What Improvements Do Dallas Stars Need To Make In Order To Beat The Minnesota Wild In Game 4?
Worrying signs from Games 1 and 2 manifested en masse to cost Dallas Game 3 and a chance to push Minnesota to the brink of elimination. What happened, and how can it be corrected? What will the Stars need to address to get back on the winning track?
They were never going to go 16 and 0. Let's get that out of the way, right now. Last night's loss was no more a crushing invalidation of the Stars' Stanley Cup aspirations than a pair of wins to open the series were confirmation of ultimate victory. It's a loss, losses happen. The critical thing now is whether the Stars let that loss snowball into something entirely different, or they learn the lessons they need to improve.
Again, the loss alone isn't what bothers me. Minnesota was desperate and at home. What I'm watching now is how Dallas reacts. What lessons will the Stars learn? What can they take away from last night's disappointment to make themselves a better team?
1 - No More Score Effect Hockey
It starts with the good. Dallas was up 2-0 on their first three shots. That was at 4:10 in the first. After that they basically stopped. From Sharp's second goal through the end of the period, Dallas put seven shots on net. Watching the game, it felt like they were content to take a 2-1 or a 2-0 decision. It was a stretch of hockey that reminded me of the second period in Game 1 and the second and third periods of Game 2.
For a team built around pace and offense, the Stars have seemed awfully content to gum it up and scrap for goals. Part of that is just the nature of playoff hockey against a disciplined, prepared opponent, but I think there's some overcompensation going on as well. This is a visceral, day-after reaction, but don't you think the October/November Stars manage to run things up after 2-0?
Yes, Radek Faksa and John Klingberg both had glorious chances. Sure, Devan Dubnyk continues to come up with "how did he?" quality stops, but right now it feels like Dallas is being too conscious of the "Offensive Team" label. It's still the first half of Creed / Balboa II.
2 - Make the Wild Pay for their Penalties
Or the offense is fine and a particularly ineffective stretch on the power play is the real culprit. Did you know that, so far, the Stars have a single goal with the man advantage? They're sitting at 7.7% on the power play. That's just a wee bit short of their 22.5% mark during the regular season. This is against a team, by the way, that finished in the bottom five (27th / 77.9%).
The issue does not appear to be a complete lack of chances. Patrick Sharp had a couple of good looks last night and the Stars have been able to establish themselves in the offensive zone at times. Just not consistently. Maybe Dubnyk is (justifiably) in their heads a little bit, but it feels like the unit could use a jolt.
3 - Shoot!
Said jolt could come from something as simple as throwing more pucks at the net. Jason Spezza and Jamie Benn shared a single shot on goal last night. Throw out Patrick Sharp's seven SOGs and only Johnny Oduya and Alex Goligoski managed more than a single shot (both had two). Ales Hemsky? Zip. Valeri Nichushkin? Zilch. John Klingberg? Cero.
Part of the equation is diligent defending. There's also a healthy dose of Dubnyk at work. Given how well he's playing, the natural inclination has to be to look for perfection, but sometimes hockey is counter-intuitive. Just look at Antoine Roussel's glorious goal.
The Stars have adequate size and ample speed. Maybe it's time to throw a couple of no-hopers, and if nothing else, add fatigue to the list of things Dubnyk is fighting against. Anything is better than the middle section of last night's game.
4 - Hold a Lead, Never Let it Go
I'm talking Nick Sparks-levels of affection. Don't let an ENG-bloated Game 1 fool you, the Wild have been able to creep back into things so far this series. Kari Lehtonen deserves heaps of praise for his work building a 2-1 series lead. He's had to because the team in front of him has been content to soak up Wild pressure at times, rather than trying to dictate the pace of play.
The Stars need to find a way to attack without losing their defensive shape. That doesn't mean they need to go all rec league-rover and leave a man in the neutral zone at all times. Dallas cannot afford to over-expose their backline and goaltending, but keeping the offense half-holstered is playing against the team's main strength.
It feels like a philosophy thing, summed up by the final power play in Game 2. The fact is the Wild are lacking Thomas Vanek and Zach Parise. They're not a high-scoring team. The Stars need to find a way to punish them for that, and quickly, or this could become an actual series.