Afterwords: Too Close For Comfort
Jake Oettinger was the only reason the Stars won last night. That needs to change if the Stars want to put this series to rest.
I'll be honest: I wasn't very confident heading into last night's game.
The Dallas Stars were my pick to win it all heading into the postseason, as they checked every box I look for in an eventual Stanley Cup winner. After a Game 1 double overtime loss in which they overcame a bad start, they dominated Game 2. They looked like a team that could go the distance, who could overcome any adversity was thrown their way.
But then Game 3 came. I wasn't able to write an Afterwords for it, but the game was, to put it lightly, atrocious. The Wild completely shut down Dallas in the neutral zone, and several warning signs from Game 1 reared their ugly heads. It was "just one game," but it felt like a sign for what was to come.
The Stars, for their part, didn't do much of anything to alleviate those concerns last night. Ideally, you would hope to see Dallas return to Game 2 form, in which they dictated the flow of the game on their own terms. Instead, it felt like the Wild were in complete control, constantly churning away 2-on-1 or breakaway opportunities while Dallas, at best, could get a puck close enough to hit the post.
That Dallas wasn't down by multiple goals within the first period was nothing short of a miracle, a miracle that goes by the name of Jake Oettinger. The Minnesota native had uncharacteristically let in four goals in Game 3, and while you could hardly blame the loss on for his performance – his team hung him up to dry all game, both defensively and offensively – there was still something that looked... odd about his game.
Those worries were crushed last night, in which Oettinger stopped every shot, every odd-man rush that came his way for over two periods of play. As his team continued to fail him, Oettinger delivered a Conn Smythe worthy performance and single-handedly kept it a tie game.
Early on in the first period, the TNT crew pointed out that the winner of each game so far had been the team to score first. Even then, it felt like that would be the case for Game 4, and as Oettinger was forced to make save after save, it just felt more and more true as time went on. That Dallas didn't just want to score first – they needed to, else Oettinger's efforts would go to waste in what looked to be a 1-0 game.
And then, finally, the dam broke. When Tyler Seguin scored on the power play with less than five minutes to go, I nearly leapt to my feet. It was only one goal, but it felt like the game had been decided then and there. That despite being outplayed on the ice, the Stars were going to steal a win out of Minnesota on the back of Jake Oettinger.
Of course, the Stars didn't make it any easier on Oettinger or the fans watching from home. Evgenii Dadonov managed to extend the lead early in the third, but it took less than three minutes for Esa Lindell to gift-wrap a puck for his old defensive partner in John Klingberg, who spoiled what should have been a Jake Oettinger shutout. Seguin scored again late in the game thanks to a questionable power play, but the Wild immediately clapped back with a goal of their own, again, thanks to a questionable power play.
It wasn't a 1-0 final score like I expected, but it was still a one-goal game, where the margins for error were razor thin. Had it not been for Oettinger, the Stars would have been laughed out of the Xcel Energy Center for the second game in a row, returning to Dallas in a do-or-die situation. And to be honest, that's probably the situation they deserve to be in right now.
Instead, it's a tied series. But Dallas has had to play catchup twice now, having never held the series lead. Game 5 looms heavily over this team, as a loss means a Wild-take-all matchup back in Minnesota for Game 6. The stakes are high, and the Stars simply cannot rely on Oettinger to keep bailing them out.
As before, a few not-so-quick points to close things out:
• Back after Game 1, I felt like Oettinger was the better goaltender, having to make several highlight-reel saves while Filip Gustavsson, while fantastic, benefitted from some lucky bounces and near misses. I thought as the series wore on, Dallas would emerge with the clear edge in goal.
Now? While the Wild have continued to suffocate the Stars' zone entires and 5-on-5 scoring opportunities, there's no doubt that Gustavvson is playing at the same level as Oettinger. It feels eerily similar to last year's series against the Calgary Flames – whichever team loses, it will be despite a Vezina-calibre performance by their goaltender, who kept them in the thick of things to the very end.
Unless, of course, the Wild inexplicably play Marc-Andre Fleury again. Bet Dave Eavson wishes he could take that one back, huh?
• Speaking of Oettinger, he was my pick for the Conn Smythe trophy winner, since I projected Dallas to win the Cup. But the other two I was debating over were his fellow 2017 classmates, Miro Heiskanen and Jason Robertson.
Heiskanen, like always, has been nothing short of fantastic. Fans are always debating who the best player on the Stars is, and I always remain steadfast in my belief that it's Heiskanen. Even when he doesn't show up on the scoresheet like last night, he makes his impact known on the ice, though it might be subtle.
Robertson, on the other hand, has been disappointing so far. People will point towards the loss of Joe Pavelski, but to me, the most limiting factor in his game so far has been the Wild's stingy defense in the neutral zone. Robertson isn't a strong skater, which means he can't single-handedly dodge past defensive entrapment like Heiskanen or Roope Hintz can. He needs Dallas to establish themselves in the offensive zone, and the Stars have been terrible at doing so this series.
But Robertson has a good chance of finishing top 5 in the Harty Trophy voting, and when your name is alongside the likes of Connor McDavid and David Pastrnak, excuses are hard to let slide. If Dallas truly wants to break away from the Wild this series and (ideally) send them home in Game 6 , they need Robertson to find the next level and take these upcoming games into his own hands.
• The Stars have a major 5-on-5 problem this series. It's not just the zone exits and entries, but their inability to hold onto the puck and cycle through their options when they finally get to the offensive zone. Their saving grace thus far has been questionable penalty calling on both sides of the ice, and both of the Stars' special teams units have vastly outperformed the Wild's.
I'm not smart enough when it comes to hockey to break down plays and systems and tell you what Dallas needs to do to overcome this shortcoming, but Pete DeBoer is. They seemed to have found an answer in Game 2, but does that still happen if Gustavsson is in net, keeping the game close instead of forcing Minnesota to be more aggressive offensively?
We can talk all day about how players like Robertson need to rise to the occasion, but the same goes for the coaching staff. Because even if the Stars survive the Wild on the back of Oettinger, they've given teams a blueprint on how to beat them. DeBoer needs to find a solution, quickly, else the Stars will have troubles throughout their playoff run, however long that might be.