The Stanley Cup playoffs are a grind for a reason. The sport requires teams to live on a high-wire of sorts; the prospect of going home a loser perpetually hanging over a clubs season. It’s impossible for players and fans alike to not fall into the trap of overreaction after one or two games. After-all it’s uniquely human to develop some level of anxiety in such affairs. Which is why this tournament, above all others, is as mental a grind as it is physical. Each night is different, each team scheming to add layers to their game, each moment containing the possibility of swinging an entire series in a given direction.
The Dallas Stars are living this reality in their first round playoff series against the Calgary Flames. Tied at two games apiece, the first four contests have been a microcosm of the Stars season. Great performances that have observers saying to themselves, “that’s the team that they SHOULD be,” followed by the types of performances that leave the same people scratching their heads and looking towards the off-season.
Game four in particular was a contest the Stars can point to as an example of what can happen if they let their play lapse. The 4-1 loss to tie the series doesn’t nearly do the overall game justice. The Stars were pummeled in the hockey game, outshot by a margin of fifty-four to thirty-five. To make matters worse for the Stars they spoiled chance after chance on the power-play to pull even or even take control of the game. At the end of the day, Head Coach Rich Bowness summed it up better than anyone.
“They (the Flames) were really good and we were really bad. We’ll look at what went wrong and fix it by Wednesday.”
What went wrong on Monday night extends beyond the truth Bowness spoke at the podium in the post-game press conference. What went wrong goes beyond what is visible on any stat sheet. The Stars seemed out of sorts from puck drop, allowing the Flames to establish their forecheck and cycle early. In the first period the Flames held a nineteen-to-eight shot advantage, and controlled overall possession of the puck.
The impressive part of the Flames game was their ability to establish the same style of play from all four lines. It wasn’t just the usual suspects of Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Geaudreau, and Elias Lindholm who were driving the play. The fourth line featuring Milan Lucic and Trevor Lewis were equally as effective in the Dallas end of the ice. When asked how the Flames were so effective in the offensive zone defenseman Ryan Suter touched upon the Flames ability to control the momentum.
“When they’re in the offensive zone they had that momentum. When you’re moving it’s easier to get that loose puck and we were standing around.”
Rick Bowness echoed his veteran defenseman’s thoughts when he added, “We were on the wrong side of it too many times in all three zones. We were very slow to close on them in the defensive zone, which is why they were able to cycle the puck.”
Suter and Bowness’ analysis of the Stars defensive coverage was spot on. Too many times in the game the Flames were able to pick the Stars apart with crisp passing sets and utilized an extra second to make sure the play was there. The Stars seemed unable to catch up to the Flames and as the game wore on the answers weren’t there. Undoubtedly the perfect encapsulation of the problem came when the Stars were caught without a line change for over three minutes. Forward Denis Gurianov made a crucial error with the puck that resulted in a turnover at the blue-line that extended the shift. It was a painful moment for the Stars who didn’t look the same after the extended shift and the sequence was a focal point in the post-game.
“You saw that one shift in the second period. We’re in our zone a minute-and-a-half, Bowness said. The forward (Denis Gurianov) gets the puck and tries to stickhandle his way out and all the sudden we’re stuck in the zone. That’s just bad decisions and bad puck management.”
What is truly shocking is how, after all the mistakes the Stars made, the club was still in the hockey game at the start of the third period. Which brings into focus a major problem that has existed all season. The Stars offense is simply not doing enough and to make matters worse the top scorers for the team have gone cold. In particular, Jason Robertson looks to be fighting it as he plays in his first playoff series. The game has constricted on the young goalscorer, but there were no excuses from Robertson after the game.
‘It’s playoffs. I knew it was going to be harder, I’m still trying to find my spots and get shots, but I have to do more for myself.”
The troubles for the Stars offensively is two-fold so far in the series. Outside of Joe Pavelski, the avengers line has been stifled. It helps that the Flames top-line has also had a minor impact on the series, but for a team like the Stars the problem is much more pronounced. Bowness split the top line to start the third period, putting Robertson with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn to try and produce some type of offense. However, the five-on-five portion of the game is less important than what is happening on the power-play.
The Stars power-play is completely lifeless. The Stars did register a power-play goal in both games three and four, but both came off the rush and the goal in game four only made the score more respectable. Through the two games at home the Stars went a combined two-for-ten on the advantage. Neither goal came via their traditional in-zone set, which have been nothing short of a disaster. The Stars have been unable to effectively use zone entries to establish possession and have struggled with the constant speed, coupled with aggressiveness the Flames killers play with. All-told the Stars are arguably tied in this series because of their power-play and have won two games in spite of their power-play.
Nothing easy with this Dallas team.
For as much as game four felt like a let-down for a Stars team that had worked themselves into a position to take a stranglehold on the series. It isn’t all doom and gloom for the team in victory green.
The Stars are receiving the type of goaltending that doesn’t steal games; they are receiving goaltending that steals series. Oettinger leaves for Calgary with a 1.53 goals against average and a .960 save percentage. Without that level of play the Stars should shutter at where this series could stand. So far the Stars are winning the duel in net and it’s on the Stars offense to give the young net-minder the type of performance that can insulate any possible regression. With the amount of special teams that this series is featuring the Stars chances teeter on their ability to start converting.
What is more is that the Stars did put forward a blueprint for success in game three. The Stars were able to put together a complete sixty minute performance. Throughout game three Dallas imposed their style of play on the Flames and relished the opportunity to counterpunch the Flames attack. The Stars could have easily folded when Lindholm scored early in the second period to put the Flames ahead. Instead, the Stars battled back, strapped back in and were rewarded when Pavelski evened the score.
The formula for the Stars is fairly simple: play ugly.
Dallas was at their best in games two and three when they were checking on time, using their speed to work themselves on top of pucks, and were able to counterpunch. Calgary is going to have moments where they are able to work the puck and create chances on Dallas offensively. The difference is that these moments can’t turn into stretches, that turn into games. The Stars would be well served by simply using their speed and physicality to force the Flames into quick plays and counterattack when mistakes are made. This will open up the Stars defense to scoring chances against, but with Oettinger playing at the level he is, the Stars have some flexibility.
The Stars will have their hands full in Calgary when the puck drops on game five. However, the Stars have placed themselves in a situation where they still have a life to live no matter the outcome. The club didn’t accomplish that breathing room on accident. From the mid point of game one, the Stars were the better team in the series. Game four occurred and is part of the peaks and valleys of the playoffs. The Stars have a formula that travels.
Hopefully they don’t forget to pack it.