalty. The SportsNet broadcast said that Khudobin’s slamming his stick on the ice after the review was a sarcastic action, but in the moment, my thought was that Khudobin was thanking his coaching staff, telling them that he agreed with the choice even now. Telling them, in effect, I got this. And did he ever.

Khudobin may have tweaked a groin muscle at the end of the third period. It certainly looked like he was in pain, but then again, what’s a little adversity, to this team? Khudobin was always going to stay in as long as he could stand up, and while we’ll all be holding our breath until the next update, the Stars are up 2-1 in the series, and Khudobin has gotten them there. You really and truly cannot ask any more of your goaltender than what Khudobin has given this team, and I’m not just talking about goaltending.

Now, the review itself is interesting. The way the rule is written, you basically would have to say that Stone initiated intentional contact—not incidental contact, which was ruled to be the case. As the contact was outside the blue paint, and as the Stars are just going to continually get the short shrift in these playoffs whenever it comes to officiating (which is partly deserved, given how they play), the call made sense. But man, there have been really similar things called differently, you know?

Honestly, it’s great that we don’t have to care, just as it’s great that the Stars ended up beating Colorado in game seven, in order to avoid the annoyance of having to debate forever the goaltending decision before game five. Fans are always going to be petty, but it’s more fun to be ecstatic.

Jamie Benn wasn’t ecstatic in this one, although he was pretty amused during the post-game presser when listening to Radulov berate a certain interlocutor.

It’s funny, Eddie Olczyk was harping on Robin Lehner’s five-hole all night, and Jamie Benn finally found it after some nice stick language to deceive Lehner. It’s weird when you feel like the players are listening to the broadcast, although Benn was broadcasting his own message earlier in (and throughout) this game.

Benn even stepped up to take over for Radek Faksa (whose status is also deeply concerning, right now) for the remainder of the game after Faksa appeared to jam his hand on a body check. The captain was a force to be reckoned with in this one, and Radulov’s immediate OT winner seemed almost, to me, a recognition by the universe that, by rights, Benn really ought to have won this thing at the death, on that glorious chance in the final second.

(And, by the way, Benn had no choice but to shoot that puck, given how little time was left. I think we all know this, but just to be clear: there was like 0.5 on the clock when he shot the puck—passing it would have been a huge error there, so please don’t pretend like he ought to have done that.)

You know, all three Stars goals were scored off the counterattack, with Oleksiak’s breakaway being the most entertaining moment of absurdity, Radulov’s winner being a bit more due to a breakdown, and Benn’s goal being a bit due to a Radulov hook that wasn’t called. Perhaps these things do even out over time.

Jamie Oleksiak might have been the literally biggest reason for victory in this one, as his sly puckhandling successfuly staved off a heavy backcheck, and allowed him to make a move to get Lehner just off the post enough for a puck to slip past his pad. I was cackling the instant he scored, and I became almost hysterical when I saw Heiskanen arrive to greet him. This was the beautiful, impossible, two-defensemen rush at 5v5, and the Jamie Oleksiak the Stars had given up on three years ago had returned, for not the first time in these playoffs, to remind them that he is really quite a bit better, now.

These moments are why you want to make the playoffs. I really can’t say this enough. I will trade a lot of prospects, a lot of high draft picks, a lot of expiring UFA contracts that you “don’t get anything for” just for the possibility of witnessing a playoff goal like this one, or Oleksiak’s playoff goal in the final minute against Calgary—almost a full month ago, if you can believe it—or the insane Antoine Roussel goal against Minnesota. These are moments that bring sports to life, nights in which we can die a thousand deaths in 60 minutes, and be made more alive that we ever imagined because of one glorious second.

The laws of gravity would have us believe that Vegas’s victory in this series is inexorable, that the Stars are foolish to struggle against the tide. But Shea Theodore’s power play goal was pretty indicative of the deeper truth of this series: if Vegas is going to win, they’re going to need some breaks of their own. Because Dallas killed off a minute of 5-on-3 time for not the first time in these playoffs, and it was only good fortune that saw Theodore’s shot careen off Faksa’s stick and past Khudobin. By the way, I wonder what the record is since the lockout for a team having at least three fewer power plays than their opponent in a playoff game, because this feels like the fourth or fifth time in 16 game that the Stars have managed this feat. Impressive work, boys.

If you want to say Dallas is sniping wins against the odds, you can find evidence supporting that position. But I can’t help but say, after watching three games in this series, that the Stars have a plan to negate Vegas’s pressure, and that this plan consists largely of forcing shots to come from outside as much as possible. And, even in a game where Vegas nearly doubled them up in pucks on net, that plan appears to be working as well as it ever has.

I mean, this game is a shutout for Dallas if not for a lucky deflection and a questionable GI review. Tyler Seguin scores a goal if not for the shaft of Lehner’s stick stopping his great shot on that 2-on-1 with Radulov. Vegas, quite frankly, has deserved even worse than they’ve gotten with the odd-man breaks they’ve allowed in this series.

Joel Kiviranta continues to impress on that line with Hintz and Gurianov, but their bleakest moment came when (I believe it was) Gurianov sent one heck of “pass” back to the point, and Klingberg could only flail at the puck bouncing a couple feet off the ice, eventually surrendering the breakaway to Karlsson. That’s one of those moments, as we’ve said, where Gurianov needs to make a better play to earn more trust. That will come with time, I believe. In the meantime, scoring goals is good, too.

Maybe Dallas is so effective because they just confuse people. Maybe they successfully get opponents to the point in almost every game where you have 20 hockey players just shaking their heads and saying, “We can beat these guys!” And then Dallas calmly shakes their own heads and refuses to acquiesce to their demands.

Heroism is no less so for appearing harmless, at times. If discretion is the better part of valor, than perhaps the appearance of harmlessness is the best camouflage for venom. These Stars are fast, and big, and actually, really, pretty good.

It’s a long series. Dallas has been up 3-1, and down 2-1, and both series ended up taking a lot longer to decide. We’ll see what happens in the balance of this one, but for now, Dallas can go to the Stanley Cup Final by simply splitting a four-game series, and that’s pretty wonderful. I’ll take wonderful any day of the week.