WCQF Game 2 Afterwords: Kari Lehtonen and the Law of Gravity
The Stars scored a really pretty goal and a really ugly goal, and the Wild managed a power play goal. It was a playoff game.
In case you had forgotten, winning in the playoff isn't easy.
True, Dallas had the puck for a huge chunk of this game. And yes, they again got a few early power play chances after outplaying Minnesota for significant stretches of the game. And if you get right down to it, this series has still had a feeling of cautious optimism about it. That's what a Game 1 thumping can do for you, I suppose.
But make no mistake: Kari Lehtonen won this game for Dallas, and that is a sentence you would not have expected to read in the 2016 playoffs at this time last year. The circumstances are wholly different than you would have envisioned twelve months ago, too. Here you have a team not only back in the playoffs again, but one that has held its opponent to a single goal--a power play goal--through 120 minutes. That's impressive, unsustainable, and marvelous all at once.
If anyone thought getting Tyler Seguin back in the lineup would make things unfair for Minnesota, that's not how it worked out. Seguin did have some nice moments, but it was pretty clear that he was not quite the unbridled weapon of hockey offense that he can be. I'll still take him on that line every day of the week, of course; and having Patrick Sharp to supplement the Spezza line is a fantastic luxury as well, so no complaints there. Still, you can see why Ruff wasn't chiding at his bit to get Seguin in for Game 1 at less than full power.
As for complaints, Stephen Johns had a couple of rookie moments in this one, and his early turnover on a failed breakout led to Kari Lehtonen's best save up to that point in the series on Nino Niederreiter. It could have given the Wild some early momentum. It did not do that, because it did not go in.
Johns also had a great hit later on, too. I suspect your view of how Johns played tonight will be closely tied to what pairing you think he should be playing on. Ruff isn't loading him up with tons of minutes or anything yet, so maybe that's the only answer that matters.
On the other side of things, John Klingberg absolutely stole the show on a 3-on-1 that Minnesota managed to utterly bungle. His positioning was sure, and it took away enough of the lethal passing areas to get the job done.
Kari was also big on the PK in 1st period, which was huge. If the Wild score their power play goal early, before Dallas can pull away, you have a very different game. True, you're still playing the Wild (well, if you're on the Dallas Stars, you are), but if tonight's game showed anything, it was just how slim a margin there is between victory and overtime in the postseason. Teams are desperate, and that means a whole different sort of pressure.
You have to talk about that goal, though. Hemsky created another turnover, although this one was less pretty and more fortunately positional. Roussel tried to kick the puck from skate to stick, but the velocity saw the disc ricochet in the most unfathomable way.
As far as a kicking motion, Roussel's skate was tilted the opposite way (blade angled down and forward) from what is usually classified as the verboten soccer style. From there, the officials pretty clearly decided that the puck crossed the goal line under the bar (pinched between it and Dubnyk) before the bottom posts were fully disconnected from their moorings.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Minnesota fans probably aren't going to be thrilled with that call, but once the review started to drag on, you had the feeling they were seriously looking at counting it. Based on the way the rules are written, the kicking motion is probably the most contentious point. I am not going to change your mind on this in a paragraph, I don't think.
Side note: don't you love how the referee immediately waved off the goal? I took that to be something of a, "Look, I don't know what on earth just happened, but there's no way I'm calling it a goal based on what I just saw."
If that goal doesn't get counted, there's a good chance we're sitting here talking about a stifled Stars power play. We talked about this earlier in the season, but you really have to cash in on the power play opportunities you earn with solid play when you're not scoring at even strength. The Stars let the Wild hang around tonight longer than they ought to have done, but thanks to Lehtonen, it didn't end up costing them.
The other side of that coin is the penalty kill, which was still fantastic despite the one surrendered goal. Minnesota only registered a couple of shots across their five advantages, as Dallas masterfully controlled things for most of the Wild's power play time. Great teams can pick up sagging parts of their game with other facets, and that's what the penalty kill has done in two games so far.
Jason Demers was unhappy with himself after the puck went in past his screen of Lehtonen. I wonder if that's part rust and part indecision, or if he simply thought he had that side of the net blocked. Either way, the Wild made some good puck decisions to generate that shot in the first place, so it was going to be a decent chance no matter what Demers did. He just happened to do the, ah, worst thing there, in retrospect.
Cody Eakin's pass to Benn for the insurance (and eventual game-winning) goal was a thing of beauty. Eakin isn't going to be an all-time passer from what we've seen so far in his career, but he did exactly what he needed to do with that puck, and so did Jamie Benn on the other end of it. The Stars needed to convert at least one of their glorious chances in this game, and when they finally did, it ended up being the deciding factor.
Devan Dubnyk had a good dose of his own fruitless heroics as well, by the way. Benn was stopped on another chance on Dubnyk, and those power plays weren't completely uneventful. Everyone said coming into this series that Dubnyk would be the path by which Minnesota could have a puncher's chance in the series, and while they've hardly gotten any punches in yet, he's been very good. If you're greedy, you'll ask the Stars to rack up a couple of early goals in Game 3 in order to get in his head a bit more.
And that's what makes Kari's performance that much more impressive. Facing a huge (huge) goalie capable of shutting the door and a team scrapping for any hope they could find in a one-goal game, Kari tracked and kicked pucks out with alacrity as the Wild pressed. For someone whose mental game has received some criticism, Kari looked about as focused as you could ask for, and that's a very welcome sight.
Finally, if you had any doubt about whether Dallas knows they are the superior team in this series, look no further than the Professional Game of Keep-Away played by Everyone's Older Brother, Jason Spezza. I haven't seen a team rag the puck like that to kill off third period minutes since the Vancouver Canucks did it to a similarly inferior Stars team four or five years ago. It was laughable and fun, once you got over the occasional heart attacks whenever the empty net came into view.
As far as roster decisions, Nichushkin looked much better tonight, so you wonder if Janmark might (unfairly) sit another game. It's a nice problem to have, but it is still a problem, and it's why Lindy Ruff makes more money than most of us: he gets to try to solve it.
Dallas is up 2-0 in a playoff series. They are heading to Minnesota for two games. The cautious optimist would predict a split, but if you're Minnesota, there isn't a whole lot of optimism to be had in how they've played. Dallas has withstood what they've thrown at them so far, and while they got a break tonight with the Roussel goal, the numbers speak for themselves. The Wild have a steep, steep hill to climb, and Dallas will have a chance to grab this series by the scruff of its neck on Monday. That is the better of the two options, I would say.
Footnote: If you were at the games, I'd love to read about your experiences in the comments. I watched tonight's contest from a hotel in Michigan with terrible internet, so please feel free to regale us with a more up-close-and-personal description of what the AAC has been like since the return of playoff hockey to Dallas.