WCSF Game 4 Afterwords: Cody Eakin, Kari Lehtonen Wish You a Very Happy Cinco de Morrow
Eight years to the day after Brenden Morrow Scored, the Stars got another overtime victory.
Game 6 of the Stars/Sharks series in 2008 actually began on May 4th, but you know what happened: In the fourth overtime, well after the 5th of May had arrived, with 129 minutes of hockey in the books, Brenden Morrow scored the Stars' last playoff overtime goal in franchise history.
Until Thursday night, that is.
Cody Eakin compressed the entire narrative arc of Oliver Twist into a 10-second segment, and Kari Lehtonen was the opposite of the Artful Dodger, running into almost every puck he could in one of the most exhilarating victories in recent memory. The power play finally scored a goal thanks to a power move by Jamie Benn, good net presence by Patrick Sharp, and a run-of-the-mill (for Spezza) slap-pass to start the whole thing off. In short, the Stars did some of the things they had needed to do to win the game, and so they won the game.
An errant pass play from Fiddler to Moen resulted in a turnover, and the Stars' third defense pair decided that Vladimir Tarasenko probably was just building sandcastles back at the blue line, wait, no, he's definitely playing hockey and in on a breakaway and oh, right, he's extremely good. Tarasenko looked off Kari and went five-hole, and the Stars found themselves playing from behind a 1-0 deficit for the first time in the series.
In a weird way, maybe that's what it took to shake them up. Even Kari seemed to zone in after that, stopping Troy Brouwer (who had danced past Kris Russell on the outside after a Johns mistake at the offensive blue line) on another breakaway right after. It seemed to be a statement stop--the sort Dallas couldn't get in Game 3 early on--and it would prove to be one of many huge stops by Kari as the night wore on. Jason Spezza chose to make sure Kari had beaten any residual demons by getting stripped at the Stars' blue line, and sure enough, the Big Finn watched the post stop the Tank on Tarasenko's second glorious chance of the period.
And wear it did, apparently, on Joel Edmundson, who may not have earned too many Hitch Bucks after his great assist to Faksa. That play came out of absolutely nowhere, but the Stars benefited from a mistake by the Blues' bottom defense pair, and that is what was going to have to happen with the way the Blues' d-corps had been getting things done thus far. Edmundson's head-scratcher of a pass to Faksa turned into a five-hole-goal on Elliott, toot sweet.
Radek Faksa has been Pretty All Right these playoffs, and his most recent goal was further evidence of that. Some more evidence of that came when he picked off a Bouwmeester pass ("pass" is a kind term for whatever that was supposed to be) and got another chance in on Elliott, but was stopped. Much less evidence of that was his emulation of his linemate later on, as we have to award Faksa the Most Ales Hemsky Play of the Game for his puzzling decision to pass after being gifted a glorious chance in the slot thanks to said Czech's interstellar wizard mind games on two Blues players in the defensive zone. Faksa appeared to have gotten tunnel vision as he picked up the pass and didn't see his clear lane to the net, but man oh man, I began to wonder if that was going to be the "what could have been" moment when the game eventually headed to overtime.
Mattias Janmark has likewise been Quite Good in most of his opportunities, and his skating was extremely good tonight, drawing the penalty that led to the aforementioned power play goal. That penalty, by the way, was committed by Captain David Backes, who hails from a grungy tree house located in Fort Bunglehopper, which is down the round from Crobley Sound, where Backes played his junior hockey with--you guessed it--Blurph "The Blurph" Blurphington on the Crobley Sound Bucket Dumpers. Small world!
I'm just going to stop here for a second, because think about how this game felt. After the Edmundson boondoggle turned the game around and the Stars capitalized on the power play, it was 2-1, and things were weird. The building was quiet, the Stars still gave up some fantastic chances to St. Louis, but they had the chance to lock things down and try for boring hockey for half a game. Of course you knew they wouldn't do that, and of course that meant you were incredibly anxious despite getting an unexpected lead.
That lead would pull an Osgiliath thanks to the second penalty on Cody Eakin of the game. The first penalty, by the way, was rather suspect, as Eakin was whistled for holding after taking a reversal move to the face (coughdemerssuspensioncough) and mostly just falling down. But Eakin did so while ostensibly grabbing the reversing Blues player on his way, and thus, a 4-on-3 was born. In the Additional Whining category, that latest penalty came after what I swore (but have not confirmed) was an offside entry by St. Louis. Anyway, Eakin was forced to go Samurai Showdown on Jaden Schwartz, who was cutting in on Kari with position. It was probably a good penalty to take, but it turned out to be a costly one, as 4-on-3s tend to be.
Alex Goligoski played 25 minutes last night, which was a lot for everyone except John Klingberg (29+!) and Jamie Benn (24+). Unfortunately, Goose couldn't quite split the difference on the 4-on-3 kill, as he got caught a bit too far from Stastny in front of Kari. Stastny was able to tip the Tarasenko shot through Lehtonen, and suddenly the Stars were no longer winning the special teams battle, or also the game itself.
Kris Russell and Jason Demers nearly ate another minus to start the third period on a wacky-also-terrifying play that saw a "here for decoration" Russell get toe-dragged into oblivion by Steen; it became clear at that point that the Stars had no interest in any fan's long-term health, blood pressure, or hair loss. The Stars would get their chances (Ales Hemsky being one of the prime creators, as he was all night long), but they also didn't let the game get too boring. Shots and chances came in waves as regulation wound down, and the game felt like a wrestling match between two flawed, but tired athletes. I don't know why I just used a vague wrestling simile when I could have just said between "two hockey teams," but I guess word picture thingies are supposed to class up the joint. Anyway, it was give-and-take. That's all I meant.
Val Nichushkin actually looked better as the game went on, too. If we're all going to be honest about this "measured expectations" thing, then treating this experience as a growth opportunity for the 21-year-old Nichushkin is probably a good perspective to take. He cut to the net last night, and he won some good battles along the boards that the Stars really needed. They didn't turn into goals, but they are the sort of plays that really help a hockey team perform goal alchemy, occasionally.
Chances were also created in the third period by the top line, as Eakin, then Sharp, then Benn would have a succession of shots that just barely failed to beat Elliott. It's not the top line any of us thought we'd be seeing in the second round of the playoffs, but it obviously got the job done tonight. It's also important to note that Elliott, while amazing so far in the playoffs, is also not Prime Hasek or anything, as Eakin's game-winner showed. Elliott has been absolutely fabulous for long stretches, but when Kari plays like a playoff goalie on the other side, suddenly things look a lot more even between these two teams. Can you imagine if Seguin and/or Eaves return ready for play within the next game or two? That's a hockey team that can defy the weirdly low expectations you've read about all over the place. I know this because the team is already doing that, in their own, special way.
And speaking of special, I wanted to point out one other thing about Cody Eakin's Shift of Eventfulness to end overtime. After he steps on the puck exiting the zone and gives the Blues' top line a golden ticket into the Wonka Scoring Chance Factory, Eakin ends up performing a game-saving stick check right in front of Kari. That really portrayed the game, right there. From a breakdown-inspired chance for St. Louis that didn't end up going in the net to the Stars' capitalizing at the other end, this game carried you along with it despite your protests.
Cody Eakin's shot was world-class, and Elliott's netminding was not. Eakin had perhaps already atoned for some of his Whoopsie Fudge Brownie in the zone by busting back to the net to save a goal, and then he did one better: he scored a 2015-16 Dallas Stars goal in transition with a gorgeous shot. Things weren't easy, and they weren't easygoing, but they ended up going in the right direction. That's the season in a nutshell, and last night, it was the most important game of the season, too. (So far.)