WCQF Game 4 Afterwords: Stars Keep Wild to the Outside, Take Inside Track to Series
If you still have a pulse after that third period, each beat just got a lot more enjoyable.
It's tough to choice the most pivotal moment in a lot of games, but the Stars' second (and final) power play had to be it in Minnesota. With 6:42 left in the second period, Dallas trailed 2-1. On the man-advantage, Jamie Benn had the puck poked away from him by Mikael Granlund, and the Wild looked poised to make a shorthanded rush.
Instead, Klingberg made a perfect diving poke play on the loose puck to avoid any odd-man chance, and Jamie Benn whipped it back up to Spezza, who entered the zone with his head up and fed Kris Russell. The Newest Member of the Franchise (who was also recovering from an illness that kept him out of Game 3) promptly fired a wrist shot from the slot, Patrick Eaves tipped it by Dubnyk, and the game was tied back up.
If Klingberg doesn't make that poke check, or if the Stars can't convert on that power play, or...well, many other things could have gone wrong. Instead, Dallas managed to keep pace with the Wild, and Jason Spezza's fortunate goal ended up being enough.
It sure didn't look like things would be that rosy to start, though. After the Wild came out and dominated the game for 10 minutes, Dallas regrouped a bit, but there was no mistaking the amount of offensive zone presence Minnesota was getting after spending the first two games of the series in exile. Then, after Demers and Haula got into it after a whistle in the first, we were treated to the Stars on 4-on-4 again, and good news! Nothing has changed. For whatever reason, Dallas simply leaks chances against when both sides are missing a body, but they were fortunate to make it through the latest iteration of that nightmare without any scoreboard damage.
Dallas seemed to be tempting fate again in the second period amid a Wild flurry, and the Jason Pominville goal against (who else) the Stars' top line seemed to validate that fear. Dallas had been allowing Minnesota to play like a playoff team for the second game in a row, and any time Dallas starts trading chances without scoring, fans will start to expect the worst.
For what it's worth, that first Wild goal was also pretty lucky as well, as Niederreiter's shot was deflected by Sharp before it bounced off Pominville's skate into the net. So don't fall for any "undeserved" nonsense about Spezza's game-winning tally. It doesn't always take a whole season for the bounces to even out, and in this case, it didn't even take a whole game.
As for the second Minnesota goal, Goligoski simply had the puck poked away, but unlike Klingberg's heroics later on, no one would be able to save him. He and Coyle battled together up the ice, but I've been expecting (whether justified or not) Charlie Coyle to score a high-skill goal or two this series, and his catch-the-puck-in-mid-air move before dekeing past Niemi certainly qualified. It wasn't a good look for Goose, but he simply didn't have the size or reach to shut that play down once it began. It happens, but it shouldn't.
In light of the Stars' sticking to their two-goalie system, Antti Niemi played well. I don't really fault him for not stopping the bonkers Coyle goal, and his save on Haula on the doorstep was humongous. He froze some pucks at key times, and he stood tall down the stretch. The Stars' goalies have surrendered, in order: 0, 1, 4, and 2 goals this series. That's not bad at all, especially when you're still scoring almost three goals a game. The numbers are a little different, but the Stars' formula for success from the regular season is still there: Don't give up too much, and score plenty.
Speaking of defense, Stephen Johns nearly made himself the goat (not GOAT, mind) early on with a couple of poor choices that put him out of position. Thankfully for Johns, he was bailed out by his buddies (including Oduya, who made a gorgeous sliding block after Johns got suckered into attacking the puck carrier in the circle and was promptly danced). Johns also showed little compunctions about continuing to step up, but it was unnerving to see a few mistakes nonetheless. Growing pains and all that, I suppose.
Special teams really were the difference, of course. Minnesota couldn't do much at all with their power plays, and even the late high-sticking double minor on Roussel wasn't enough for them to capitalize. Dallas's PK still didn't look exactly stalwart all the time, but they certainly minimized risk on the first two Wild opportunities, and that kept the Stars in good position to pull ahead later, which they of course did.
Ales Hemsky took matters into his own hands to give the Stars life after a needless Matt Dumba puck-over-glass penalty. Is Ales Hemsky just Jason Spezza's spirit guide who occasionally crosses over into the physical plane and channels his skills to see what high-class mortality feels like? You can't prove he is not that. In any case, Hemsky led the team with six shots on goal. Eaves had five, and Spezza had three, and no one else had more than one of the Stars' 22 total shots that made it to Dubnyk. It's probably (read: definitely) a coincidence that the three top shooters were the three goal scorers as well, but the Stars once again managed to create scoring chances through quality rather than volume. Can't argue with the process at this point, right?
But yeah, that Jason Spezza goal really was exactly what the doctor ordered. You knew they would need a 5v5 goal at some point, and Jamie Benn can hopefully take some solace from his role in the GWG after another tough night in the production department otherwise. Ruff switched up Janmark and Benn to recreate two-thirds of the Superline, and Spezza's goal was the result (right after Benn exited the penalty box, I might add). Without Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Cody Eakin have struggled (though weirdly, Eakin had a good first period tonight). Ruff's switching the captain out to skate alongside Spezza paid dividends, and Mattias Janmark is about as anti-Eakin a force as you could put alongside #20, so I guess I'm saying everybody wins here. Except the Wild.
Oh, Spezza's breakaway feed also came from Jamie Benn. Even though Dubnyk stopped it, I wouldn't be shocked to see those two stay together for Game 5. You need to get Jamie Benn going, and Jason Spezza can help pretty much anybody do that. Jamie Benn also got Spezza going with his pass to Demers as he entered the zone, so let's call it a strictly temporarily symbiotic relationship so that Seguin doesn't get too jealous.
John Klingberg really did look like someone trying out for Niklas Lidstrom, but it was mostly good (or beautiful) when he tried to make things happen. When Klingberg shows good judgment and some daring, it's a sight to behold. Thankfully for Dallas, there was enough of the former for the latter to be enjoyable.
Major props to Johnny Oduya and Jason Demers for their work tonight closing things down as well. Dallas really didn't give up very much at all in the third period, and the shutdown guys did their thing. It's an auto-jinx every time we reference it, of course, but Dallas consistently failed to surrender leads going into this third period this year, and it was satisfying to see that trend continue after a crazy second period.
Colton Sceviour was the key to Hemsky's goal when he screened Dubnyk, but I thought he played wonderfully outside of that, too. He has good instincts, and they were on display tonight in both his penalty killing and overall defensive game. Dallas has a fourth line they can ice without too much fear, and while that's usually not the deciding factor in a series, it is wonderful luxury to have.
The playoffs are good for Val Nichushkin, who found himself getting irate later in the game after making a nice, strong rush up the ice with the puck. If you're Minnesota, I'm not sure you relish the thought of putting a chip on Nuke's shoulder, but by all means, they are welcome to experiment.
Finally, let's just once again admire the Stars' third line, which as far as I'm concerned is a top asset of the team right now. Hemksy was out there with his linemates defending after Dubnyk had been pulled, and that's largely because of how well he's gelled with Faksa this year. That line has found ways to get the puck moving the right direction, and if not for Roussel's high-sticking penalty, an empty net goal seemed the surest of things. Radek Faksa is coming alive in the playoffs after already impressing down the stretch, and Antoine Roussel somehow fits with those two like a set of three mysterious gloves. Why are there three gloves? Well, that's the mystery, just like who will win Game 5 is a mystery. If you're looking to guess, though, you might want to choose the team that has a .750 winning percentage in the playoffs this year. That team, now, is the Stars.