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Afterwords: That’s A Kick To The Plums

Did the Stars collapse in the third period last night? Or was it the expected result of the team’s lead-defending strategy?

Dallas Stars v Calgary Flames - Game Five Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

I am a rather pessimistic person when it comes to sports.

I try very hard not to be — whenever I see something positive, I latch onto it, using it as something to get excited about. Sometimes, I’ll even psyche myself into things I don’t actually believe, such as with my first round prediction for the Dallas Stars. It may seem silly, but sports are entertainment, and being miserable and about it is no way to have fun.

But I’ve tried to be very candid with my feelings when writing about this series against the Calgary Flames. And so I can say with conviction that I truly believed this quote from my piece after Game 2:

The Stars’ have a gameplan that allows them to go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the league, even it’s a bit too reliant on elite goaltending... It’s still an upwards climb for Dallas to pull off a first round upset. But it looks just a bit more obtainable now than it did on Tuesday.

I stood by that sentiment after Game 4, in which the Stars were overwhelmed offensively and lost 4-1. I then followed it up with this:

When they head back to Alberta for Game 5, they need to slow the game back down, and prevent Calgary from camping up in the offensive zone and tormenting Jake Oettinger.

It was that style of game that won them Games 2 and (to a lesser extent) 3, and kept them right in the thick of it in Game 1. And after getting blown out on Monday, it’s the gameplan they went to again last night for Game 5.

It worked perfectly.

The Flames had 19 shots on goal in the first period alone in Game 4, then another 20 in the second. The game before that, they had 13 and 16. In sharp contrast, they had 16 shots on net total in the first forty minutes of last night’s game.

Jake Oettinger made the stops he needed to, as he did all series long. And while the power play was dreadful as always, the Stars were giving Calgary as much as they were taking, matching their shot totals exactly. The only difference was that Jason Robertson was able to get one past Jacob Markstrom, albeit with some help of a bouncy puck and Noah Hanifin.

NHL: MAY 11 Playoffs Round 1 Game 5 - Stars at Flames Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like the first three games of the series, the Stars were forcing the Flames to play their game. And the results (while nerve-wrecking) were undeniably there.

And then came the third period.

The Flames outshot Dallas 16-5 in the final frame, the bulk of the Stars’ attempts coming after going down 2-1. Per Dimitri Filipovic, the Flames had five high danger scoring chances, whereas the Stars had zero — their expected goals was a pitiful 0.34 to Calgary’s 2.58.

It was, according to the players, coaches, and media afterwards, a complete collapse by the Stars. Another incomplete effort that saw them lose due to their failure to play a full 60 minute hockey game.

Thing is, this too was part of the Stars’ plan.

Painting the Stars’ third period as a “collapse” is faulty because it suggests that Dallas was trying to generate offense in the third period. It assumes that the drastic shift in possession time and shot generation was unexpected, that the players simply failed to deliver and suffered the consequences.

No, this was classic Stars “turtling,” which is to say Dallas had a one goal lead heading into the third and, as they have all season long, decided that was enough. They buckled down and decided to play conservatively, eliminating any risky plays and subsequent turnovers in their overall effort to limit the Flames’ quality scoring chances.

And as it has so many times this season, it backfired on them immensely. It might not have been as drastic as, say, the Stars’ penultimate regular season game against the Arizona Coyotes, but the result was the same. In their effort to make things easier for Jake Oettinger, they simply gave Calgary more opportunities to slip one through. A defensive miscue let Andrew Mangiapane make a beautiful pass to Mikael Backlund, giving him a wide open net for the tying goal. Just a few minutes later, Mangiapane made an equally accurate shot on net to put Calgary ahead.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Dallas Stars at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

At that point, a loss felt inevitable. The Flames had all of the momentum, not to mention their solid defensive structure and the stellar play from Vezina Trophy finalist Jacob Markstrom. It took Dallas more than 30 minutes for their their top regular season goal scorer to give them a 1-0 lead — asking them to tie things up with ten minutes to go was a tall order that the Stars were unable to fulfill.

And thus is the crux of the issue with “turtling” — if you blow your lead, you have to be able to answer back. And thus when you do so as a low scoring team with only a single goal lead, changing your gameplan up from what has been working for you for the last 40 minutes, you’re honestly just asking for trouble.

It’s this sort of stuff that frustrates Stars fans to no end. It’s for this reason that many fans can’t just “be happy they made the postseason.” Because even when the Stars are dictating the flow of a game and implementing their gameplan to a tee, they have the tendency to shift strategy late game and, far too many times, have it blow up in their face.

Mind you, this is not strictly a Rick Bowness issue — this mindset has plagued the Stars for years, dating back to the hiring of Ken Hitchcock. The organization has made a conscious shift to defensive hockey, which in of itself doesn’t ensure turtling, but often does. It’s a complicated issue that extends beyond the players and coaches at ice level... but that’s a story for the offseason.

Of course, said offseason might be coming sooner rather than later. Game 6 is a crucial one for the Stars, from the players to the coaches to the general manager, Jim Nill. It could very well define what Dallas hockey is going to look like next season and beyond, and the fact that I won’t be able to watch it on Friday or even Saturday — I’m attending a wedding out of town — is incredibly frustrating.

So instead, I’ll have to be content with checking the score every now and then, crossing my fingers and trying to be as optimistic as possible. Because at the end of the day, success is always a good thing, and I’d like to be able to write about a Game 7 winner-take all between these two teams.

I can only hope the Stars oblige.