Afterwords: Mirror Image

Last night's game caused all sorts of deja-vu, but the fates of two players made this one stand out.

Afterwords: Mirror Image
Credit: Tim Heitman / Dallas Stars

Sometimes, I hate being right.

Last night, during the first intermission, I made the following observation on Twitter:

Now, it's not as if I explicitly said that the Seattle Kraken were going to dominate the Dallas Stars in the middle frame, but the fear of the pattern being repeated was there. Sure enough, the Kraken ended up scoring five goals to the Stars' one, giving us a third period in which both teams probably wished there was a mercy rule in place.

It was a mirror image of Game 2 in many regards, only with a lot more goals actually being scored by the dominating team. But that wasn't that Stars playoff game that drew comparisons. Instead, it was Game 3 of the first round against the Minnesota Wild, in which, after losing Game 1 in overtime and then blowing out there opponent in Game 2, the Stars got laughed out of the building on their first road game. Talk about déjà vu.

Funnily enough, the game also closely resembles yesterday's game between the New Jersey Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes, in which the Devils, at home, beat the Hurricanes 8-4 after getting blown out in Games 2 and 1. And may I also remind you that the Edmonton Oilers, like Dallas, lost Game 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights despite one player scoring all four of their goals.

Clearly, the NHL script-writers are too focused on the Atlantic and have resorted to re-runs everywhere else.

But I digress – we're here to talk about last night's game, not the incredible patterns that have repeated throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Back after Game 1, I wrote about how it would have been disingenuous to isolate the Kraken's performance and win down to their three quick goals. Just like then, there's a lot of things Seattle did well in this game to clearly outplay Dallas. If you haven't already, you should read what my colleague David Castillo wrote about the game, in which he discusses the numerous concerns for Dallas after Game 3

But, at the same time, it would be perhaps disingenuous of me to not frame the Stars' complete systematic failure last night as a byproduct of two very specific players and their (lack of) performance. Players where, had things gone differently, had the ability to completely flip the script.

Let's start with the obvious one in Jake Oettinger, who had, statistically, the worst performance of his NHL career last night. If you ignore the statistics and focus more on the eye test and circumstances... yeah, it might have still been the worst performance of his NHL career.

In Game 3 against the Wild, Oettinger was left out to dry by his teammates against a hungry Wild team. In Game 1 against Seattle, Oettinger was subjected to a flurry of high-danger shots that would be hard for any goalie to stop. While you would hope your all-world goalie to be a brick wall in both of those games, it was clear Oettinger wasn't the reason they lost.

In contrast, last night also had the Stars playing terribly in front of Oettinger, but it's not as if the Kraken were throwing unbeatable daggers at him. Out of the five goals Oettinger let in, you could honestly argue he should have stopped four of them. As early as the third goal, it became clear that it wasn't Oettinger's night, and you had to wonder if DeBoer was going to pull him.

He didn't, much like he didn't back in Game 1. But whereas I praised the decision then, I question it now. Again, these weren't tough shots that Oettinger had no business stopping – he was starting to let in soft goals. Even if it was just for the rest of the period, getting Oettinger off the ice might have been good for him. But all season long, the Stars have made it clear that they ride or die with Oettinger. And this time they died.

If there's a silver lining to any of this, it's that Oettinger is typically a very mentally-sound goalie, and is able to rebound from bad performances quite well. As Josh Bogorad pointed out on Twitter, after the Stars went down 2-1 to Minnesota, Oettinger posted a .965 SV% to close out the series. And need I remind you that the last time Oettinger allowed five goals to Seattle, he went 7-1 and posted a .942 SV% to close out the season.

So Jake will be fine – it's Miro you should be worried about.

If there was anything that might have shaken the usually iron-clad Oettinger, it very well might have been that first goal, after watching Miro Heiskanen get hit in the face with a puck and go down, laying there on the ice, bleeding, in front of his crease.

Maybe it shook the rest of the team too, but whereas it's a possible excuse (albeit a flimsy one) for Oettinger, it's not so much for the rest of the team. No, the reason they played so poorly after Heiskanen left the ice is rather simple: this team is nothing without Heiskanen.

There's a reason Sean Shapiro highlighted the Finnish defenseman as the difference maker for this series. There's a reason that I've continuously stated that Heiskanen is the Stars' best player, even as others claim it's Jason Robertson because of all of his (regular season) points, or no wait actually Oettinger because of his (usually) stellar performances, or hold on it's really Roope Hintz because of his elite two-way play.

Take any of those players away for an extended (yet limited) period of time and the Stars could tread water. They can't do that with Miro Heiskanen, who is, quite frankly, irreplaceable. Heading into last night, leading the entire NHL in average time on ice across the postseason with over 29 minutes per game.

There are two reasons for that high ice time, the first of which is that he is, to put it lightly, an incredible hockey player. He may not have a Norris Trophy under his belt (or even a finish as a finalist) as some other young defensemen such as Cale Makar and Adam Fox, but he is absolutely in the same tier of play. As Shapiro implied last night, had Colorado or New York been in the same situation, we would have never heard the end of it – every Seattle goal would have been followed up with "well, if only Makar/Fox was still here."

The second reason, and the main reason he's irreplaceable for this Stars team, is that the Stars' defense is already thin after Heiskanen. Dallas doesn't have another top pairing defenseman, and the rest of their lineup is Top 4 at best. Yes, Ryan Suter has been great this postseason, but how much of that is a byproduct of his partner? Thomas Harley has been fantastic, but he has yet to earn more than minimal third pairing minutes from Pete DeBoer – you can't expect him to just step up like that. And then you have Collin Miller, who was healthy scratched multiple games last series, and Esa Lindell plus Jani Hakanpää, who have been lit up by Seattle this series.

Further highlighting this discrepancy is the fact that, unlike, say, Norris Trophy favorite Erik Karlsson, Heiskanen is not a one-trick pony. He literally does it all – offense, defense, transition, speed, you name it. And he's the best player on the Stars in each of those categories, and it's not even close. Losing Heiskanen is equivalent to Jake Oettinger getting hurt, only instead of having Scott Wedgewood to back him up, the team was forced to put pads onto Pete DeBoer and have him tend the crease.

And if you think I'm exaggerating or being overly dramatic, then I'm not sure you really watched last night's game. The Stars were a completely different team once Heiskanen was off the ice, and the Kraken took advantage of it. It's no coincidence that this was a 0-0 hockey game before Heiskanen got hit with the puck, and that it quickly became a 4-0 and eventually 6-2 contest afterwards.

The good news is, like with Oettinger, there is a silver lining: Heiskanen might be okay. The broadcast announced he was getting stitched up and would return for the third, only for the Stars to keep him in the locker room after all. DeBoer said after the game that the score played a factor in that decision, which gives Stars fans hope.

But at the same time, he didn't claim that was the only reason, nor did he guarantee that Heiskanen would be in the lineup for Game 4. If he's not, we're probably not looking at a repeat performance on Round 1 for Dallas. And if he's out for longer, you can book the handshakes for Thursday.