Comments / New

Afterwords: When “Dialed In” Meets “Lost and Unfocused”

May 13, 2024; Denver, Colorado, USA; Dallas Stars center Wyatt Johnston (53) scores a goal against Colorado Avalanche goaltender Alexandar Georgiev (40) in the first period in game four of the second round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Boy, and I thought Jake Oettinger had it bad in Game 3.

I mean, in that first period, the Dallas Stars only got outshot 11-5, before getting outshot 11-8 in the second (22-13 total). But last night, it was the Colorado Avalanche on the receiving end of an even worst shot distribution, getting outshot 16(!) to 2(!!!) in the first period. The second period was a bit more forgiving, with Dallas only having a 12-11 edge (28-13 total), but still: 16-2. Wow.

The fact that Dallas only led 1-0 after the first period, and that it came after a short handed goal (a situation where they aren’t even supposed to score!!!) was nothing short of a miracle. And that miracle’s name is Alexandar Georgiev, who was the best player on the ice that first period and it wasn’t even close.

But unlike Oettinger in Game 3, Georgiev wasn’t able to keep the brick wall up. First it was that short handed goal by Wyatt Johnston in the first, then his power play goal in the second (more on him later). Then Miro Heiskanen was able to score from near the blueline after the puck caught Georgiev’s shoulder but then careened into the net, not away from it. Add in an Evgenii Dadonov goal halfway through the third and the Colorado netminder ended up going 29/33 for a .879 SV%.

Still, don’t let the statline fool you: Georgiev was great throughout the night as a whole, and was clearly Colorado’s best player. Of course, that wasn’t exactly a high bar to pass, because the Avalanche were absolutely terrible. Whereas Dallas was dialed in the entire night, the Avalanche were lost and unfocused. It was almost as if they had just learned some terrible, terrible news just an hour or so before puck drop.


Yes, that’s right. The Avalanche came out slow to start the game because they were absolutely shell-shocked with news of Valeri Nichushkin’s suspension, plus Toews getting pulled out at the last minute. But no worries — once they were able to regroup at intermission, they were able to get focused again and oh wait no, the Stars ended up extending their lead instead en route to a total game domination. But still, the pre-game distractions! You can’t blame them for being off!

Look, I get it: the story writes itself, although the ESPN crew felt the need to keep bringing it up regardless. But you want to know the secret to all this “the Avalanche weren’t themselves this game” talk? It’s baloney — it implies that this Colorado team has been at their A-game all series long, and that unfortunate circumstances sabotaged them last night before the game even started.

But that’s not what has happened. In Game 1, they got absolutely blown out in the first period, although they responded by with stellar play en route to an eventual overtime winner. Except then they got blown out even worse in the first two periods of Game 2, and this time around their late comeback (which, in my opinion, didn’t nearly have the same “pizazz” as the previous game’s) wasn’t enough. Come Game 3, and they seem to walk all over Dallas to start with, but get essentially nothing past Jake Oettinger, which comes back to bite them when the Stars completely shut them down in the third period. And then of course there was last night’s no-show.

That gives you three periods across four games in which Colorado looked good and had the results to show for it. And need I remind you, each of those three periods at least started with Colorado trailing Dallas. Because, you know, Colorado has yet to hold a lead for a single second this entire series. I mean, if that holds true for Game 5 and they’re eliminated, that has to be a playoff first, right?

So no, Colorado didn’t suddenly look “out of place” in Game 4, because they’ve been outplayed the entire series as a whole. The frustration of their top players was a storyline in Game 3, in which both Valeri Nichushkin and Mikko Rantanen slammed their sticks in anger after getting neutralized, and Nathan MacKinnon ended his shift on the power play just 30 seconds early to start the second period. That was one was so surprising that not even his own teammates were ready for the change, and thus were slow to have his replacement player get on the ice.

Speaking of which, there was a play last night in which MacKinnon entered the offensive zone but then got tied up along the boards and had the puck stripped from him. Did he immediately begin back checking to try and stop the Stars from transitioning into his defensive zone? No, he simply stood there for several seconds, sighed, and then slowly began skating to the bench with his head down.

MacKinnon is regarded as a great leader by his peers, and he got endless praise for how he helped lead his team to a Stanley Cup two years ago. But here’s the thing about strong leaders: their team tends to follow their example at all times, even when it’s a bad example. We saw that happen with Jamie Benn and the Stars last postseason against the Vegas Golden Knights, and I can’t help but think we’re seeing it again: MacKinnon is letting the frustration get to him, and the rest of the team seems to be following suit.

There’s still time for Colorado to regroup and strike back — Dallas managed it last year against Vegas, and they didn’t even have a win under their belt! But at least in that series, Dallas was playing at least much closer hockey outside of Game 3, not to mention it still wasn’t enough in the end. Meanwhile in Colorado, if these are the sorts of comments coming out of your locker room:

…well, let’s just say I don’t feel confident in them blocking out all the distractions.

• Last thing on MacKinnon, I swear: ESPN didn’t ever go back to show this, but the real reason Roope Hintz left the game early might have been due to this uncalled crosscheck by Colorado’s star center (you know, before the blocked shot and subsequent check to the back by Sean Walker):

In theme of following their (unofficial) captain, Ross Colton also delivered a questionable hit on Chris Tanev that knocked him out of the game. That one might have been a slew foot, but we’d need a better angle on a replay, which ESPN, of course, did not provide*:

I side with Robert here in that I think Tanev was stapled to the bench as a precaution, given it was late in a blowout game. The loss of Hintz, on the other hand, stings — he’s looked hurt all postseason, but he finally found his groove again in Game 2. The Stars have incredible depth, and the elimination of the Texas Stars from the Calder Cup playoffs only improves that further, but if this ends Hintz’s postseason (or makes him play even more hurt), the Stars’ Cup chances are worse off for it.

*Who knows, Maybe TNT will drop a previously unseen angle of the hit tomorrow that even the NHL claims to not have known about.

• In my Afterwords for Game 1, I included the following throwaway line when talking about two of the best defensemen in the NHL:

“Then you had Cale Makar, who will forever be compared to Miro Heiskanen and yet seems to be in a class of his own as the nearly undisputed best defenseman in the world (though I still maintain my long term stance that if the picks were reversed, so would the hockey world’s praises be).”

To clarify this stance: Makar was drafted into a perfect situation with Colorado, a team with a system and roster poised to capitalize and encourage his outstanding offensive gifts. Dallas, on the other hand, had just hired Ken Hitchcock to bring back shutdown hockey to Dallas, plus already had a top-end RHD manning the top power play unit in John Klingberg. In short, I don’t think Makar would be quite where he is at today had Dallas drafted him (although he’d be close), and I think Heiskanen would, at the least, be recognized far more nationally had he instead ended up in Colorado.

That viewpoint received some pushback in the comments, as if I was underselling Makar’s elite talent and accomplishments (I wasn’t). Since then, Makar has gone pointless in three straight playoff games for the first time in his career, collecting a -6 while averaging 26:39 TOI a night. Heiskanen, meanwhile, has 3 goals, 3 assists, and a +3 over that same period, averaging 25:18 a night.

That doesn’t change any of my prior stances on the players (that both are elite defensemen, with Makar being unnaturally gifted offensively and Heiskanen being unnaturally gifted defensively). I just thought it was funny.

• Three of those points by Heiskanen, by the way, came last night. Like the rest of the Stars around him, he was dominant, posting a GameScore over 6(!):

His defensive partner, Thomas Harley, also had a stellar game, as you can see above. And yet, neither player was the focal point of the game, and I honestly don’t think they should have been.

No, that honor belongs unquestionably to Wyatt Johnston, who is finally able to legally consume alcohol as of 12:00 this morning. The Stars’ sophomore scored twice last night, and he could have had the hat trick had he shot the empty netter himself instead of giving it to Sam Steel for the more-guaranteed goal. Still, he set the franchise record for most playoff goals by a player before their 21st birthday with 11, and became one of only three players to score both a short handed and power play goal in a playoff game in NHL history. Only one of those two other players, by the way, also did it before turning 21, though he was a rather unforgettable player named Wayne Gretzky.

Let’s take a look at the goals themselves, shall we? First, the shorty:

There’s our friend Cale Makar again, who has had better nights — Johnston strips the puck away from him and is able to send it out to Steel. He’s then able to tie Makar up, giving Steel some room for a shot, and as soon as Makar is able to leaves to head after Steel, he sneaks away to get into prime real estate for a rebound, uncontested. Steel shoots, the rebound goes to Johnston, and he shoots it himself. Alexandar Georgiev, who again, was playing out of his mind, naturally stopped it, but he wasn’t able to secure the puck. Johnston tries again, and this time he capitalizes.

(By the way, here’s the goal with arena sounds. Hear the roar of the crowd? At an away game?!?)

Now the power play goal:

This is just good power play execution here. The Stars get Colorado all bunched up in the middle with Artturi Lehkonen missing his stick up front, allowing Jason Robertson to easily get the puck to Heiskanen, who then effortlessly returns it right back to Robertson. That gets the entire Colorado penalty kill, including Georgiev, to start to turn towards Robertson as he fires off a slap shot towards the net.

Except, it’s not towards the net — it’s towards the player they all just pivoted away from, Wyatt Johnston, who is all alone right next to the net. Again, Lehkonen doesn’t have his stick, so what might have been a blocked pass instead finds itself right on Johnston’s tape, who is able to take a fraction of a second to stop the puck before sending it flying into an effectively empty net.

(Also correct me if I’m wrong, but Johnston got a look from the same exact position earlier in the power play, only he wasn’t able to score. Maybe Colorado shouldn’t have been so caught off guard by that one).

• Finally, it’s hard to not think back to the Stars’ Game 1 collapse and wonder what might have been, as it turns out a sweep of the Avalanche was very possible. But as I wrote in Game 3 (okay, okay, I won’t hyperlink it a third time), a sweep was an extremely unlikely outcome heading into the series, and this is essentially just a case of Dallas losing Game 1 instead of, say, Game 4 like the New York Rangers.

The Rangers, by the way, got blown out in the third period last night to lose Game 5 at home, cutting their series lead against the Carolina Hurricanes to just one game. The circumstances are different — in fact, the series is playing out eerily similar to Dallas vs. Vegas from last year, what with all the overtime games and Carolina able to use a Game 4 win to build momentum to win Game 5 on the road — and unlike Carolina, I think Colorado might be mentally beat, but you still can’t afford to let your foot off the gas if you’re Dallas. Take care of business in Game 5 and earn at least one extra day of well deserved rest before Round 3.

Talking Points