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Afterwords: Game Six Is Necessary

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Nice try, buckaroos

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

I’ve found a love, I’ve found a home

No longer lost, no longer alone

I promise now, I won’t call for you

Embrace the life that I owe to you

***

I think it was Joel Hanley’s ridiculous stick-check to block Nikita Kucherov’s glorious chance after he had walked around the sprawled-out Corey Perry. That was the moment when this game started to suggest to me that all my preparation for trauma was perhaps a bit premature.

Because if Joel Hanley can score goals in the first game of the final, and if Corey Perry can score a double overtime winner in the fifth game of the final, and if Justin Dowling, Nick Camaano, Joel Kiviranta, and the rest of this team can find a way to stave off elimination, then maybe I don’t know everything about how this works.

I was thinking before the game just how great sports can be, that they can elicit this level of emtional swings, from the “hey, we can do this!” moments after game one to the “well, what can you do?” after game four. How great is hockey that a team can essentially kill a 5-on-5 penalty for the entirety of the first overtime, and then go on to just flip a switch in the second overtime, despite being banged up beyond belief—Jason Dickinson would love any wooden legs you might happen to have lying around, by the way.

And hey, before we get too much into the underdog narrative, let’s center ourselves for a moment:

Sure, the game didn’t really feel like the Stars had been controlling play, probably because they weren’t. But the Stars did what they did against Vegas, and what they’ve really dedicated themselves to doing as much as they possibly can, ever since gearing up against Calgary: They’ve dedicated their efforts to getting great chances while ceding the outside of the rink in the defensive zone.

That can mean chaos, it can mean exhaustion, and it can certainly mean dread when you’re caught in the zone for a minute or more, only to have a fortunate clearance hit the goalie—and then have it be deemed icing anyway, because why shouldn’t the linesmen get into the action the officials modeled in game four? But the Stars’ strategy was deployed in this one to full effect, and while they were absolutely playing not to lose in the first overtime, they still deserved every bit of this win.

That said, Tampa was pretty heroic, too. Andrei Vasilevskiy had one or two unreal saves on chances you were positive were going in, and Victor Hedman’s sneaky, expert stick-check on Gurianov’s supposed breakaway was the sort of thing Norris Trophy winners are paid to do.

But the real heroics in this one came from the contract workers. Because what other word that heroism can you attribute to Joe Pavelski’s finish after Miro Heiskanen’s one-timer? Pavelski is one of the strongest players for his size that you’ll ever see, and his ability to maintain his balance while also finding the puck (which fortunately bounced in front of him) was so natural as to seem unimpressive. It was quite impressive, I assure you.

I’ve sort of insisted, in this series, that as dynamite as Tampa has been, the Stars really could have been in their position with just two or three of Tampa’s lucky bounces not happening. Granted, you get more bounces when you have the puck more, when you shoot more, and when you are winning battles and races; no one’s denying that. But after a power play in which the Stars absolutely had to score in the third period and didn’t, Joe Pavelski stepped up to battle into the right spot, and to win that battle when he got the chance.

Hey, battling it out at 5v5 is what the players wanted, right? Sure, there were about five blatant calls (some on both sides) that went uncalled, and maybe that was the officials’ vindictive approach to a whole lot of unhappiness last game, or maybe it was just an awareness that being The Story two days in a row was the last thing on earth any official would want. Maybe it’s just harder than we think to call the same calls as game long, because the players’ effort level changes so wildly, or because there’s a sense of what penalties are “earned” vs. what calls would be rewarding nonsense behavior. It’s a tough game to track, and it’s even tougher to catch everything. But when your team comes out on top, you’re always going to be inclined to say, “Yes, please, don’t touch anything, thank you, we’re fine.”

You know Dickinson and Andrej Sekera were playing hobbled in this game, but both of them gutted it out for overtime, and Sekera in particular made a huge difference after a regulation period when the Stars were largely forced to go halvsies with their top four. In fact, I wonder if Joel Hanley is even there to lunge and make that stick check on Kuvherov if Sekera hadn’t been able to come back to the game. Big blocks, big efforts, those are what players love. And while you’d ideally be the team having to get blocked than the one doing the blocking, the Stars continued to force the Lightning to shoot from low-percentage areas, and Anton Khudobin stayed focused, even after getting beaten. Even after he was a tick slow to block Palat after he turned the corner on Esa Lindell (who didn’t have much he could do on that play, to be fair, where we was essentially defending both Kucherov and Palat.

It’s a situation where Heiskanen either needs to recognize the danger, or where Khudobin needs to get his stick out into that lane the instead Palat buries his head to go to the front of the crease. But the whole thing about Tampa’s top line is, they’re kinda super good. You can only do much against teams that come at you like they do, and you’re going to have to lick your wounds. But the Stars successfully caused more trouble than they allowed, and that’s sort of the whole idea.

I don’t know about y’all, but I’m pretty spent right now. It’s hard to find more capacity for nerves, or even for despair and joy. Watching these games has turned into the same sort of experience as listening to your uncle tell the story of how he had to get bailed out of jail, where you know there might be moments of joy, but your instinct to cringe is pervading everything else.

So perhaps it’s fitting that Corey Perry, of all people, was the big hero in this one, starting and ending the scoring with his wife Blakeny looking on from the rafters.

As a Stars fan who lived 15 minutes from Anaheim for 12 years, I know Corey Perry’s Deal pretty well. I’ve heard apocryphal stories about his demeanor with fans at autograph signings, and we all remember his fun times with the Stars in the 2013-14 series (and perhaps a couple of his killer goals in the latter part of the 2008 series, if you recall that far back). But the move he made in a bit of space to beat Vasilevskiy for the first goal was the sort of spark Dallas needed to withstand Tampa’s insistence on going home. And the brilliance Perry showed on the winning goal, refusing to just stuff the puck into the goalie’s pads, but instead reaching, reaching for something more. Corey Perry did the very thing he was signed to do, and while it sure didn’t look like he was going to justify Jim Nill’s faith in him for much of the regular season, that’s all academic at this point.

Corey Perry scored the game-winning goal, and I don’t think it could’ve been anyone else. This series has demanded obscene things of Dallas, and Corey Perry is at his best when the opposing team’s soul needs crushin’.

Jamie Benn had his chances, when he took them, and Alex Radulov had two glorious ones that couldn’t get through, which shocked him as much as anyone. Even Corey Perry was certain he had scored another one earlier in regulation, because the Stars, say it with me, were getting chances. Vasilevskiy was probably fortunate to have gotten as far as he did, in this game.

It would be easy to falter after that failure to score on the final power play of the game, you know? The Stars have been put in the most absurdly impossible position by the league, but they want to be here, playing two Stanley Cup Final(!) games in two nights. They ended up playing almost three games in two nights, all told. And now, they will get the opportunity to play four (or more) in four (or more) days.

My brother and I were talking about the closest comparison for this game. Naturally, game five against New Jersey in ‘00 was my thought, but he brought up the good point that the Stars have rallied to force more games after being down 3-1 more than once. In fact, this game felt quite a bit like game five against Vancouver in 2007, when Marty Turco got his first overtime result in like seven tries.

That series was also punishing, dirty, and involved someone gutting it out on one leg. But when Morrow finally tipped that Sergei Zubov shot over Luongo in overtime, you may remember what Ralph Strangis shouted to all of us who were sticking with the team then, and to all of us who are still riding this excruciating roller coaster now:

Game Six is necessary.

See you Monday.