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Afterwords: The Inevitable Arrogance of Success

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At some point, you have to accept reality

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I like you better than my self-doubt

That thing that never lets me go out of the house

That monster is my only friend

But I’d send him away and be happy again

I’d be one of those weirdos

With nothing to worry about

Cause I like you better

Than my self-doubt

***

If we learned anything from the Vegas series, it’s that winning the first game isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about the Stars.

Against Vegas, the Stars opened with a 1-0 win that was solid, stifling, and quietly dominant. Vegas got some shots, but nothing really quality, and it was as easy a 1-0 win as you’re likely to see in a Conference Final. But coming out of that victory, the narrative was the easy one (as expected, given what Vegas had seen against Vancouver): Khudobin “stole” a game against a vaunted offense, the Stars were back to ekeing out victories with a toothless offense, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

And of course, it was even easier for that message to perpetuate itself after game two, when Vegas roared back to even the series in equally dominant fashion with a shutout of their own. This was the team everyone had expected to see come out of the Pacific. This was how the Stars would finally be humbled, surely.

Then Dallas won three straight and dumped the Golden Knights’ collective hindquarters out on the back porch, never looking back. It was unceremonious as it was glorious; the Stars just dispensed with the pleasantries and won three games. But because of the stats from game two, and because the other four games were fairly tight, it was easy for people to point to shot totals, and for people to say that the Knights got horribly unlucky, that clearly the Stars were the Islanders or Canucks, just hunkering down, hoping to luck their way into a gift goal or two, battening down every hatch in sight.

Because of the compressed schedule, I don’t think there’s been enough time for people to really understand just how differently the Stars are playing than the team in the regular season, or even in the round robin seeding business that should in no way count as part of the playoffs.

In baseball, the record books put an asterisk next to Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season, as it came when the regular season contained fewer overall games (154) than it did later on when Roger Maris hit 61 (in 162 games). That’s as it should be. And yet, we’ve seen no end of lazy writers talk about how the Stars are “the first team since the 1843 Stockinged Steampots to advance to the Final with a negative goal differential.”

In the Vegas series, the Stars won four of five games. That’s a butt-whooping, last time I checked. In the playoffs, the actual playoffs, the Stars have now beaten Calgary despite Ben Bishop’s injury; they’ve beaten an all-time playoff performance by Nathan MacKinnon for Colorado despite punting game five thanks to Ben Bishop’s purported health; they’ve beaten a healthier-than-Dallas Vegas—the mighty Vegas, who truly were the best team in the West this season, I think, in five games; and now, they just tarred and feathered the Lightning 4-1, as the reigning Vezina-winner got beaten by Jamie Oleksiak, Joel Hanley, and Joel Kiviranta. And heck, the only goal Tampa did score was off a doubly fluky bounce that Roope Hintz’s bad luck guided into the net.

In short, the Stars are now three wins away from a Stanley Cup, and yet you just know they’re going to continue to be the “wow, hockey is crazy, how did these crazy kids manage to undeservingly win these games, wow” sort of team, because that’s the easy thing to do.

The third period against Tampa was the logical twin of Vegas’s game two. It was the evidence that confirmed the preordained narrative: Ah, there the Lightning are, the fearsome team who spent last year putting up an unholy amount of points in the regular season before the playoffs started. (Can’t remember what happened next, Nikita Kucherov will have to remind me.)

Yes, the pundits will surely be saying (and probably are): this is how the Lightning can play, when they choose to. They had like 95% of the expected goals in the third period, after all; that’s a ludicrous amount of dominance, right? Even against a defensive team defending a two-goal lead, that’s embarrassing! I mean, it is embarrassing, right?

I would argue, yes—but not for Dallas.

In fact, it is Tampa Bay who ought to be embarrassed by what the Stars did. After 40 minutes of good, hard, smart playoff hockey Dallas had a 3-1 lead, thanks to smart plays by defensemen and great shots past the best goalie in the league, we are told.

Then the third period arrived, Dallas sat back too much, and what did they allow Tampa to generate?

Three good chances at 5v5, and one good chance on the power play—across three power plays, mind—and Anton Khudobin had an answer for all of them.

Dallas created better chances on just one of their unsuccessful power plays in the second period than the Bolts did with three power plays in fairly quick succession in the third. Dallas created more chances at even-strength in the first two periods than Tampa did all game. Dallas scored more goals, created more chances, defended better, got better goaltending, had better special-teams play in both departments—only a miraculous stick-save from Vasilevskiy kept Seguin from coverting a sure-fire goal—and they were rewarded with, of all people, Jason Dickinson finally finding the net, for a rare empty-net tally by Dallas.

The Stars deserved to win this game because they were the better team in this game. And honestly, I don’t see a reason to say the Stars aren’t the better team overall, right now.

Sure, the Lightning are better on paper. But Joel Kiviranta is bringing more than just shooting percentage right now, and the Stars’ defensemen are just playing smarter, faster, better hockey than the Bolts’ blueline did. Jamie Oleksiak’s play to activate, to recover his own rebound, then to roof the puck like a goal-scorer (which is to say, like Joel Kiviranta) was a career highlight sort of moment.

Oleksiak has five goals in these playoffs, against some of the best teams in the league. Joel Hanley isn’t a goal-scorer per se, which is an understatement, but also literally true, until it wasn’t. Jamie Benn is playing like a captain’s captain right now, and Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg are doing what they want to do the vast majority of the time.

I mean, Pat Maroon committed what should normally a serious offense—shooting the puck at another player on the bench, on purpose—but he was foiled, only receiving a 10-minute misconduct, because he couldn’t get the puck past the linesman, because Pat Maroon is bad. And the whole reason he did that was because of how frustrated the Lightning were after 40 minutes.

You may recall the Stars have made other teams feel this way, in the past. Calgary was badly missing Matthew Tkachuk, we were told, because they needed a way to disrupt the Stars’ physical, fast play. The Avalanche relied on Kadri and Zadorov to try some nonsense, but the Stars were largely unfazed, because the Avalanche didn’t have the bodies to handle it. And the Golden Knights were certain that Ryan Reaves had gotten into the Stars’ heads after game two, and then the Stars just shook him off, and never really bothered about him for the rest of the (short) series.

So, yeah. The Lightning can say that the third period proves something about how the Stars can be overwhelmed, out-possessed, and forced into an impotent shell if they want. Certainly Rick Bowness doesn’t want to live through many more periods where they’re getting outshot 25-1, regardless of where the shots are coming from.

But the fact remains that, if the third period was really as dominant as all that, then the Lightning are in serious, serious trouble. Because Dallas found a way to score three goals through two periods, and all of them were pretty well-earned ones. Tampa Bay, despite basically running offensive-zone drills for the entire third period, was still outchanced by Dallas for the entire game, whether in scoring chances (28-26) or in high-danger shots (12-8).

You can say the Stars are playing a desperate, anti-hockey game, like the Islanders, but that’s not true. You can say the Stars are buckling down and trying to win 1-0 games, but that’s manifestly false. The Stars, by all accounts, are trying to score more goals than the other team, in every single game they play. And they have successfully done so in 13 of their last 19 games.

No one’s guaranteeing a sweep or anything; the Lightning will study what worked and what didn’t in game one, and they will try to do more of the former and less of the latter. I would expect a huge push in the first period, because it is exceedingly likely that, at some point in this series, the Stars will be trailing in a game, and they will need to open things up a bit more.

But for now, you have to accept reality: the Stars just finished mowing down the Western Conference—which is still every bit as insane to say aloud as it would have been to hear six months ago—and they now have to win just half of their remaining games to take care of the best the East has to offer.

And, based on what we saw last night, the best of the East still can’t handle the class of the West. If that sounds arrogant, maybe it’s just because the Stars are good enough to be arrogant, right now.

Hockey is a close, random game. Any team can win any game, blah blah blah. But the Stars’ version of hockey, these playoffs, is a joy to participate in vicariously. Dallas has taken the good parts of the ‘95 Devils neutral zone trap, the fun parts of the Lindy Ruff four-man attack, and the cagey parts of the same 1-1-3 forecheck that Tampa plays, and they’ve managed to find enough unexpected harmony to construct a foreful symphony. The Dallas Stars are three wins away from the Stanley Cup, because they have quite simply been the best team in the majority of the games they’ve played since the playoffs began. It’s only difficult to understand if you’re bent on seeing something other than the truth.