Comments / New

Afterwords: Salvation, Thy Name is Johnston

Apr 27, 2024; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Dallas Stars center Wyatt Johnston (53) celebrates his overtime goal against the Vegas Golden Knights in game three of the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

For awhile there, it really looked like the hockey gods had cursed the Dallas Stars.

First, they gave them a matchup of the Vegas Golden Knights, defending Stanley Cup champions and, despite their Wild Card status, a bonafide Cup Contender, in the first round. Then they lost both of their first games on home ice, despite arguably being the better team in both. Then, in Vegas, Dallas absolutely dominated, all game long. And yet it still looked like Dallas might lose there in the end.

Dallas should have had at least six goals, and that’s not hyperbole — if anything, it’s underselling their performance. And yet they had very little to show for it thanks to Logan Thompson, who, after having a subpar first two games in which he was full of holes that Dallas couldn’t capitalize on, decided that he was a better goalie than Martin Brodeur and put on a playoff performance to prove it.

So Dallas didn’t light up the scoreboard and send the Vegas crowd home halfway through the game, despite recording 30 shots on goal over the first 30 minutes. Instead, they had only a 2-0 lead, which then immediately became a 2-1 lead before soon becoming a 2-2 tie. A defensive breakdown off of a 4-on-4 faceoff and a 2-on-1 shorthanded breakaway — that’s all it took to bring us from a game that looked like Dallas had no chance of losing to one that almost felt doomed to an undeserved loss.

All of the signs were there, as Vegas began to dictate pace more in the third period, as they have all series. The last couple minutes of play were almost exclusively in the Stars’ defensive zone, as they almost looked like they were doing their best to let Vegas score in the dying seconds and steal the win. In overtime, the Stars looked gassed, showing signs of being worn down by a physical game and series. Sure, Vegas was tired as well, but Dallas had a thinner lineup, at forward due to injuries from Game 2 and at defense by choice. The Golden Knights, on the other hand, still had their incredible star power depth due to reasons we won’t mention in this edition of Afterwords — it was hard not to feel doubtful.

But to paraphrase the famous movie line, Vegas might have had an army, but Dallas had Wyatt Johnston. The twenty-year old sophomore, who had been firing on all cylinders the whole night, stepped up to save the day:

I mean just look at that goal: Johnston skated into the offensive zone with all five Golden Knights in near vicinity, two of them actively harassing him. But he was able to maneuver his way past them and drive the net, giving him a great scoring opportunity. Now, given how the entire night had gone, you could hardly blame Johnston if he tried to just quickly get the shot off and beat Logan Thompson, or perhaps get a rebound for Roope Hintz.

Instead, he waited… and waited… and you get the picture. It was a masterclass demonstration on patience, and on the replay, it almost looks like it’s for the worse as Thompson is able to seal up the post. But in doing so, he leaves the space above his shoulders and between the crossbar wide open, and, after a whole night where Dallas failed to elevate on their breakaways and high danger scoring chances, Johnston was finally able to capitalize.

It capped off a tremendous night for Johnston — if the Stars should have had at least six goals, you could easily argue Johnston should have scored at least four of them. I mean, just look at the stats:

Of course, it was more than just an overtime playoff winner. That goal saved Dallas from going down 3-0 in the series, in which, as they learned last year, defeat would essentially be inevitable. Now? I like the Stars chances to win three games before the Golden Knights win two. And after last night’s performance, you have to think the Stars are confident they can do so as well.

• As already mentioned, Logan Thompson had a phenomenal game. Meanwhile at the end of other end of the rink, had Dallas ended up losing the game, there would have been a lot of questions being raised of Jake Oettinger, whether he deserved them or not.

You can’t really blame Oettinger for either goal against — as already mentioned, the first was a total defensive breakdown at 4-on-4 in which the Stars basically let Brayden McNabb take his shot of choice uncontested. The second was a 2-on-1 shorthanded breakaway in which Jack Eichel was allowed to do Jack Eichel things. But I’ve written all year about Oettinger, if he’s to be an elite goaltender, then “can’t blame him” isn’t necessarily good enough; he has to make the saves he has no business making, as he did several times in Game 2.

Combine that with how both goals against got past him in the same spot (and I’d bet my lunch money Eichel made that specific shot on purpose after seeing the first one) and how a Dallas loss would have meant conceding one more goal, and Oettinger would have come under heavy fire for not being able to secure the Stars’ win. Again, whether he deserved it or not.

But that didn’t happen, because Oettinger was solid the entire night, including the third period and overtime. Instead of unhappy fans raising questions about the team’s goaltending situation, they are cheering and celebrating finally taking a game from Vegas, for the first time all year. And so Oettinger’s performance will likely be remembered for exactly what it was: a good one.

• Of course, the cynics will still talk about how Oettinger was “outdueled” by Thompson. But if you would indulge me for a second, can we really say that is a fair comparison?

Yes, Thompson played out of his mind, but that was largely because he was forced to. Vegas, meanwhile, never really challenged Oettinger all that much. Sure, they ended up with 34 shots on net, but Dallas nearly managed that halfway through, and most of them weren’t high danger — as my former colleague Robert Tiffin pointed out, some sites had Dallas outchancing Vegas 23-4 for the entire game.

After Game 2, Tyler Seguin said he didn’t like Stars fans booing Mark Stone whenever he touched the puck, as sometimes that motivates players towards one of their best performances. Oettinger is of a similar mindset in that he loves being the road villain and taking a high quantity (and quality) of shots to feel properly in the groove. Had Vegas actually tested Oettinger in the same degree that Dallas did Thompson, can we really be sure as to whether or not Oettinger would have been “outdueled?” Maybe we’ll see in Game 4.

• It’s time we have the Pete DeBoer conversation. I’m not some tactical expert who is able to adequately breakdown his coaching shortcomings in Games 1 and 2, but even the most casual fan could pinpoint the huge flaw with the Stars’ strategy for Game 3, one that actively hurt them even though they played extremely well.

I’m talking, of course, about the decision to play Nils Lundkvist for a little over two minutes before benching him the entire game. I’m not sure what Lunkdvist did, if anything, during that short time on ice, but DeBoer nevertheless decided that, down 2-0 on the road, he liked the Stars’ odds against Vegas better if they played just five defensemen the entire game.

To be frank, that is absolutely ridiculous — the Golden Knights are too good and too deep to justify putting yourself down a player on purpose, let alone a defenseman. It came back to bite them hard in overtime, in which you could tell the defense was exhausted and sluggish. Had Dallas lost the game, you can bet DeBoer would have come under heavy scrutiny for the decision, and honestly, he should anyways.

Look, if you don’t trust Lundkvist, that’s fine. If you don’t want to play him, that’s fine. But then don’t play him — put literally anyone else in the lineup is just gross negligence. To quote Sean Shapiro:

• Finally, I want to give another stick tap to Jason Robertson, who had another great game with two primary assists. TNT highlighted his skating and subsequent shot that let to Johnston’s first goal, and it was his backwards pass that set Johnston up again for the rush in overtime. If Roope Hintz is able to get going again, the Stars’ new top line is going to be major trouble, for Vegas and potentially whoever they play next.