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Afterwords: First is the Worst

Credit: Tim Heitman / Dallas Stars

We’ve spent some time this Dallas Stars – Seattle Kraken series talking about how closely some of these games have felt similar to other games this postseason. How Dallas, so far, had been following their Round 1 script, in which they go down 1-0 and 2-1 before heading up 3-2 with a chance to close out the series on the road.

In Game 6 against the Minnesota Wild, the Stars got shelled a bit by the Wild to start, but then Dallas managed to score before dominating the game from there on out. They looked like a team with a “killer instinct,” one that was dead set on keeping the Wild from getting on another plane.

In Game 6 against the Kraken, the Stars got shelled a bit by the Kraken to start. And then they got shelled more. And more. And more.

If Game 3 against the Wild might have been the Stars’ worst game of the season, this might have been the worst period. The fact that the score was only 2-1 after twenty minutes is honestly nothing short of a miracle, and gave Stars fans hope that they could regroup and come back strong in the second.

Well, apparently we all missed the memo: first periods are now 25 minutes long, with a 18 minute TV timeout towards the end. Seattle immediately scored to take a 3-1 lead, and then again to make it 4-1. Jake Oettinger was pulled, and the Stars ultimately lost 6-3.

Now, before we get any further, let me explain something. Statistically speaking, throughout this series, Oettinger has been bad, posting a .865 SV%. Context is important, of course, and we’ve made it a point to stress how many of the goals against him have been a case where he was either hung out to dry by his team or it was just a really good shot. Excusable goals, if you will.

That can be a very dangerous line of thinking, especially when it comes to the playoffs. The truth is this series, Oettinger has been average at best. He’s made some nice saves, but he has yet to post the kind of game-stealing performances he did against the Wild or the Calgary Flames last year. And when you’re one of the best goaltenders in the world like Oettinger, your team needs you to have those kinds of games, to make the saves where you think, “How in the world did he stop that?” And Oettinger hasn’t done that so far this series.

Now, all of that being said…I mean come on, Dallas. You can’t just completely abandon your goaltender like that. Two of Seattle’s goals against Oettinger were a result of a complete breakdown of the defense, allowing Yanni Gourde and Eeli Tolvanen to effortlessly get open and score. The power play goal was a bit more iffy – Oettinger bit too hard and got out of position, creating the rebound opportunity, but Eberle should have also never been allowed to get open, especially with three Dallas defensemen right by the net.

That leaves the fourth goal, the one that ended Oettinger’s night early, as the only one where you could clearly say, “Yes, this was Jake’s fault.” And at that point, I feel like DeBoer made the right decision in pulling him. This was clearly not the Stars’ game, so better to rest him for Game 7 and not further damage his confidence. Maybe if the Stars stormed back, you could try and reinsert him, but if that happened, Scott Wedgewood would probably be playing great in relief, so odds are it would just be a short night.

On the other hand, some people would argue it wasn’t (just) a mercy pull, but rather an attempt by DeBoer to spark something out of the Stars. And granted, Dallas was a lot better afterwards, soon scoring on the power play and bringing the game back within two. When the third period rolled around, Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson each hit the post early on, and Miro Heiskanen was this close to knocking the puck in off the rebound for the first.

If either one of those goals go in, we’re possibly looking at a different outcome. This team played a lot better in the second half, as evidence by when they went down 5-2 in the third and, rather than giving up, immediately fired back to regain the two goal lead. There are positive things to build off of when it comes to Game 6.

But there’s only so much you  can do when it comes to adjustments, especially when your most glaring problem has no immediate solution. Yes, it is time to talk about the giant kraken squid in the room:

Oof. Excluding the empty-netter, Esa Lindell was on ice for all five of the Stars’ goals against, and Jani Hakanpää for four of them. Those two goals against Oettinger where Dallas just abandoned him to his fate? You can just replace “Dallas” with “the second defensive pair,” or honestly that with just “Esa Lindell.”

Forget about worst games or periods of the season – that was, without a doubt, the worst performance of Lindell’s entire career. And he knows it:

“That kind of game just can’t happen at this time of year,” Lindell said. “I’m just so disappointed at myself, too. Only thing now is to move on and get prepared for Game 7 and be way, way better in that one. …I think everything went sideways today. I don’t know if I’ve played that bad for a long time. It felt they got the odd-mans, won battles, all the things we’ve been good (at) before went sideways today.”

DeBoer, as one would expect from this Dallas Stars head coach, did not rip into either Lindell or Hakanpää after the game. He didn’t storm out of a press conference only to get praised by the media for “keeping it real.” No, just like always, he had his players’ backs, saying that the entire team had a bad performance and that he didn’t feel like they were particularly worse.

Now, behind the scenes, DeBoer knows just how bad that pairing was. And he also knows that there is no easy solution. I won’t go into detail about the Stars’ dilemma here – Saad Yousuf already did a tremendous job doing that – but in short, the Stars can’t bench both players, especially not in Game 7. Maybe they can bench Hakanpää in favor of Miller, who did well with the former’s ice time next to Lindell in Game 4, but that provides its own potential issues (which, again, Saad talked about).

What the Stars’ coaching staff can’t afford to do is a “burn the tape” approach like they took after Game 3. They can’t just say “we’ve yet to lose two in a row this postseason, and Oettinger is 21-1-3 after a loss – we’ll bounce back.” Because as we’ve seen time and time again these playoffs , you cannot give the Kraken even a minute to breath, or they’ll swallow you whole. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche.

Heading into Game 7, the Stars are still the favored team to win. They might have been favored even if they weren’t playing in front of a home crowd. But, color me a pessimist, it sure doesn’t feel that way to me. I fear Seattle has Dallas right where they want them, and it’s up to the Stars to deliver a strong response and take control of the game before Seattle can.

And if they don’t? Well, you better pray that Oettinger puts in the performance of his career. Because no amount of lucky bounces will save a Stars team that fails to show up tomorrow.

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