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Afterwords: This Team Feels Different

Credit: Tim Heitman / Dallas Stars

One of the things I like to do when watching Dallas Stars games live is to check Twitter throughout the game. My follows are almost exclusively hockey fans or media, so even if I don’t follow every Stars fan out there, my feed tends to get flooded with thoughts and opinions about the game.

When I watch a game recorded, like I did with Game 2 last night, I still like to check Twitter, only afterwards. I can’t see people’s thoughts in the moment, but thankfully the almighty algorithm ends up giving me tweets from throughout the game, giving me a good idea of how fans were thinking at various time points.

And last night, there was one particular sentiment I saw from multiple follows that resonated with me, because I thought the same thing while watching: this team feels different than those in years past.

Halfway into the game, things couldn’t look better for the Stars. They were up 4-1 on the Minnesota Wild, dominating the special teams while pulling away with the possession time in the second. Marc-Andre Fleury was probably public enemy #1 for Wild fans behind Dean Evason (more on that later), while Jake Oettinger was being the brickwall that he always is come playoff time.

Then Jani Hakanpää takes a carless penalty, putting the Wild on the power play. Marcus Johansson scores, I curse quietly (it was after midnight, and my wife had already gone to bed), and then I fast forward to puck drop, not wanting to see the replay. I then change my mind and rewind just a tad and… wait a second, that’s not the same goal.

11 seconds. That’s how long it took for the Stars’ 3-goal lead to erode down to just a 1-goal lead. How long it took for Oettinger’s save percentage to go from nearly perfect to below .800. How long it took for Minnesota to receive a breath of fresh life, putting a game that looked out of hand right within reach.

We’ve all seen this before from past Stars teams – the team builds up a lead, only to collapse and lose a game they had no business losing. Usually it would be in the third period as part of “turtle” hockey, but they’ve had their fair share of second period melt downs too. What was a fun game to watch suddenly became dreadful, as I just knew this would end poorly.

Less than five minutes of game time later, the Stars had reclaimed their two-goal lead.

I mean that’s just something else, isn’t it? To not only answer back quickly, but to do so with your own pair of quick, back-to-back goals? It’s like the Stars had been playing with their food, giving the Wild a spark of hope just so it would feel that much worse when they ripped it away.

Would last year’s team have done that? The 2016-17 squad? Heck, even the bubble-run team of 2020? I’m not sure they would have. Perhaps they still win, but it would have been a close one, with the Stars’ head coach talking about how they need to tighten up their game and improve their defense as to not squander the lead again.

Instead, Pete DeBoer was all smiles during his post-game press conference (well, at least on the inside), talking bout how it was a good response game. Dean Evason, on the other hand, was answering questions like this:

Ahh yes, the infamous goaltending decision. You can watch the whole press conference here, but in short, Evason stood up for Fleury. He spoke about how his team was lackluster on special teams and gave up several breakaways to the Stars, more or less leaving their goaltender out to dry. He didn’t say they made the wrong decision in starting Fleury, but he also didn’t try and claim it was the right one, either.

Would Filip Gustavsson have allowed only two goals again? Maybe. Would he have done better than Fleury and allowed less than seven? Given his track record this season, almost certainly. Even if he allowed those first four goals, he could have brickwalled Dallas the rest of the way, keeping momentum with his team and possibly leading the Wild to a comeback victory and 2-0 series lead.

But we’ll never know the answer, and it’s honestly a shame. Evason said the team did what they always did, namely rotated their goalies, but it’s the playoffs – how do you sit Gustavsson after a performance like that in Game 1?

Perhaps it was a rest issue – that game did go to double overtime, after all. But Dallas still started Jake Oettinger again, and he played 62 games this season! Granted, Oettinger doesn’t wear himself as thin as most goalies, as Sean Shapiro discussed in a podcast a few weeks back, but surely Gustavsson was capable of joining him on the ice.

Whatever the reason, there’s little to no chance Evason makes it again. Odds are, we won’t see Fluery back on the ice unless it’s due to injury or Gustavsson gets pulled for a bad night. But if the Wild can’t get it done and end up falling to the Stars this series, everyone is going to look back on Game 2 and wonder what could have been.

Some final (not-so) quick points to wrap things up:

• Once again, we were subjected to a special teams matchup, this time with 11 powerplays (compared to seven) in ~30 less minutes. The referees also refused to let the game spiral out of control in the final minutes, throwing out seven 10-minute misconducts within the last five and a half minutes. Three of those were for Dallas players, although to borrow a line from my little cousins, “the Wild started it.”

That’s not to say the referees were perfect by any means – there were still missed calls on both sides of the ice throughout the game – but with emotions still high after the Dumba hit from Monday, it was nice not to see the game turn into an all-out barn brawl.

• Roope Hintz deserves every heap of praise for his hat-trick performance, each goal a work of beauty. His four-point night was matched only by Miro Heiskanen, who notched four assists as he masterfully quarterbacked the Stars’ powerplay, in addition to his always stellar defensive work.

But we also need to recognize Evgenii Dadonov, who scored two goals of his own. The first, the game winner, was masterful cleanup work on the rebound after Fluery robbed Wyatt Johnston. But the second, a perfect tip off a shot from Heiskanen, is what truly won the game, having been the Stars’ first after Minnesota’s pair of goals in the second.

Honestly, if you told me going into the third that a Star would get a hat trick and asked me to pick which one, I think I might have picked Dadonov. I was a big Denis Gurianov fan (still am), but that trade has been fantastic for the Stars. I’m willing to bet he re-signs this offseason.

• Thomas Harley finally got some power play time, although it required a multi-goal lead late in the game to do it. He didn’t really get a chance to work his magic, considering the second unit kept coughing up the puck and allowing the Wild to clear, but it was still nice to see.

• This is the first time in quite awhile that Dallas has been the higher seed in a playoff series, which is maybe why it took me till now to remember the major flaw of the 2-2-1-1-1 system the NHL employs: the series tied at 1-1, the Wild now have home-ice advantage in what is essentially a “best of five” series. In fact, the same can be said for every lower seed team this round save the New York Islanders, as they are the only team that failed to secure a road win.

It’s weird – the NHL likes to play up seeding and home-ice as a big thing, but all the visiting team needs to do is win one game to flip the script. Fortunately, unlike most problems the NHL faces, this one actually has an easy solution: switch to a 1-2-2-1-1 system. It’s the same number of home games for the higher seed, no matter how long the series goes, and teams still only travel a maximum of four times.

In return, you eliminate the “flipping” problem detailed above, because the higher seed would have three home games remaining if the series gets split 1-1. You could argue that the away team has the advantage the first three games, but the series can’t end until Game 4. And if the higher seed ends up trailing after three, they get the benefit of back-to-back home games to save the series.

Unfortunately, because it’s such an easy and sensible solution, the NHL will never do it. Sorry, folks – best Gary Bettman can do is change playoff seedings again to a system you hate even more.