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Afterwords: Qualitative Research

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The Stars are executing their plan. The Golden Knights might also be, and that should concern Vegas quite a bit.

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

The moment we met

Burst like a star

Onto the canvas of the skyline

[Silver] and [Green]

We’re in this together

I ain’t never letting go

***

I hope you’ve taken some time to laugh during this playoff run. I hope you’ve had a moment or two when a smile invaded your face, and you found guffaws escaping before you knew why.

Joe Pavelski’s goal to tie this game up was one such moment, for me.

Radulov’s forecheck prevents a quick breakout by pressuring Brayden McNabb, who has trouble digging the puck off the boards (which is another skill that Klingberg and Heiskanen have in spades). Still, Mark Stone supports well enough to beat Pavelski to the puck, and gets it over to Nate Schmidt for a zone exit up the guts of the ice. All is well, so far.

But now a couple things happen: Stone is ailing, and he doesn’t even try to stay with Pavelski, and why should he? Schmidt has control of the puck. But Andrew Cogliano, fresh off some healthy time in the press box, makes a really great defensive play, angling his skates and his stick like he’s blocking a shot, and it foils Schmidt’s foolish pass attempt. Pavelski, again with Stone nowhere near, gets to the puck, and is too strong for Schmidt’s stick check (Pavelski is incredibly strong for his frame, by the way.) He gets a shot off despite some decent desperation defense, and the puck flutters over Robin Lehner’s glove in comical fashion.

Yes, some things had to break right there, but isn’t that every goal, to some extent? Both of Vegas’s goals in game three came off fortune deflections (Faksa’s stick and Stone’s upper body), but nobody was saying they were fortunate just to make it to overtime. The Stars, likewise, had been fighting it for much of the first half of this game, but Pavelski’s goal just felt like a beneficient gaze from the hockey gods. They had seen the good forecheck, and they said that it was good.

Until that moment, the Stars were hanging around, but not hanging in there, not just that. The Stars, for all of the punditry out there, have been largely good in the playoffs. And even against Vegas, their toughest opponent so far, 5v5 play has been pretty dang even.

Vegas has had a big edge in shots at evens, but Dallas has had more scoring chances. Vegas has scored three power play goals to the Stars’ one, but Vegas has also had about three times the power play minutes as Dallas in which to do so—not to mention failing to score on two significant 5-on-3s in the last couple games, to boot.

The Stars’ PK, as it has for much of the playoffs, is still coming up huge when it needs to. And doing so tonight was even more impressive, given the absence of Radek Faksa, who is a particular boon to the 3v5 kill. Jason Dickinson was fantastic on the PK, and Blake Comeau (along with Lindell and Sekera) killed off just about the entire two-man advantage. Joe Pavelski also got out of the box, was on the ice for a whistle, and then stayed on the ice to continue killing off the Dickinson tripping penalty. I can’t say enough about what Pavelski does for this team right now, aside from “a whole lot.”

The reason the PK had to be so good, of course, was because of the officiating. Which, let’s be real, was pretty bad in both directions, as Klingberg proably got away with a trip, and Pavelski definitely got away with a clear and obvious delay of game right after Tyler Seguin got called for “tripping” Jonathan Marchessault, whose feet kicked into the air about as high as one’s feet can, after falling down from practically a standstill:

Marchessault is not exactly new to accusations of diving, and whether you think he just got his skates tangled up here or hit a rut or just felt Seguin’s stick around his knee and decided to go down, it was a pretty unfortunate penalty call on Dallas.

Unfortunate was also the word for the questionable hooking penalty on Joel Hanley (who appeared to have just gotten stick-on-stick contact), as was the lack of a hooking call on Jason Dickinson during his shorthanded breakaway. It was just a weird night of officiating all around, and it felt like the Stars deserved the big kills they were able to manufacture.

Oh, also, this happened:

Now, I’ve watched this a lot, and I think I’ve arrived here: Corey Perry is probably cruising for some nonsense right there, if I’m honest.

I know, I know—it’s probably still a penalty on Tuch, and it’s particularly maddening given his slewfoot/elbow on Seguin last game that also went uncalled. It does look like Tuch goes into him with full awareness, whereas Perry is looking the other way. But I don’t know what Perry is thinking here.

Tuch is probably expecting Perry, at this moment, to attack the puck carrier facing the endboards, and Perry instead curves right into Tuch, probably expecting McNabb to rim the puck around on the strong side before he could get there (which, given Perry’s footspeed these days, isn’t necessarily a bad bet). So, yes, I think Tuch leans into that contact quite a bit, but I also think he’s allowed to protect himself a bit in that situation.

Anyway, enough about the officiating. The Stars have been perfecting their penalty kill all postseason, so only being down 4-3 in power plays is practically a boon for them, these days.

No, let’s move on to the good stuff:

Jamie Benn is playing like a man possessed. Watching him skate and hunt pucks in this game was a retro thrill ride of the highest magnitude, and I can’t think of any player more deserving of scoring the game-winner (aside from Khudobin):

But before we devolve into outright adoration, look at what Radulov does to draw two players to him, opening up the ice for Klingberg’s shot:

In fact, even Reilly Smith gets a bit out of sorts thanks to Stephenson’s coverage decision, and he quickly corrects towards the weak side. As a result of his momentum, Smith ends up standing still at the wrong time, being just a half-step too slow to recover and get to the rebound before Jamie Benn, who fires the puck into the top corner like he’s in a shooting gallery.

That’s because Jamie Benn is playing like someone who has taken the Dallas Stars further than they’ve gone in 20 years, and someone who knows just how close they are to what happened 21 years ago. Benn was everywhere in this game, also killing penalties in place of Faksa at times, and his skating was unreal, along with his physicality.

Benn knows how banged-up his team is right now, with Roope Hintz joining the infirmary early in game four. And if we know anything about the somewhat reclusive Jamie Benn personality, it’s that he does his best work in times of greatest need. I’m surely not the only one who remembers Benn singlehandedly making something out of a 2-0 series deficit to Anaheim in game three, 2014.

That isn’t to shortchange anyone else, of course. Miro Heiskanen was otherworldly in this game, winning the coinflip with Jamie Oleksiak this time for which of them would get to have a breakaway. Maybe Oleksiak can give him some shooting tips, next time.

Alex Radulov was foiled only by Lehner’s neck—best wishes to him, of course, as that was a scary moment indeed—on a savage one-timer that reminded me instantly of Brad Richards on Evgeni Nabokov.

That Radulov shot, by the way, was generated by a diving Tyler Seguin, who poked it over to Radulov. Seguin also had a monster game in this one, even if his alleged wrist injury is hampering his scoring touch right now. One suspects this is the reason Joe Pavelski was acquired, in part. Seguin doesn’t have to do it all, because the Stars are finding different heroes every night. (Anton Khudobin and Miro Heiskanen’s nightly heroics notwithstanding.)

Joel Kiviranta continues to be a force for good in the bottom six, bringing both offensive smarts and defensive responsbility to go with his checking-line speed (which is a compliment). Esa Lindell’s reads have firmed up, and he’s been a key part of Vegas’s difficulty in getting to rebounds, or to areas where they could get shots dangerous enough to generate them. Andrej Sekera continues to drink from the same fountain of moderate youth that Jamie Benn discovered in game seven. Rejuvenation has also found Andrew Cogliano, whose quickness was just enough to help Joe Pavelski get his chance, as we said.

I suppose it’s fun to continue indulging in the media-wide befuddlement at the Dallas Stars. It’s a tone of reporting that can almost seem disgruntled, but I can’t really blame anyone for (wrongly) saying the Stars are just getting lucky, or the Golden Knights are underperforming, and here is why:

  • The media just watched the Knights get taken to seven games by a vastly inferior Canucks team thanks to great goaltending. That narrative is fresh and easy to tell, and Dallas’s shot totals have certainly lent themselves to its adoption
  • The Stars have dropped some stinkers of their own in this postseason, to be sure. The biggest victory of this series was the 3-0 thumping by Vegas in game two, and writers tend to believe the bigger margins more than the thin ones. It’s easier to believe the Stars are the 1-7-1 team who are being saved by some key folks than that they always had some latent promise, some complex ability to win playoff games without needing messianic goaltending.
  • Vegas has hit some posts, and they have missed some open nets (as Max Pacioretty can testify). It would not be hard for this series to be 3-1 in the other direction right now, and that’s a more convenient perspective for an outsider than one that digs into what exactly Jason Dickinson does that made him worthy of top-three ice time against Vegas.
  • Anton Khudobin is a delightful caricature of Ilya Bryzgalov, and it’s easier to ride that train with comic skepticism than belief that he is, in fact, the perfect goaltender for this team, right now.

Mark Stone is hurting, and that’s not nothing, for Vegas. He’s the closest player they have to a Nathan MacKinnon, and his takeaway against Miro Heiskanen last night at the blue line was a reminder of just how dangerous even a 50% Stone can be. If the Stars close this series out, don’t be surprised to hear a similar tone to what was (and is) being said about Colorado’s misfortune, after Dallas managed to convert a 3-1 series lead (eventually) against what was left of their team, too.

Jim Nill’s GM of the Year award is its own topic, but I will say this: how many teams could get here with their top-paid scorer not scoring, and their Vezina goaltender not playing, and their top defenseman being 21 years old and playing beside Jamie Oleksiak? How many teams have been built such that they could undergo all that, swap out Stephen Johns for Joel Hanley, then lose their top-10 checking line center, then lose Roope Hintz early in a game, and then win this game like that?

It’s easy to say Khudobin saved their bacon, and he was undoubtedly magnificent. But man, it’s hard to say the team isn’t doing exactly what Jim Nill would have hoped they would do in this situation, right? Their structure is largely sound, but their offense is dangerous enough. Joe Pavelski is Joe Pavelski, and Andrej Sekera has turned into exactly the sort of playoff player they hoped he might be able to be. Anton Khudobin’s two-year deal raised some eyebrows at the time, but how many people wish it had been for three, now?

It’s tempting to rewrite history when things are good. Rick Bowness’s strengths as a coach are more apparent than his weaknesses these days, and that’s been enough to get the Stars within one win of the Final. I don’t doubt that any coach’s flaws will always become apparent over the course of a season, but I do know that Bowness’s virtues have shone in Edmonton. His players are playing for him, and he’s got them bouncing back from adversity when it shows up.

There’s still a ways to go, but to have even gotten this close for the first time in 20 years is something to love living through. Sports are gratuitous, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grateful.