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Afterwords: Haunting, Familiar Melodies

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We’ve been here before, but the pain that looms would be entirely new

Colorado Avalanche v Dallas Stars - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I knock the ice from my bones

Try not to feel the cold

Caught in the thought of that time

When everything was fine, everything was mine

***

Something that always bugs me about those feel-good sports movies is the unrealistic final scenes. If it’s a movie about a big race, then you usually have the villain or the hero get out to a big lead, only to have the gap immediately disappear in order to heighten the drama of the climactic ending. That five-lap lead disappears with ease, but suddenly gaining five more feet on the leader becomes impossible. It’s narrative incongruity in the service of drama.

Well, the Dallas Stars have made sure we got a similarly dramatic ending to their second-round series, as the high-flying team that won seven of its first ten playoff games this year has suddenly dropped two in a row for the first time, giving up a 3-1 series lead in the process.

And it’d be one thing if there had been an overtime loss mixed in there, or perhaps even a close, hard-fought game that just didn’t go their way. But that’s not what’s happened.

The Stars spent game five galaxy-braining themselves into a disastrous goaltending decision backed by the worst first period I’ve seen from Stars skaters since October. It was an outrageous period, complete with a 5-0 deficit that seemed somehow inadequate to describe the deeply personal ass-kicking they’d been given. And yet, after Miro Heiskanen scored to pull the team within three goals late in the second period, there still seemed like there was a chance of yet another huge comeback. The Stars had a bit of a push going, and it felt like they could break through, if only they got one more bounce.

Of course, they didn’t. Andre Burakovsky scored Colorado’s sixth goal just a half-minute after Heiskanen’s, and that was it. A fitting end to a disastrous game five.

And yet, that fifth game somehow felt more winnable, after that Heiskanen goal, than game six did in the final 40 minutes. Despite a first period in which Yes, That Michael Hutchinson gave up an embarrassing goal to give the Stars a lead that was lost when Jamie Oleksiak shoved a guy into his own goalie to let the Avs tie it up, the Stars never looked remotely capable of matching the Avalanche in the final two periods. Colorado came out of the first intermission like a house afire, and they burned the Stars’ hopes to the ground.

We’ve talked a lot about the officiating in this series (and the playoffs in general), but I don’t think anyone would disagree with how this game was called, really. The Avs deserved every call they got—thanks in large part to foolish plays by Comeau, Benn, and Perry—and so did the Stars (which is to say, their one power play, courtesy of Jason Dickinson’s trusty face).

When the penalties were 8-3 a few games ago, that felt unjust. But this disparity was simply a reflection of the two teams’ play, and that’s as stark a reality as any you could describe, given how hard the officials (usually) try to avoid being part of the story, for better or for worse.

The Avs’ second goal was a bit fortunate, sure; a blocked shot that bounced to another Colorado player who dished it to an open Cale Makar, who easily beat a goalie trying to find the puck through heavy traffic.

The Avs’ third goal was beautiful, on their end. You’ve seen it by now, but Nathan MacKinnon’s feed and Rantanen’s finish were both world-class, and they deserved the accolades.

But that play began with two ugly moments that typified the Stars’ ineptitude in this game (and really, for much of game five, as well). The first and most avoidable was Denis Gurianov’s inability to get the puck out of the zone along the boards. Whether he was gassed or just unaware of how critical that moment was, the Stars absolutely cannot afford to be anything less than desperate in terms of clearing the zone against the Avs’ top line. Gurianov failed on a pretty soft play, and put John Klingberg in the unenviable position of backtracking to reach a knee-height bouncing puck, and shielding it from the more or less Immortal Nathan MacKinnon. The puck bounced too far back, MacKinnon was too powerful and quick, and suddenly a 2-on-1 developed. Game over.

Anton Khudobin was fine in this one, really he was. He had a couple of big stops, which is more than you can say about Ben Bishop in game five. But the Stars team that we watched for the final two periods of this game looked equal parts listless and hapless, except for when they were on the penalty kill.

Which, by the way, is something I haven’t stopped admiring. The Stars’ penalty kill (and Khudobin) have been outright heroic in this series, as just a couple more Avs PPGs would have salted away this whole thing by now, it turns out.

The Colorado Avalanche have had over 10 minutes (closer to 15, I think, with 5v3 time) more power play time than the Stars in this series, and yet Dallas, at 5v4, is outscoring the Avs 6-2. The Stars’ power play has been largely fantastic, and their penalty kill has had to be nearly impenetrable. Both have come up huge, and yet their even-strength play in the last two games has succesfully wiped out the two-game advantage they had established up to that point.

I can’t help but be afraid, and that’s natural. Momentum, real or perceived, is entirely with Colorado right now, and it doesn’t look like there’s a player in the world who is more capable of willing his team to a victory than MacKinnon.

There was a sense of foreboding last year, in game six against St. Louis, but there was some hope that it was just an aberration, that the Stars would get back online in game seven and take the series. Instead, their 5v5 play was so toothless that they managed to draw almost no power plays in two consecutive elimination games. That’s quite a feat.

It turns out, winning game six is kind of critical for the Stars, ever since 2008 saw them win the round in the sixth game against Anaheim and San Jose after establishing 3-1 series leads against both. Then they dropped game six against Detroit, though given the circumstances, they were probably lucky to have made it that far.

In 2014, the Stars looked like they were ready to reclaim the momentum and force a game seven, until they collapsed against Corey Perry and Andrew Cogliano’s Ducks.

In 2016, the Stars did everything you can do to choke in a game six against an inferior opponent, but they somehow hung on to defeat the Minnesota Wild and advance to face St. Louis.

And of course, winning game six in that second round (without Tyler Seguin) came thanks to a masterful performance by Kari Lehtonen, behind a team that frankly didn’t deserve the game seven they got. (Or maybe they did deserve it, given how that game seven in 2016 ended up going.)

Against Nashville last year, the Stars won the series in six games thanks to the top line counterattacking in overtime, with Seguin and Radulov combining to set up Klingberg’s overtime winner.

The point of all these narrative cameos is that game sixes are critical for Dallas (as they are always going to be for any team in a seven-game series). And they, or at least about 90% of the roster, failed to show up when it mattered in this one.

Now the team is faced with a situation where it just feels like one negative moment could take them out of the game for good. Where one flukey goal could see things spiral into another listless, helpless defeat.

If the Stars somehow manage to respond and win, some demons are finally vanquished, and everyone gets to take a deep breath and pat each other on the back for managing to Get the Job Done.

But really, if you’re Rick Bowness, how do you go about doing that right now? What players can you really count on to show up in a game seven for more than a moment or two?

Jamie Benn? He started the game well, but faded as things went on, and took an absurd tripping penalty in the process. You never know what Benn you’re going to get, and I fear for what Benn might do in the name of Leadership if game seven starts to go sour.

Tyler Seguin? He doesn’t have the wheels that made him so lethal on the rush anymore, and that means he hasn’t found the space to use his great shot. But the Stars have been trying to figure out What’s Wrong with Seguin for a while now, as even their recent scoring bender didn’t really juice Seguin’s numbers at all. In 14 postseason games, Seguin has the same amount of points (7) as Radek Faksa, and the same number of goals as Jamie Oleksiak. If he shows up in game seven, it will be as wonderful as it will be shocking.

Alexander Radulov? He’s probably the most dangerous member of this line, but in both directions. his defensive coverage was particularly lacking in game six, and while that’s not exactly new, you’d hope he could balance it out with some dynamism in the other zone, and that never happened.

Roope Hintz? He had a rush chance or two, but didn’t convert. If last year was a shooting percentage lark, this year is the ground upon which the lark lands.

Denis Gurianov? His mystifying curl away from the puck right before the Avs’ empty-netter was a reminder that, for all his offensive ability—and he should be getting more minutes and more chances to use it, no question—he is also a liability in other ways. Coaches care about that, and it’s up to the player to at least try to polish those details enough to where coaches will give you more ice time.

Joe Pavelski is a great example of someone who does this, despite the fact he doesn’t have the size or the speed of Gurianov. Pavelski is one of the few consistently bright spots in the forward corps this playoffs, as he’s made the line with Janmark (who was probably the best forward last night, for what it’s worth) and Gurianov work as well as it has. But Pavelski is also the oldest player on the team now. He can’t realistically contain MacKinnon while also scoring tons of goals, so pick your poison, folks.

The FCC line has gotten some timely goals in these playoffs, but you know they can’t be counted on for them. That’s why you match them hard against the Avs’ top line, right? To give you the chance to win, but not because they can win a game for you. They almost never do both, which is true of most checking lines.

Corey Perry is slow and old, and occasionally dangerous on the power play, but the Avs have figured out how to contain him below the goal line on the rare occasion where his line gets there. Dickinson has had some good games, but unless Hintz makes things happen, that line is complementary at best right now.

As for the defense, John Klingberg had some moments, but he can’t do it alone against this Avs team, and the top line he plays with so often isn’t helping him. Esa Lindell is also a player on this team.

Miro Heiskanen can do it alone, if anyone can, but the Avalanche have multiple forwards humming along right now, and Cale Makar is just as lethal a weapon as Heiskanen, in a different way. Heiskanen is also skating with a huge target on his back, and he has to be careful not to overextend himself to where the team can’t cover for him.

Jamie Oleksiak had the Stars’ best chance to get them back in the game, but he found Hutchinson’s glove after waiting just a bit too long to shoot, and honestly, that’s about what you should expect from Oleksiak. He’s been good, aside from some mental lapses like his play on the first Avs’ goal, but he’s not a player who wins you a game seven, based on what we’ve seen so far.

So I ask again: if you’re Rick Bowness, what is your plan? What do you do to magick some try outta this group? Because if you believe it’s Bowness’s fault that the team failed to show up after the first intermission of game six, then you also have to give him credit for how the team did show up in games one through four, on some level. You can’t have it both ways.

When the team is skating well, opening the game up seems like it counterintuively has played to the Stars’ advantage. But Dallas has looked old and slow for two full games (more or less), and do you really want to risk pushing the pace even more, and opening yourself up to whatever happened in that monstrosity of a first period in game five?

This team, under Jamie Benn and Jim Nill, is a traumatized bunch. I think Anton Khudobin is a security blanket for them right now, but you also need a sword to pair with your shield, and I’m not sure the team has one. If they do, however, then it’s Bowness’s job to find it, and to deploy it.

Game six was cagey in the first, but then the ice tilted, and Dallas was clearly outclassed. If you’re the Stars, you have to find a way to tilt it, to push back, and to get back into Colorado’s heads. Because, after the last two games, it sure looks like the only doubt Dallas has been sowing has been sown inside their own heads.

This series, as Sean Shapiro said, will define Jamie Benn’s legacy with the Stars, and probably Jim Nill’s, and likely even Seguin’s and Klingberg’s. If things go south, then you can’t expect the same owner who installed Ken Hitchcock after 2016 to sit idly by and wait for some mild tweaking and another kick at the can as the core gets a year older and his finances continue to look more dire.

You know what? Maybe this game seven won’t be like any playoff game in the last 15 years at all. Maybe it will be like 2011, when the Stars had a win-and-get-in game against the Minnesota Wild. It was improbable that they had gotten to that point in the first place, but on the morning of game 82, they just had to win one game, and the playoff drought would end. It could have been a wonderful bright spot after a couple of tough years.

Instead, the team couldn’t manage Minnesota, and Marc Crawford would lose his job, and another three years would go by until the Stars found playoff life again.

Game seven feels like that. To even be in a game seven would have been gravy, going into this series against Colorado. But now that we’re here, the sense of foreboding is so overwhelming, you’re almost glad fans won’t have to suffer it in person.

For multiple stretches this season, the Stars have had to answer questions about motivation, energy, composition, and deployment. For one glorious run, everything worked, and the Stars won 14 of 16 games along the way. But the season started and ended with runs as concerning as that winning binge was enjoyable, and I still don’t think the team really knows why either type of run happened, or didn’t happen.

But, like in 2011, this is it. The Stars have one shot to make things okay, for now. No more risky goaltending decisions, no more playing it safe. This is win-or-go-home for the players, and probably worse than that for a lot of other Stars employees.

It’s time to find out what the Stars really have left in the tank, from top to bottom. These are the games where players play hurt without ever feeling a thing, where surges of momentum crackle like bolts from a Tesla coil. Even without a crowd, this game will show thousands upon thousands of fans what exactly the Stars are made of, or what they aren’t.

What happens in this game will either forge a new path of triumph for the Benn era, or dredge up the memory of every other failure of the last decade. And as much as Colorado feels like the better team going into game seven, you can’t help but feel like the most crucial question is what the Stars will decide to bring—and that no one really knows how they’re going to answer.