Afterwords: Crushing Their Spirit
That was a fun way to end the series. If you're a Stars fan, of course...
If I had to pick one tweet to summarize last night's game, I would have to go with this one from my former colleague, the original "Afterwords" writer, Robert Tiffin:
This was, I believe, after the end of the second period, and it held true up until the final buzzer. What was a fun, enjoyable game to watch for Dallas Stars fans was absolutely agonizing for those of the Minnesota Wild, who have now watched their team exit the first round in seven consecutive playoff appearances. Series-ending losses are always tough, but like a certain blue Game 7 for Stars fans, this might be one Wild fans never want to revisit.
So let's break it down, shall we?
As expected for a team coming home down 3-2 in the series, the Wild came out of the gate strong. For the first six minutes, the Stars didn't register a single shot on net, as Minnesota clogged up the neutral zone like they had all series. There wasn't a lack of effort from Dallas, but there was still a sense of urgency to get things under control before the Wild broke the dam open.
For a second there, it looked like they had – a shot rebounded off of Jake Oettinger, and Ryan Hartman found himself with the puck and a wide open net in front of him. But he had to corral the puck back past the goal line first. Oettinger's skate and Ryan Suter's stick got in the way, preventing him from flipping it back into the net, and the puck ended up bouncing off Oettinger and then off the post and out.
Seconds later, Jason Robertson sent it up ice to Tyler Seguin, who passed it over to Roope Hintz, who completely undressed his former teammate in John Klingberg and took the first goal.
That was the Stars' first shot on net, and the first of several as they quickly tied up the shot counter at 5-5. The Wild started strong and had their chance to take the early lead. Instead, they couldn't convert on a high-danger scoring opportunity and ceded a goal right afterwards, giving up all of their momentum right at the start.
If this all sounds familiar, it's because this exact same thing happened in Game 6. Sure, there was no major penalty and a power play in between, but the formula was the same: Minnesota missed their chance to set the tone, and then Dallas didn't.
It must have been pretty dejecting for the Wild when their own crowd booed them off the ice after the first period. Still, there was still hope – throughout the first, they had succeeded in keeping the game at low-event hockey. Furthermore, they seemed to have solved their series-long penalty problem and stayed completely out of the box. They got two power play opportunities that didn't amount to much, but it was still a one goal game, and anything could happen.
Well, "anything" in this case turned out to be a total second period collapse by the Wild. Dallas getting outshot 4-0 to start the first was bad – the Wild getting out shot 11-0 to start the second was atrocious. The team looked absolutely lifeless as the Stars just skated all over them, dominating the ice in every facet.
If there was any silver lining, it was Filip Gustavsson. He was the only Wild player to show up in the second, and continued to deny chance after chance from Dallas. I'll admit, I was very worried about how things were going – yes, Dallas was dominating possession, but we saw how well that worked out for Minnesota at the start. It would only take one bad giveaway or bad bounce to give the Wild a chance to score and tie things up. The Stars needed a second goal to serve as a cushion.
And then, after thirteen minutes, the Stars got it. Evgenii Dadonov, who has been fantastic all series, made an excellent backhanded pass from behind the net to Wyatt Johnston. The nineteen year old rookie had been snake-bit all series long, having recorded 19 shots on net without a goal. But shot number 20 was gift-wrapped to him, as he buried it for his first career playoff goal.
That goal ended up being the series-winner, but it wasn't the dagger. As the second period drew to a close, the Stars had outshot the Wild 17-5. With less than ten seconds left, Mats Zuccarello fired a shot at Oettinger that went wide. Max Domi recovered the puck, and as Jonas Brodin began to backcheck, he sprung Mason Marchment for the breakaway.
Once again, the Wild failed to score on a high scoring chance. Once again, the Stars got the puck themselves and converted themselves, with Marchment's goal coming with 0.5 seconds remaining:
That was the dagger. And the not-so-sad thing for Minnesota is that it might have been prevented. Not necessarily by Gustavsson, but by Matt Dumba. If you watch that sequence again, you'll see Dumba at the bottom of the screen slow to get back. Had he already begun to retreat after the missed shot by Zuccarello, he might have been there to prevent the breakaway, or at least make it more difficult for Marchment to get a clean shot off.
But he didn't. Maybe he thought there wasn't enough time left for a chance the other way. Or perhaps he was slow to get back due to injury – that shift was the last time Dumba was on the ice for the series, as he missed the entire third period. It was a sad, say way to go in what was probably his last game for Minnesota, although I imagine many Stars feel like his overall poor performance from the game was karmic.
Dumba wasn't the only one who had his night end early either. Marc-Andre Fleury took the ice for the third period, replacing Gustavsson. Given Gustavsson's second period heroics and overall solid performance, that seemed strange at first. But I think Dean Evason was just trying to do whatever he could think of to try and spark his team. Besides, goaltending is a mental game, and who could imagine how that last-second goal by Marchment would have affected Gustavsson going forward?
So Fleury got to close things out for the Wild, with a chance to redeem his disastrous Game 2. A future Hockey Hall of Famer, Fleury has no doubt inspired countless young goaltenders across the continent, the most notable, of course, being the other No. 29 across the rink.
What a storybook ending to the series for Jake Oettinger, huh? In his home state, with his family in attendance, and facing off against his childhood idol for the final period of play. The only way you could write it better was if he had secured his second straight shutout, which he definitely deserved. Instead, with just over seven minutes left, Frederick Gaudreau found himself all alone in front of the net, and was able to deke Oettinger for the goal:
But in many ways, this made things even worse if you were a Wild fan. Much like when they scored twice within 11 seconds back in Game 2, they now had hope, the belief that a Toronto-esque last minute comeback could be on the horizon, however unlikely. Evason eventually pulled Fluery for the extra attacker, and the Wild continued to pounce on Oettinger and the Stars relentlessly.
And then, with a minute left, Mason Marchment played hot potato with the puck on their way to an empty net goal.
Here's what I had said about the pair of Minnesota goals in Game 2 and the pair of Dallas goals that soon followed:
It's like the Stars had been playing with their food, giving the Wild a spark of hope just so it would feel that much worse when they ripped it away.
I'd say that fits quite well for this game as well, wouldn't you? It's one thing to watch your season end as a player rockets the puck up the ice and into the empty net, like Roope Hintz almost did after diving to clear the puck a couple minutes earlier. It's another to watch the opposition rip the puck away from you and proceed to casually pass the puck back and forth, padding their stats before finally giving you their permission to die.
And so, as Robert said, the game was a complete crush of Minnesota spirit, from start to finish. In many ways, the series as a whole might have been too – the Wild did lead after both Games 1 and 3, and might have taken a 3-1 lead in Game 4 had it not been for Jake Oettinger.
In fact, the prevailing attitude in Minnesota seems to be that they would have won this series had it not been for Oettinger. Dean Evason implied he thought his top skaters were better outside of special teams. Mats Zuccarello straight up said he thought the Wild were the better team throughout the series, that unlike their series against the St. Louis Blues last year, the better team didn't win.
Now, personally, I'm not sure how you can leave this series with that as the takeaway. Yes, Oettinger was the Stars' MVP as he backstopped them to three straight wins to close things out. But the Stars' skaters showed up as well, especially in the past two games. And the 5-on-5 issues? Dallas dominated the second period of this game and scored all three of their (non-empty net) goals at even strength, all while going 0-2 on the power play. That problem got solved.
Then again, maybe it's okay for the Wild and their fans to view this as the one that got away. That perhaps they would have "rightfully" won the series had it not been for questionable calls by the referees on Marcus Foligno and company. How they lost due to facing a hot goaltender in Oettinger, who comes from Minnesota and thus, when you think about it, "the state of hockey" still won at the end of the day.
Because all of that coping only makes this victory green series win sweeter.