Afterwords: Setting the Tone Early

It took about two minutes for Dallas to take control of Game 5. They never let go, and the Wild have only themselves to blame.

Afterwords: Setting the Tone Early
Credit: Tim Heitman / Dallas Stars

As you might insinuate by the headline, I'm a big believer in that setting the tone early is important for NHL teams. Strong starts tend to beget strong results, and while every now and then you'll see last minute, come-from-behind victories (see: Maple Leafs, Toronto), in general a slow start can be fatal.

That's a problem Dallas Stars fans are all too familiar with over the past several years – the team starts the game looking like they just woke up, and they spend the rest of the game trying to play catchup. In contrast, the games where they come out the gate rolling tend to be their best throughout, minus any turtling late in the game from coaches past.

Those strong starts have been especially important this series against the Minnesota Wild –  throughout the first four games, the team to score first has gone on to win in each time. So you can imagine my anguish when, not even two minutes into the game, Sam Steel got a breakaway opportunity.

It's not just that it was a high-danger scoring chance, or that Steel had already beaten Oettinger once before on a breakaway this series. It was that it was a continuation of the Stars' turnover problems from the previous game and, to a lesser extent, the series as a whole. A potential sign that no, they still hadn't figured out how to transition properly, and that they once again might have to rely Jake Oettinger to bail them out.

But Oettinger didn't bail them out. In fact, he didn't do much of anything except establish his positioning – as Steel moved the puck back and forth to setup his shot, the puck bounced, and he ended up missing the net entirely. What could have been a crowd-silencing opening goal was now a flubbed opportunity. The Wild missed their chance to set the tone early.

Or, rather, they missed their chance to set it in favor of themselves. Because not much later, Marcus Foligno got a five minutes for kneeing Radek Faksa and a game misconduct. It then took only eight seconds for Tyler Seguin to score a power play goal – his fourth of the series – and given that it was a major penalty, the power play didn't stop.

That sequence, from Steel's missed shot to Foligno's ejection to Seguin's goal, set the tone for the rest of the game. Although the Stars' continuous powerplay was interrupted by a Miro Heiskanen interference call, the Wild took another penalty later in the first and the Stars scored again on the power play, this time courtesy of Jason Robertson. Mason Marchment then made it 3-0 – at even strength! – to start the second, and the Stars ended up winning 4-0 thanks to an empty net goal.

Now, before we get any further, I want to be clear: I don't think Foligno's hit was dirty. He didn't extend his leg, and I'm not sure you could argue there was a clear intention to injure Faksa. But that also doens't mean it wasn't illegal – as the rules state, you don't have to extend your leg for it to be considered kneeing. And once the referee's agreed it was a major – perhaps in part due to Faksa needing help off the ice – an automatic game misconduct had to be issued as well.

That meant Minnesota was down a skater for the entire game, similar to when Joel Eriksson Ek skated for only 19 seconds in Game 3. But in that situation, they were playing their first home game of the series, and the coaching staff knew going in that Eriksson Ek might be limited and/or need to stop playing – being a man down was something they could have planned for and was easier to overcome. This time around, however, the Wild were in hostile territory, and they lost a key player they had expected to make an impact throughout the game. That has to have a sizable impact on your gameplan.

And in many ways, Foligno sort of brought this upon themselves. Foligno was also penalized twice in Game 4, both of which also led to power play goals. Those two calls were at least questionable, but it's Foligno's heavy hitting style of play that puts him in these sort of situations to begin with, not to mention that, as Sean Shapiro and Gavin Spittle discussed in their post-Game 4 podcast, Foligno arguably put himself on bad terms with the refs earlier in the series.

The same could be said for the Wild as a whole. Dean Evason and Pete DeBoer have gone back and forth about penalties throughout this series, with DeBoer pointing out the Wild are a heavily penalized team while Evason has claimed Dallas simply dives a lot. And to his credit, the Stars have been penalized for embellishing thrice this series, two of which were in the third period last night.

But you know what gets called more than embellishment? Regular, textbook penalties, of which, as DeBoer pointed out, the Wild have commited plenty. And the Stars have continued to burn them on the ensuing power plays time and time again. They're scoring at a 40.9% rate this postseason per ESPN, behind only the Winnipeg Jets and the somehow even more deadly Edmonton Oilers.

It's not just the Stars' power play that's posing a problem either – their penalty kill has also been sound at 80%, good for 7th among playoff teams. I talked last time about the Stars' struggles at 5-on-5, but they have the clear edge in special teams. And yet the Wild insist on playing a physical game, which inevitably leads to more penalties – only half of last night's second period was spent playing 5-on-5. The other ten minutes were either power plays or 4-on-4 hockey.

As a hockey fan, I almost want to yell out and tell the Wild to "stop hitting yourself." As Mike Piellucci and my colleague David Castillo wrote last night, the Wild "you know what and found out." And yet, as a Stars fan, you can't help but be thrilled at this outcome, where the Wild continue to seemingly hand over free power play goals on a silver platter. Heck, a common joke on Twitter last night was that Foligno getting ejected was a bad thing for Dallas, since that meant he couldn't take more penalties later on in the game.

Then again, do the Wild have much of a choice? Their identity seems to have been forged on playing "playoff hockey," in which they eat up the neutral zone and try to knock Dallas around wherever and whenever they can. What happens if they tone things down to try and avoid more penalties? Does that just open the 5-on-5 game back up for Dallas' top scorers, allowing them to keep scoring even with less power play time? And even if that doesn't happen, won't Jake Oettinger just continue to shut the Wild down, time and time again?

I'm not sure anyone knows for sure what would happen, and being down 3-2 in the series, I'm not sure Evason wants to risk finding out. Their strategy was effective in Game 3 and, to an extent, Games 4 and even Game 1 for a stretch. With Game 6 at home, staying the course and hoping that Filip Gustavsson can outduel Oettinger might be the best option available for them.

Then again, maybe Tyler Seguin will just score another power play goal or ten to end their playoff run. Wouldn't surprise me at this point.