Afterwords: Killer Instinct
The Stars didn't look like a team with their backs against the wall last night. Instead, they were determined to send Seattle home, and boy did they deliver.
Remember after Game 5, when I titled my Afterwords "Stress Level Midnight"? How I wrote about just how nerve-racking that game was, from start to finish?
Oh how young and naïve I was then.
Last night might as well have been the most stressful game of hockey I've ever watched. Like every game this series between the Dallas Stars and the Seattle Kraken, one team dominated play. And yet, unlike all the others, the score was extremely close throughout the entire game. For a round of hockey that many in the media decried as "boring," the final game of Round 2 was anything but.
So in a vacuum, this title would be stress-related in some regards. But I like to avoid repeats, so let me instead dip back into this comment I made after last game:
In Game 6 against the Minnesota Wild, the Stars... 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.
It was that "killer instinct" that the Stars lacked in Game 6, which had made me worried about the upcoming Stars game for the first time all postseason. And while I maintain that I wasn't worried for nothing, the Stars clearly proved me wrong in Game 7.
This didn't look like a team that was facing elimination. This wasn't a team with their backs against the wall, doing whatever it took to squeak out a win, even if they didn't deserve it. No, this was a team in complete control, from start to finish. One that hit the ice determined to send their opponent home, and would do whatever it took to make that a reality.
We saw that throughout the entire first period, in which the Stars generated a metric horse-ton of scoring opportunities:
I wrote about this in the recap, but perhaps the best way to sum up the period was the Stars' first (and only) power play of the night. The Dallas Stars spent the entire two minutes within the offensive zone, almost all of it being continuous play as opposed to a series of stoppages. The Stars generated 10 shot attempts and absolutely wore out the Kraken penalty kill.
The Stars also didn't manage a single shot on net. If there was any saving grace for the Kraken's skaters throughout not only the first, but the game at large, it was that their defense just refused to let pucks get to the net. They blocked several of the Stars' attempts, and they clogged up the shooting lanes enough to make several others go wide or hit the crossbar. Yes, they were getting out-chanced, but they did their best to keep the puck away from the net.
And those that did make it through? Well there was Seattle's best player of the night in Philipp Grubauer. Like Jake Oettinger, Grubauer didn't actually have that strong of a series coming into last night – most of the narrative surrounding his "bounce-back" performance from the regular season was riding the coattails of his Round One showing against the Colorado Avalanche. In fact, he had the exact same save percentage (.865 SV%) across the first six games of the series as Oettinger.
But last night? Grubauer looked like a goalie that was about to steal a game and, by extension, the entire series. Even if the Stars were able to get the puck through Seattle's defense and on net, there was Grubauer to make the save. It could have easily been a multi-goal game by Dallas in the first period were it not for the Kraken's stellar play in net.
Instead, Stars fans waited. And waited. And then waited some more. That 0-0 score just gnawed at you, like a buzzard circling its prey. All it would take would be one goal, one lucky bounce by Seattle, and everything that the Stars had done up to that point would feel for naught.
Intermission happened. The second period began. Dallas kept on hounding the Kraken. Grubauer kept on stopping pucks. Stars fans waited. And waited. And waited. And waited.
And then... relief:
The ESPN crew was petitioning for assists from Esa Lindell and Oettinger on the play, but let's not sugar-coat things here — Jamie Oleksiak had the puck, except then he didn't, as Roope Hintz effortlessly stole it off him. That gave way to a breakaway, and, well, if you give a Hintz a breakaway, he'll want a goal to go along with it.
When I say "relief," I really mean it – a one-goal lead is nothing in the NHL, playoffs or not, but it sure felt like a wide gap. After all, the Stars were dominating puck possession and shot generation throughout forty minutes, whereas it seemed like the Kraken had to relish every scoring chance they could get. And with the way Jake Oettinger was playing, bouncing back from a rough Game 6 performance, it sure felt like a shutout was imminent.
But still... all it would take was one goal, one lucky bounce by Seattle, and the game would be tied. As the third period was underway, the Kraken had a stretch of quality shot attempts, and suddenly that 1-0 lead felt as small as it really is. The Stars lacked the cushion they perhaps didn't need, but oh so desperately wanted.
And so Stars fans waited again. And waited. And waited. And then finally, relief once more:
Wyatt Johnston is now 20 years old (and two days), but in my heart, he's still an honorary teenager for the rest of the Stars' run. We always talk about how the playoffs are a different animal, and how it's hard for some players to adjust,but Johnston has never felt out of sorts this postseason. Sure, it took him until Game 6 against the Minnesota Wild to score his first goal (also a series-winner) but he had been "due" all series long up until that point.
He didn't experience such a drought against the Kraken – last night's goal marked his third of the series (fourth overall), and boy was it a beauty. It's telling that Grubauer's only goals against came off of breakaways, or at least plays where the Stars' scorer was all alone in front of the net. That backhanded goal should be on highlight reels all over the NHL, and the media would not be able to stop talking about Johnston if the Stars were a bigger market.
Although, ironically, they now are the biggest market left alive in the postseason. Man, is that weird to think about.
Anyway, it was then and there that the Stars' victory felt secure. Sure, the Kraken still had time to pull Grubauer and score. And yes, they did exactly that with 19 seconds to spare, spoiling what should have been a much-deserved shutout by Oettinger. But they didn't have enough time to get their second, and the Stars are now heading to the Western Conference Final.
It was, by all accounts, just about as good of a Game 7 as you could (reasonably) ask for from Dallas. An opening goal by a forward who should now be the Conn Smythe front-runner. A second series-winner by the youngest in NHL history to do so in Game 7. A near-perfect performance by an elite goaltender doing what he has been all year long: winning after a loss.
But at the end of the day, the Stars' most valuable asset wasn't Roope Hintz, or Wyatt Johnston, or Jake Oettinger. It was their head coach, Pete DeBoer.
After watching his second defensive pairing of Esa Lindell and Jani Hakanpää get decimated in Game 6, DeBoer was left with a difficult decision for Game 7. Would he bench Hakanpäa in favor of Collin Miller? Would he try and reduce the pair's minutes, or give them favorable zone starts, all in an effort to shield them from Seattle?
As of morning skate, it looked like he was going to keep the pair together. Saad Yousuf even asked about the pairing afterwards, to which DeBoer didn't give any indication that he was changing things up for Game 7, save for that it was, as always, a discussion amongst the coaching staff.
Yet when pre-game warmups took place, Hakanpää was nowhere to be found. While it's possible he was still dealing with a nagging injury – that's the official reason – the truth is he would have been healthy enough to play. Instead, he draws out, Collin Miller comes back in, and Esa Lindell has a bounce-back game for the ages:
Interestingly enough, Luke Glendening also drew back into the lineup in favor of Ty Dellandrea, who to that point had played in every Stars game this season, both regular and post. Now, was that move as much of an upgrade as Miller in for Hakanpää was? Probably not. But the message stands clear: DeBoer wasn't going to just stick with what he was comfortable with. Instead, he was willing to shake things up and ice what he thought was the Stars' best possible lineup for this one game against this one opponent.
And yet, that still wasn't the most impact DeBoer had on the result of last night's game. No, that distinction belongs to the system that he has brought to Dallas. Specifically, how Dallas has behaved all season long when it has the lead going into the third period.
We already spoke at length about how the Stars' 1-0 lead felt like it could have been enough. And if any of the Stars' past three head coaches were behind the bench, they would have agreed. Be it Ken Hitchcock, Jim Montgomery, or Rick Bowness, Dallas would have likely "turtled" throughout the third, relying on Jake Oettinger to carry them through to a 1-0 victory.
Thing is, "turtling" is bad for a reason – the worst way to preserve a lead is to let your offense dry up and, in turn, give your opponent extended offensive zone time. That's true for any matchup, and it is especially true when playing this Seattle Kraken team. Sure, in general, you can preserve a one-goal lead if you manage to shut down the opponent's top line or two. But what are you supposed to do when your opponent's entire lineup is a "top line?"
I'm not a betting man, but I'd wager the Stars would have likely coughed up the lead and lost had they bunkered up in the third. Instead, they continued to dominate possession, save for a stretch of chances from Seattle early on. At one point, not long before the second Stars goal if I recall correctly, ESPN pointed out that Seattle had only two(!!!) shots on net in the third period so far. Rather than let their own offense dry up, the Stars continued to suffocate the Kraken.
It was that type of effort and performance that kept them the lead long enough for Johnston to deliver the dagger. It was only once Grubauer was pulled for the extra attacker that Seattle was finally able to put pressure on Oettinger, which eventually resulted in a goal. But those chances had been delayed as long as possible, which made it too little, too late for the Kraken.
And so Pete DeBoer improves to 7-0 in Game 7s. He may deflect credit to his players, but perhaps we need to talk about DeBoer the same way we used to with Justin Williams, or any other "Mr. Game Sevens" out there. Because yes, the players are the ones who ultimately play the game out on the ice. But it is up to the coaches to set them up for success, to put them in the best possible position to seal the deal.
For the eighth time this postseason, DeBoer and his team delivered. Now let's see if they can make it twelve.