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Film Study: Mistakes Set Back Stars in Game 3

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Dallas dropped Game 3 in large part because major mistakes have started to creep into their game. If they want this series to see next week, they have a lot to clean up.

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

The output from the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final was about as well as they can play in a hockey game. The best part about that statement is that the Tampa Bay Lightning had no answer for a Dallas Stars team that was firing on all cylinders. The Stars were using their team speed, they were checking (which is different from hitting), winning puck battles, and creating offense in different ways. Make no mistake — the Lightning are a good team, but the Stars for 40 minutes proved they might just be a little better.

The third period of Game 1 was a little bit of cause for concern. After all, the Lightning fired 22 shots at Anton Khudobin, who repelled them all. However, the Stars committed three penalties and were largely in their defensive shell. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that the Stars, as long as they played their game, could possibly upend the Lightning.

Then came Game 2, a defeat that the Stars earned, even if the last two periods left Stars fans feeling that the team should be up in the series 2-0. Again, make no mistake — the Stars didn’t deserve to win Game 2. When a team takes senseless penalties and falls behind three to zip, the loss at the end of the evening is well-earned.

This all brings us to Game 3, a loss that was so frustrating that no reasonable person can take anything good from this game to apply to Game 4.

Yes, it was that bad.

The Stars not only made mistakes, their best players made mistakes; their foundation cracked. All that is positive from Game 3 is the start and finish of the first period. Other than that, I’d say burn the tape, but the tape is the most important thing to look at from that 60 minutes. For all the bluster about how bad the game was (and it was bad), the mistakes are correctable.

That's the good news for the Dallas Stars. Miro Heiskanen blindly throwing a puck to the center of the ice is correctable. The penalty-killing breakdown on the goal by Victor Hedman is correctable. However, the corrections have to be made yesterday, or this series won’t see the end of the weekend.

Let’s fire up the reel and see where the Stars must improve before puck drop in Game 4.

No, No, Never, Never, No

The start in Game 3 for the Stars was actually pretty good. The club came out fast, was able to work the puck behind the Lightning defense, and generally established their cycle. Even the Stars’ top line looked dangerous. It was quite encouraging all in all. All that was missing were the results on the scoreboard, but the Stars looked more than up to the task.

Then disaster happened.

There is a golden rule in hockey if you are a defenseman. It generally applies at all levels, and it’s a mistake that never ends well. A defenseman is never supposed to throw a puck blindly towards the middle of the ice. In youth hockey, any level of hockey actually, it’s a mistake that can significantly reduce your ice time for the remainder of a game. Granted Miro Heiskanen is one of the best defensemen in the NHL so the Stars were able to forgive and forget, but it doesn’t excuse the egregiousness of the mistake.

Let’s break it down.

As the play starts to develop, Heiskanen is the recipient of a smart pass by Mattias Janmark in the neutral zone. The goal of that pass is to act as a reset, allowing the Stars to regroup through Heiskanen, who is responsible for feeding the attack up the ice. The Lightning, to their credit, are in pretty good position to trap the Stars to one side of the ice. Heiskanen can’t go back to Janmark, as it risks an intercept by Palat. Corey Perry isn’t an option, as it’s a near suicide pass, and Hintz is pretty well covered by Point and Kucherov at center ice.

Heiskanen really has one option and that is to try to advance the puck up the wall, gain the center stripe, and fire it in. Credit Palat for taking that option away as well, as he quickly converged on Heiskanen, expertly forcing him into the wall. At that point, Heiskanen is really out of options that don’t result in a turnover.

The only question becomes is it a turnover that the Stars can live with or a critical error?

Unfortunately for the Stars and Heiskanen, the mistake was catastrophic. Heiskanen blindly throws the puck into the center of the ice, right on the tape of a streaking Kucherov. The Stars forwards are completely stuck in the neutral zone, which means the Lightning forward has all the time in the world to pick his spot. He did, and the Lightning took an early 1-0 lead.

Now look, Heiskanen may never make this mistake again in his career. That’s just how good he is. This stuff does happen because, people are people and that means they are human and that means mistakes. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of highlighting, because there was a better play.

Ideally, Heiskanen should recognize that Palat is closing off the angle to gain the red line and is closing off his passing options. As a defenseman, that is no place to be and panic does set in. Heiskanen is probably thinking what all defensemen think, that neutral zone turnovers create rush chances, which end up in the net. However, a neutral zone turnover by chipping the puck up the wall is probably something the Stars can live with in this situation.

It isn’t the preferred outcome to turn the puck over, but if Heiskanen just rips the puck up the wall, the Stars are in a pretty good spot. The forwards are already coming back into the play, which could jam up the Lightning as they gain the blue line. Or Heiskanen simply ices the puck and both teams reset for a face-off.

It’s not really that hard to describe how to fix what happened on this goal. Just don’t do that, which really doesn't need to be said to an NHL defenseman.

Hedman to Stamkos to 2-0

Steven Stamkos made an appearance in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. It was his first game in nearly seven months, after the forward battled a core injury. Overall, Stamkos played less than three minutes in the game. It just so happens that he was still able to make a massive impact.

This play starts with a defensive zone face-off that the Stars are able to win with their top line plus Esa Lindell and John Klingberg. The Lightning have their fourth line and Victor Hedman on the ice to counter. Klingberg works the puck up the wall, eventually to the center stripe where Alexander Radulov has a chance to make a play.

Let’s pause it here for a second.

Here, Radulov is met by Victor Hedman who makes a very smart decision to step up on the play to challenge the Stars forward. It really is a brilliant play, because it forces Radulov to make a bad play as his back is turned. If Radulov tries to turn to his forehand, Hedman is there to create a turnover. All Radulov can do is what he did. Flush a weak backhand up the wall and hope Jamie Benn wins a puck battle.

The puck actually crosses into the Tampa Bay end of the ice, but Benn is not in a good position to win this battle. The Tampa defender has positioning to bump the puck back into the neutral zone, after he takes Benn to the boards tying up his stick. Also, keep an eye on Tyler Seguin, he is breaking into the center of the ice in the event that Benn wins that puck. Seguin is making himself an option on offense, but is also taking himself out of the play defensively.

With the puck back in the neutral zone, it finds its way to Hedman, who started this play to begin with. With Seguin behind the play, he is unable to fill the gap to cut off a perfect cross-ice pass. Now the play lands in the hands of the Dallas defense. Lindell’s issue starts from the very beginning. He has the split-second decision of making a hard cut to the middle of the ice to try and play Stamkos to the outside. That is the conservative defensive play.

However, Lindell commits to trying to end the play in the neutral zone by positioning himself to rub Stamkos out into the boards. This is where Lindell finds himself in the hockey version of no man’s land. The problem is that he seems to misjudge the speed that Stamkos is coming with up the ice, which causes him to mistime the contact. The two-on-one that results really doesn’t matter, does it? Nobody really thought that Stamkos was going to pass that puck to Pat Maroon did they?

Okay, cool. Me either.

The Stars can realistically fix this sequence of errors as well. First, Radulov probably could have bumped that puck to Seguin in the neutral zone. That would have allowed Seguin to dump the puck, which would have been his only option. Then there is Benn, who could have initiated contact earlier on the Tampa Bay defenseman, which could be a penalty, but probably not as both players were poised to battle for the puck.

Either way, the cross-ice pass did occur, so ideally Lindell should have taken the conservative play against Stamkos. Instead of cutting to the outside to lay a check, Lindell would have been better served by cutting to the middle of the ice to defend him to the outside. Klingberg was already back, so it would have been a rush chance, but a rather routine chance.

Penalty Kill Breakdown

This is the part of the article where it should be mentioned that the penalty on Radulov to end the first period was atrocious. If anything, Blake Coleman took two of the possible three penalties on that play.

It doesn’t matter, because the Stars were down a man, and their general lack of discipline really doesn't leave them any room for favors. The Stars simply cannot take unearned penalties, which they do with alarming regularity. High-sticking and hooking are lazy penalties.

Back to the goal.

Everything is wrong in this image.

For starters, the defensemen are in a tough puck battle behind the net. No problem there generally, as their men were behind the net. The real issues land at the feet of the forwards on this play. Look at who is all alone on the wall. Kucherov is completely unaccounted for in this moment. This makes him an option to rotate the puck back up top for a very dangerous chance for Hedman to walk in and rip a shot.

By the way, Hedman is out of the picture which makes him the most dangerous player on the ice. Hedman is the responsibility of Joe Pavelski, and Kucherov is the responsibility of Hintz. There is absolutely no reason why the two Stars forwards are down on each post. It makes no sense.

Ideally, the forwards should be higher towards the hashmarks so that they can regain the structure of the box when the Lightning win the puck battle.

When the puck battle is finally won by Tampa Bay, the Dallas forwards are caught flatfooted with no chance to regain positioning to take away the shot. This leaves the unmarked Hedman all alone to do exactly what he did.

Shoot the puck. Score a goal.

Apologies for sounding redundant but — this should just never happen. The point man should always be accounted for no matter who he is. This applies to the man on the half wall as well. If the puck is behind the goal line, let the defense handle it.

Take this, for example:

The puck was worked free with no clear winner of the puck battle. The puck slid into the area of the ice that is actually advantageous for the Stars. If Hintz is a little higher on the circle, that puck probably finds its way down the ice killing 10 seconds on this power play for Tampa Bay. Instead, Hintz is sucked down in the zone, completely out of position, and therefore unable to make a play on the puck.

This is the most critical mistake of the hockey game. At the time, the score is 2-1 and the Stars are coming out after a very strong end to the first period. Sure, they are on the kill. However, their penalty kill started quite strong with Jason Dickinson scoring a shorthanded goal. If the Stars can clear that puck with better positioning, the Lightning may squander that power play chance. This allows the game to take on a whole different character with 40 minutes still to play.

Instead, the Stars went on to surrender two more goals in the game, and in fashions that were as bad as the three goals discussed here. This series is coming down to the Lightning absolutely gutting the Stars for making mistakes. That’s how good teams win — they take advantage of mistakes and deposit them on the scoreboard. Yes, Dallas has done some good things at 5-on-5. It doesn't matter if critical mistakes wind up in the back of the net. I might add, Tampa Bay hasn’t been clean either in their game, Dallas just hasn’t taken advantage to this point.

For the sake of this series, the Stars need to stop making simple mistakes, and start making the Lightning pay for their own.