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Afterwords: The Team No One Wants to Play

Apr 3, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Stars center Wyatt Johnston (53) and center Sam Steel (18) celebrates a goal scored by Johnston against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For the past couple of months, my dad and I have been talking about preferred playoff opponents for the Dallas Stars. You know, “Don’t want to play Colorado in Round 1,” “We match up well against Los Angeles,” that kind of thing.

Perhaps one of the more interesting discussions pertained as to, assuming Dallas won two rounds, who we’d rather win the Pacific Division. After all, the Vegas Golden Knights are the defending champs and beat Dallas last year in the Western Conference Final, and the Vancouver Canucks have traditionally had the Stars’ number. Which is why I took the perhaps questionable stance of (assuming it’s not a Wild Card team) hoping it was the Edmonton Oilers.

I mean, at first thought, it sounds ridiculous — this is the team with the best player in the league right now, perhaps even this century, in Connor McDavid. Alongside him is a 50 goal scorer (Zach Hyman), and then there’s still a Top 5, maybe Top 3 center in the NHL (Leon Draisaitl) the next line down. And these are players who show up to the playoffs, particularly McDavid and Draisaitl — honestly, I’m not sure anyone should want to faceoff against those two in the postseason.

And yet, the Oilers, like most teams, are flawed. Their defensive depth is something to be desired, an area of weakness that wasn’t really fixed this deadline, and their goaltending has been… lackluster this year. Meanwhile Dallas has a deep forward grouping, with three legitimate scoring lines and a pesky fourth that does a really good job at keeping things in the offensive zone. If the Stars are able to shut down (or at least limit) McDavid, Hyman, and Draisaitl, there’s a good chance the Stars would be able to kill them by a thousand paper cuts.

And that’s exactly what happened last night — McDavid came into the game chasing 100 assists, with some wondering if he could hit the mark in Dallas. He was instead held pointless, along with the rest of his team. Dallas, meanwhile, scored five times, including once off the power play, once immediately after a penalty kill, and twice(!) from their fourth line. Let me say that again: the fourth line scored twice last night. Radek Faksa had a three-point(!!!) night for goodness sake.

I mean honestly, what are you supposed to do when you’re squaring off against Dallas? Eight of their Top 9 forwards have 50 points this season, and the only one who doesn’t (Logan Stankoven) has only played 18 games and would be on pace for 59 in a full season. The Stars’ top goal scorer (Wyatt Johnston) is 20 years old and plays on the third line, for crying out loud. People have been wondering why Jason Robertson isn’t scoring as many goals this season, but honestly it’s probably because he just doesn’t need to.

Maybe you just hope for fireworks and to somehow outscore the Stars. Except, oops, they have arguably the best defensive defenseman in the league in Miro Heiskanen, another defensive stalwart in new arrival Chris Tanev, and oh yeah, Thomas Harley is already a top pairing guy in his first full NHL season. At least Jake Oettinger has been struggling all seas-wait, my bad, he’s 6-0-0 in his last six starts with a .955 SV% and two shutouts, with 1 goal allowed in his last three games. So, uhh, vintage Oettinger might be back after all.

So sure, you can easily talk yourself into wanting to play the Oilers in the postseason compared to some alternatives, as crazy as it might sound. Heck, you could say the same for most of the playoff teams. But Dallas? Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a single team that would want to play them under any circumstance — they’re the guys everyone prays loses in Round 1, or at least Round 2, or please Round 3, or oh no it’s too late.

The juggernaut doesn’t always win the Stanley Cup — just ask the Boston Bruins from last year. Then again, Vegas was arguably one of those teams too, and Colorado and Tampa Bay for sure were. But no matter how the postseason shakes out, I gotta be honest: this is probably the Stars’ best chance to win the Cup since 2000, maybe even ’99.

It’s gonna be a fun postseason.

• I won’t break down every goal, but there’s three I want to draw specific attention to, starting with the fourth liners’. Here’s the game-opener:

This was just a tremendous, tic-tac-toe effort from the entire line. Craig Smith stips the puck from Draisaitl and then, after getting pinched by the defenseman, somehow manages to pass it cross-ice to Sam Steel. It obviously isn’t going to be a perfect pass, but Steel still manages to get his skate on it and bump it up in front of him, so he can backhand pass it to Faksa, who sends it five-hole.

Faksa would later return the favor late in the second:

Smith fights the puck and frees it up for Faksa, who is off balance but manages to send the puck on net while falling to the ice. Calvin Pickard knocks it away with his stick-hand, but that just sends it straight to Steel right in front of the net. But Steel doesn’t shoot right away off the rebound to try and catch Pickard off guard, even though he was in excellent position to do so. Instead, he immediately passes it out to himself and heads to the side, as if he knows he’ll have a wide open net if he just shows some patience. Pickard naturally bites to try and smother Steel’s shooting angle, but Steel just whisks the puck forward and backhands it in effortlessly.

As I mentioned earlier, the Stars’ fourth line is pesky and does a really good job at burning time in the offensive zone, and every now and then they’re able to cash in on it. And whenever I see them irritate opponents like so, I think back to one of the less-spoken of qualities of Jim Nill as a GM: he gets his coach depth players that fit into their system.

Before, in the era of Hitchcock, Montgomery, and Bowness, it was the “shutdown” defensive checking line players, like Luke Glendening, Jani Hakanpaa, and Blake Comeau. But this offseason, it was players like Steel or Smith, who are minor offensive threats who do a good job at keeping the puck out of the defensive zone to begin with. Nill does a good job at putting his coach in the best position to succeed with their vision, and you know Pete DeBoer is loving the tools he has at his disposal.

• As great as those two goals were, I think my favorite has to be Wyatt Johnston’s, but not for the reason(s) you might think:

Yes, it was his 30th of the season, making him the first player in Dallas Stars history to accomplish that feat before turning 21. Yes, it sparked the two goals that followed, turning this from a potential Florida repeat to a full-on blowout in just a couple minutes. But the real reason I loved it so much is because it was one of my favorite subtypes of goals: the jailbreak goal.

It’s what every team dreams about when they go on the penalty kill, that you won’t just kill the full two minutes, but that you’ll kill it with such perfect timing that you get the puck on your stick right as your player exits the penalty box, allowing you to send it up ice for a breakaway opportunity.

That’s not exactly what happened here, but Johnston still touched the puck right after coming out of the penalty box and scored. And honestly, a 4-on-1 is more lethal than a 1-on-none in my book, not to mention far more unlikely, so it gets bonus points for that as well.

And the icing on top? That goal might not have happened had Mason Marchment been in the box, which, much to his confusion, it looked like he was going to be until right before puck drop:

• The New York Rangers won last night, meaning Dallas is still one point back on the President’s Trophy, and so did the Canucks, which means they’re still only three points up on the top seed in the West. Although, to be frank, I’m not sure either is particularly important — the President’s Trophy means nothing in the postseason (unless you believe in curses), and the Nashville Predators and Los Angeles Kings are neck-in-neck in the standings, so you can’t make the assumption that the top seed gets the “better” matchup, unlike in the East. Sure, it’ll matter if the Stars face off against the Canucks in the WCF, but that’s low enough on the probability spectrum that it’s not worth losing sleep over.

Where it does matter is that Dallas is now five points up on Colorado for the division lead, albeit with one extra game played. The Winnipeg Jets have been fading down the stretch, but I’d still rather avoid Connor Hellebuyck for at least a round in favor of one of the Wild Card teams. And if/when the seemingly inevitable Stars-Avalanche matchup happens in Round 2, home-ice would be nice. Plus I’m still bitter that Colorado edged out Dallas for it last year, and pettiness is what rivalries are all about.