WCQF Game 1 Afterwords: Voracious Stars Put Minnesota in a State of Hockey Fear
This game did not look good if you are a Wild fan. Thankfully, you probably are not!
I was at the last 4-0 shutout the Stars opened a playoff series with in 2008. It was in Anaheim, and I still have a dirty orange towel buried somewhere in my hockey equipment to prove it. Not since that game can I remember such a feeling of "this is going to be okay" in the playoffs. That series got tighter, of course, and surely the playoffs will as well, whether in this series or the next. Still, the Stars have the lead in a playoff series for the first time in eight years. It is a special feeling.
There are many, many things to talk about after this game, but a lot of them can be boiled down in one chart. So, let's get to it:
The above shows every single shot attempt Minnesota had last night (all situations). In case it isn't clear, the green "B's" are for blocked shots. As you can see, the high-danger/home plate area in front of Kari was about as well-protected as you could ask for. Kari Lehtonen got a shutout in the Stars' first playoff game last night, and he had help, which is what shutouts usually require.
Things could have been tougher after the first period. Jamie Benn took a hooking penalty that, while Suter happily chicken-winged Benn's stick to draw the call, was unnecessary and a bit careless. But the Stars' sparkling penalty kill (I know, it still sounds weird to me, too) stood firm in its only full two-minute portion of kill time, and so the Stars' own inability to score on their power plays didn't end up biting them after 20 minutes.
Jamie Benn actually had an uncharacteristically mixed game tonight, but when you realize that he was tasked with a lot of own-zone starts while piling up two assists in addition to his brute-force empty-netter, you're back to being impressed. And when you realize that the second and third lines also scored goals tonight, it becomes clear just how deep this team is.
Speaking of deep, you know how bad the shot differentials were, but let's put a bit of context on it. Once again, I'll include all situations:
Okay, some takeaways:
-Through the first 12 minutes, Dallas accumulated more scoring chances than Minnesota would get in the entire game.
-Through the first 21 minutes, Minnesota was definitely a team in hockey sweaters playing hockey, and there's simply no denying that. They were on a bench, sometimes on the ice, and they occasionally touched the puck. Great job to our younger cousins in Minnesota.
-For the first period, the Stars' power play did nothing outside of the latter half of their first opportunity.
-Minnesota got a shorthanded chance on the Stars' 4th opportunity.
You knew about that shorthanded chance, of course; that also could have turned the tide of this game a bit, or at least sort of halfheartedly pushed back against the onslaught to achieve a one-goal margin for a little while. That would have been a moral victory for Minny, and the only sort of victory they ever could have really hoped for. Instead, Kari (and a sort-of-backchecking Hemsky) dealt with the chance after the puck nutmegged Goligoski, and things carried on.
Anyhow, you know the numbers aren't great for Minnesota, and it's nice, as Brad said, to see the scoreboard reflect reality with some accuracy. The Stars had the better players coming in, and their better players played better. That's the idea, and Dallas executed. Execution is a particularly apt word for what happened in Game 1.
Of course the shutout means a lot for Kari, but I wonder if it means even more for the defense, who has suffered their share of slings and arrows leading up to the postseason. Stephen Johns and Johnny Oduya played extremely well tonight, with Oduya in particular blocking shots like a carnival silhouette in a shooting gallery. (Johns, of course, used his size to separate players from the 3rd dimension. He also tried to go Calder Cup Nemeth on the Wild defense, and he almost did.
3-0 was a nice score to have as the minutes wound down, but it could have been much worse. Patrick Sharp nailed a post earlier in the game, and Colton Sceviour couldn't quite convert on a wonderful Jussi Jokinen power play breakaway. Sceviour was still pretty great tonight, and I couldn't be happier for him after all the work he's put in for this organization.
The most notable lack of conversion was exactly who it is supposed to be because oh my gracious, Ales Hemsky unleashed everything in his arsenal tonight. Hemsky had a gorgeous steal and pass to set up Faksa's goal, but more importantly (for the purposes of this narrative) he had a breakaway. I am not sure there is anything I enjoy regardless of result more than an Ales Hemsky breakaway. This time, the puck danced off his stick blade a bit, and Devan Dubnyk went full Marty Turco with a daring poke check to shut down the chance.
As my brother put it, there is really only ever like a 20% chance of Hemsky shooting in any given situation, so why wouldn't you try the poke check there? Pretty low risk, really.
(Again, if that autoplays, I am sorry. Looking at the HTML, it absolutely shouldn't.)
The Hemsky/Faksa/Roussel line was a glorious bit of depth for Dallas, and you could rave about them all night long. Please feel free to do so, but I want to talk about Jason Spezza before I forget, because if you're looking for evidence of what sets Dallas apart from Minnesota, Jason Spezza is It.
Spezza has been red-hot in 2016, and while his Nashville hat trick to close the season might have been seen as a sort of full-stop on a great campaign, Thursday night made it look more like an ellipsis. Spezza executed what I guess is now his trademark move, the fake-slapshot-keep-skating-wrist-into-opened-corner-thanks-goalie. (I'm not sure the bunny hop into Jamie Benn's arms afterwards is trademarked yet, but given Roussel's hop off the bench to legitimize the Faksa goal, perhaps it's just a team-wide thing.)
With Erik Haula and Zach Parise (and I guess Vanek, if you count him) out, the Wild had to look elsewhere for scoring. They could not find any. When Benn and Seguin had a dry spell, the Stars still managed to find production from Spezza and other folks. Few teams can match up with the Dallas forward corps when they're healthy; asking Minnesota to do so when they're this banged up is tantamount to violating the Geneva Convention.
I wouldn't be shocked to see Nichushkin sit on Saturday in favor of Seguin, although Janmark is a possibility as well. Nichushkin is so skilled, but he hung onto the puck a bit too long a few times tonight, and it really killed the momentum his line had going into the zone. Granted, Nichushkin was usually the one carrying the puck into the zone in the first place, but he just looks different than most of the Dallas puck-luggers in that position. I suppose we'll see what Ruff thinks come the weekend.
The team got through the "jitters," as Ruff said in his postgame conference. They are ahead in the series, and they are getting one of the best players in hockey back on Saturday. There is no reason to be overconfident yet, but there are plenty of reasons to be regular-confident after Game 1. Is this what the playoffs always feel like when your team is really good? I'm sure it gets tougher, but I'll sit back and breathe while I can. Breathing, at least, is easy.