Afterwords: When Your Best Are at Their Best
Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger were world-enders last night, and the Stars are still alive because of it.
When William Karlsson scored just four minutes in, I knew it was over.
Sure, it was just a one goal deficit, although the Stars entered the night 0-4 this postseason when they don't score first. But it was the context of the goal that was most important – in a game coming off of a devastating loss, in a series/postseason/year/decade where the Dallas Stars typically struggled early, that goal hurt. Jake Oettinger's apparent reaction to the goal says it best.
Speaking of Oettinger, it wasn't a bad goal to let in by any means – I'm not sure even Sergei Bobrovsky could have gotten over quick enough to make the save. But after getting yanked just seven minutes into Game 3 and having struggled since Round 1... you kind of had to think it would get into his head, no? Goaltending is a mental game, and while Oettinger is traditionally very sound in that department, not so much as of late.
So I knew what was coming next – the Vegas Golden Knights would continue to dominate the offensive zone and clog up the neutral zone, as they have all playoffs. They would probably get another goal in the first, and ride that two-goal lead the rest of the way. The Stars would end their season on a whimper, getting swept while their captain watched from the locker room.
How wrong I was.
Perhaps I should have had more faith in Oettinger and his big-game ability, as opposed to focusing too much on his Game 3 performance. Because Oettinger was pretty much perfect the entire game. The only other goal he let in was another cross-ice past to an open skater, where the pass went through the legs of Ryan Suter (while he was looking away from the puck carrier). It's reasonable to think that pass shouldn't be going through, especially when your defender is there to (in theory) stop it.
The rest of the Golden Knights' shots? Oettinger was a brick wall. And we're not talking "low scoring chances from the sides" shots either – we're talking about stopping Jack Eichel on a breakaway chance. And another breakaway. And, if I'm not mistaken, another Eichel breakaway as well. Not to mention a few other odd-man rushes that Vegas had.
It was those kinds of high-danger saves that he wasn't making against the Seattle Kraken, or the Golden Knights. You could just tell Oettinger was feeling it, perhaps no more evident than when Vegas' shot volume ramped up to dangerous levels in the third period. Time and time again, the Golden Knights tried to sling one past Oettinger. And time and time again, Oettinger stopped the puck.
It was exactly the kind of bounce back performance Dallas needed from its netminder, especially as Adin Hill was putting on an equally impressive performance on the other side of the ice. Oettinger looked like vintage Jake Oettinger, the goalie we saw all season long and in his first two career playoff series. He was, by far, the second best player for the Stars last night.
The first was Jason Robertson.
Talk about your best players delivering when you need it most. Robertson, who, like Oettinger, has been oft the subject of criticism this posteason, was, in the words of Micah McCurdy, "a one-man wrecking crew." He had ten shots on goal through the first forty minutes alone, and you could feel Bruce Cassidy quiver every time he got the puck on his stick.
I mean, just look at Robertson's first goal of the night:
That is by far one of the most impressive goals I've ever witnessed. The sheer hand-eye coordination it requires, in a game where you usually deal with a puck flat on the ice, to locate the puck mid-air, knock it away from the goalie's glove, and then knock it again mid-air and into the net... I was honestly speechless when I saw it. I probably rewatched that replay a dozen times before forcing myself to move on.
Now let's take a look at the second goal:
Once again, Robertson is putting in the hard work, doing his best to ruin Adin Hill's evening. That's a high-danger scoring chance off the post that won't count on the scoresheet, and on most nights – like in Game 3 – it would be remembered as "the goal that could have been." But Dallas is able to keep possession, Robertson sets up near the net front, and – much like some of Vegas' goals in Game 1 – was able to pounce on a puck that rebounded off the end boards.
If there was any weakness to Robertson's game, it was his defensive impact, which the numbers show was in stark contrast to his offensive output. Yet that didn't mean he was completely devoid of defense. Take for instance this play:
Robertson manages to keep the puck from sliding out of the offensive zone, but unfortunately coughs up the puck right to Chandler Stephenson afterwards. The moment he does, however, he immediately begins to skate back, full effort, and force Stephenson to the outside boards. Then, with his defensemen still trailing behind, he is able to get his stick in and pokecheck the puck away, getting it over to Ryan Suter, who is able to get the puck out of the defensive zone.
You don't expect your top goal-scorers to make strong defensive plays (although his solid defensive play usually flies under the radar), especially when they committing almost their entire effort to generating high-danger scoring opportunities. Yet here Robertson was, covering up for a mistake he made in expert fashion.
The top line (and power play unit) as a whole was buzzing all night. Roope Hintz had a strong game, as well as Joe Pavelski, who scored the game-winner. But it was Robertson who was driving the bus. He now sits at 6 goals and 11 assists for the postseason, good for second on the team in points with 17 in 17 games behind Hintz's (coincidentally) 24.
Does that stat line erase his even-strength struggles early on in the postseason? Of course not. But Robertson seems to have shaken those concerns in Round 3, even as Dallas is on the brink of elimination. It took him some time, but last night was a glimpse of what "playoff Jason Robertson" will perhaps look like going forward.
And let me tell you, Dallas will certainly need it going forward. As positive as the vibes are right now, the truth is Dallas is still down 3-1. Oettinger has to continue to look sharp throughout all sixty minutes and then some. Miro Heiskanen has play at an elite level to make up for a weaker defense. Robertson and the top line have to keep dictating play, and hockey gods know the depth scoring has to help them out and start producing.
Quite simply, Dallas can't afford to have another off games this series. Maybe if they had taken care of business in Game 2, but what's done is done. Game 5 looms in Vegas, where Bruce Cassidy has been taking full advantage of line matchups and the home crowd has been booming. Dallas is still down Jamie Benn and Evgenii Dadonov. The odds are still stacked against them.
Then again, the Stars did well in their first two road games, even if they ultimately lost. If they can build off their Game 4 victory and put in another Game 2 performance, this time without the mistakes?
Well... let's cross that bridge if we get there. For now, the mantra is "one game at a time."