As someone who only follows hockey and football, I hardly watch any basketball games. Sure, I might make a March Madness bracket every year or so, and I’ll loosely follow the NBA playoffs, but actually sitting down to watch a game is a rarity for me.
But I did just that on Monday night for Game 1 between the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns. And while I may know squat about professional basketball, it was pretty clear that the Suns were playing far better. Dallas would turn the ball over, and Phoenix would capitalize. Then the Mavericks would manage to get a two-pointer, and the Suns would answer with an effortless three.
It wasn’t until roughly the final eight minutes that the Mavericks truly played at the same level, although it was too little, too late. But it was something to build off of, and I went to bed thinking it would be a while until I watched such a one-sided game again.
Then I saw the first period of last night’s Dallas Stars game.
The Calgary Flames took what the Suns did and turned it up to 11, absolutely dominating the Stars for twenty minutes. They lived in the offensive zone, shutting down any semblance of a Dallas transition game. It took them six seconds to score in their first power play of the night, and they effortlessly shut down the two Stars’ man advantages that followed.
Dallas didn’t so much as muster a single shot on net for the first ten-ish minutes, and honestly I’m not sure if you need the “on net” qualifier. Calgary seemed to have game planned perfectly for Dallas, while the Stars seemed to have just woken up from a pregame nap. And for those who value it — especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs — the Flames were also dominating the physical aspect of the game.
As a whole, only a couple of Stars seemed to be doing anything of real note for the first period: Jake Oettinger — who we’ll get to in a bit — and John Klingberg. So when news broke during intermission that Klingberg had earned a game misconduct alongside Rasmus Andersson for their fight at the end of the first, you could hardly blame any fan for throwing in the towel on the game.
But to the Stars’ credit, they didn’t fold like a cheap suit completely. The team looked far better during the middle frame, which in the Stars’ world meant the game slowed down. A lot.
Granted, that is primarily due to the six(!) power plays in the second period (including the minor against Michael Raffl at the end of the first), but the Stars kept the Flames from walking all over them. They still weren’t great at 5-on-5, and the power play struggled without Klingberg there to quarterback it, but they were able to generate some pressure and force Jacob Markstrom to actually work some.
The Stars continued to keep things close in the third, and even amidst the monotony, there was the occasional spark — at one point, the Stars and Flames were trading chances back and forth, going a few minutes without a whistle. But when all was said and done, the Stars only managed three shots on goal in the final frame — the same amount they had mustered in the first — and the Flames won 1-0.
This is a problem that has haunted the Stars for years now: a failure to play a full 60 minutes. Regardless of the “playoff atmosphere” in the Saddledome, it’s inexcusable to come out that flat in the first period, and just as much so to deliver an offensive dud in the final minutes when a single bounce can take you to overtime.
Of course, focusing on solely the negatives wouldn’t paint a full picture of Game 1, not to mention such pessimism can be rather draining. As mentioned previously, Klingberg looked good until he was ejected — perhaps all those second period power plays might have gone somewhere had he still been in. And aside from of an ill-timed icing in the final minute with the empty net, Miro Heiskanen was Miro Heiskanen. He ended playing nearly half the game with 29:57 TOI, four more minutes than the next closest skaters on either side of the ice.
And then there was Jake Oettinger. Heading into the night, the young goaltender’s only professional playoff experience came from two short relief efforts against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Thus, many people were questioning how Oettinger would fare in his first postseason start. If he would be able to handle to the pressure.
To say that he passed with flying colors would somehow be an understatement. Jacob Markstrom might have secured the shutout, but Oettinger was the best player on the ice last night. He was crisp and free of errors, playing the puck well behind the net and keeping rebounds under control. Oettinger was the only reason Dallas didn’t get blown out in the first period, and he kept the Stars just a goal away right until the very end.
It was the performance you expect from a seasoned veteran, and while it was only one game, it gave Stars fans some much needed confidence about their series odds. After all, sometimes it takes just a single hot goalie to completely ruin a Cup contender’s postseason.
That all being said, the negatives still outweighed the positives in the end. The Stars’ top trio of Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson, and Joe Pavelski was largely ineffectual, and the secondary scoring didn’t generate much either. The game felt winnable up until the end, but there was a sense of dread that another Flames goal would have put things out of reach. That’s not exactly how you want to feel about a two-goal deficit versus one.
The Stars knew taking down Calgary would be a tall order — they won fifty games with the second highest goal differential in the league. Dallas meanwhile barely made the playoffs with the lowest offensive output of all 16 teams. Yet the Stars have consistently insisted that they are a team built for the playoffs, and that all they needed was to make it. The organization expects this team to pull off the upset and make a run.
Let’s just hope they find out how, or else this might be a quick series.