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Dallas Depth Issues Persist Entering Pivotal Game 4

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Dominance from the Lightning’s top line highlighted the Game 3 blowout. Injuries and performance call for adjustments.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Tampa Bay Lightning at Dallas Stars Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Colorado Avalanche, the Dallas Stars threw their reliable checking line up against Nathan MacKinnon and company. Winning that battle wasn’t really on the table, but by mitigating the damage, the Stars were able to use their depth to take advantage of the remainder of the Avalanche lineup.

In the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning top line is just as lethal, but the Stars find themselves without the core of their top checking line. Turns out, one of the keys to the Dallas system is an ability to put a damper on the opposing top scoring line. Absent that, it’s a track meet, which may work against a Colorado team with defensive holes, but against a Lightning team with three solid defensive pairs, it’s a losing proposition.

Andrew Cogliano just isn’t enough to build a checking line around. Jason Dickinson can fill in as Radek Faksa in a pinch, but only if you have a reliable Blake Comeau on the right wing.

Faksa and Comeau are also key forwards on the penalty kill, and as good as the Lightning have been on the power play, they aren’t up against the same group that dominated in earlier playoff series. Another reason to stay out of the box.

Dallas Stars Lineup

Jamie Benn (14) - Tyler Seguin (91) - Alexander Radulov (47)
Mattias Janmark (13) - Joe Pavelski (16) - Denis Gurianov (34)
Joel Kiviranta (25) - Roope Hintz (24) - Corey Perry (10)
Andrew Cogliano (11) - Jason Dickinson (18) - Nick Caamano (17)

Esa Lindell (23) - John Klingberg (3)
Jamie Oleksiak (2) - Miro Heiskanen (4)
Joel Hanley (39) - Andrej Sekera (5)

Anton Khudobin (35)

Tampa Bay Lightning Lineup

Ondrej Palat (18) - Brayden Point (21) - Nikita Kucherov (86)
Barclay Goodrow (19) - Yanni Gourde (37) - Blake Coleman (20)
Alex Killorn (17) - Anthony Cirelli (71) - Tyler Johnson (9)
Cedric Paquette (13) - Patrick Maroon (14) - Carter Verhaeghe (23)

Victor Hedman (77) - Jan Rutta (44)
Mikhail Sergachev (98) - Erik Cernak (81)
Ryan McDonagh (27) - Kevin Shattenkirk (22)

Andrei Vasilevskiy (88)

Steven Stamkos didn’t take a shift after the first period on Wednesday night. He had his moment, but Verhaeghe is probably the better option.

Keys to the Game

Speed Through The Neutral Zone. Since Game 1, the Lightning have been able to break the Stars’ forecheck by using cross-ice passes, especially through the neutral zone. This has allowed them to enter the Dallas zone with speed, enabling their aggressive forecheck. They’ve taken away time and space for Dallas defenders, leading to rushed passes and turnovers.

At the same time, Tampa Bay has anticipated the Dallas north/south progressions, cutting off chips up the boards and leaving Dallas with stretch passes and dumps. By taking away conservative reads, the Lightning are tempting the Stars with more aggressive options through the neutral zone, but reluctant reads have turned those options more into turnovers than opportunities.

Reuniting Gurianov and Hintz, perhaps with Kiviranta for defensive responsibility would be a high-risk move, but could pay off by giving Dallas a three forward speed threat — one that the Lightning haven’t had to defend against so far in this series.

Pavelski. While the Stars’ top line has yet to have a breakout game, they have held their own in creating expected goals. On the other hand, Dallas’ second line has been mostly missing, especially given the solid play of the Gourde line for Tampa Bay. Without getting improved performance out of Pavelski’s line, it’s tough to picture the Stars turning the series around.

Bounces and Finishes. Three games in, and especially after such a disheartening performance in Game 2, the Stars have had to earn everything that they’ve gotten. The Lightning have been the recipients of the bounces and the calls. They’ve also taken advantage of their opportunities.

Dallas has proven to be a resilient group during their time in the playoff bubble. One break or one finish — plus timely saves from Anton Khudobin — and this series is even.

Weak Link. Exposing weaknesses is a point of emphasis for Rick Bowness. On the Lightning, that’s their fourth line. The Stars exploited a similar situation against the Vegas Golden Knights. The same option should be available in this series, with Maroon taking the spot of Ryan Reaves.