Six different Dallas Stars made their NHL playoff debuts on Wednesday night in Nashville against an experienced and playoff-weathered Predators team. But that lack of experience didn’t stop them from making an immediate impact and turning the game in their favor on the way to a big win.
When Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn was asked about his team’s potential disadvantage in terms of playoff experience ahead of game one against the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night, he took a calm approach.
“No, I don’t think so,” Benn said about whether his team’s inexperience in the postseason would play a factor. “We know these guys have been around for a while and been together for a while and done some great things. We’re going to try to come in here, stir that up a little bit, and see what we can do in game one.”
That was a bold statement, especially when you assessed the situation.
Following confirmation of the starting lineups for the Stars and Predators after their morning skates on Wednesday, the gap in experience became a bit more clear. Of the 19 players that the Predators were planning on using in game one, 18 of them had played in a Stanley Cup Playoffs game at some point in their career; in the Stars’ end, only 13 had participated in the NHL postseason.
And even though 13 Stars had playoff experience, the level of experience wasn’t entirely significant. For instance, Jamie Benn had only played in 19 NHL playoff games going into Wednesday night, giving him the sixth-most playoff games of any Star in the lineup.
On the other side of the ice, only three Predators in the starting lineup had played in less than 40 NHL playoff games in their career (including Dante Fabbro, who was the lone Predator making his postseason debut on Wednesday).
So yes, there was a sizable gap in terms of postseason experience going into Wednesday’s game. That can sometimes be a daunting task to overcome, especially for young players still trying to grasp the atmosphere and overall mentality that a playoff game requires in order to be successful.
“It’s a whole new season,” said Tyler Seguin about the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “The emotions are higher, the hits are harder, and the goals have bigger celebrations. It’s the best time of the year.”
Game one between Dallas and Nashville actually served as a little sliver of history for seven different Dallas Stars players. It served as the NHL postseason debut game for Jason Dickinson, Roope Hintz, Justin Dowling, Tyler Pitlick, Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, and Taylor Fedun.
“Playoffs are a different story and we need to be ready. I don’t know how many in here have actually played in the playoffs because it’s been a long time for them. So, hopefully they are going to enjoy it and are going to be ready.” – Roman Polak following game 82, 4/6/19
That can be a daunting challenge for players, whether young (like Dickinson, Hintz, Lindell, and Heiskanen) or older (like Dowling, Pitlick, and Fedun). Playing in your first Stanley Cup Playoffs game brings plenty of intimidation with it. But doing so in one of the toughest arenas in the NHL against one of the loudest fan bases? That’s a new animal in and of itself.
And yet, it didn’t seem to phase the inexperienced Stars players. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that they were the best skaters for Dallas as the Stars fought their way to a 3-2 win.
Hintz was electric for the Stars on offense as well as on the second power play unit. He carried the puck into the zone and fired a shot on net a handful of times during the game, working as a one-man army at times. He also helped the second power play unit surge and provided an immense spark during their first time on the ice. Hintz finished the night with a team-high six shots on goal and two takeaways.
Dickinson started the game on the top line alongside Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov and helped the Dallas offense get going. But around the midway point of the first period, he fell onto the receiving end of a crushing hit by Brian Boyle. Dickinson was hunched over on the ice for nearly a minute before skating off of the ice on his own strength and entering concussion protocol.
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But even so, he returned to the ice after being cleared and finished the night with two shots in 9:18 of ice time. That included 2:30 of time shorthanded and a strong defensive stand in the last two minutes of the game when Nashville had a 6-on-5 advantage while trying to tie it up.
Justin Dowling has spent most of the past seven years of his NHL career playing in the AHL with the Texas Stars. But after another impressive season in Cedar Park, he was called up by the Dallas Stars towards the end of the 2018-19 regular season. They kept him on the roster for the postseason, and he didn’t disappoint in his debut. He skated 9:15 (including 2:00 of power play time) and was a key piece of the Stars’ second power play unit. His best moment came during a power play opportunity when he drove to the front of the net and sent a shot towards the far side of the net that just missed wide.
On the defensive side, the performances of Lindell and Heiskanen spoke for themselves. Lindell skated a team-high 27:27 (including a team-high 7:02 while shorthanded) in his NHL playoff debut and blocked three shots while also posting a +1 rating. In addition, he skated with the second power play unit that was buzzing all night.
And without the effort produced by 19-year-old Miro Heiskanen in his first playoff contest, the Dallas Stars likely wouldn’t have won the game. Heiskanen was dominant in all three zones and looked calm and collected throughout the entire game. He finished the game with a goal and an assist in 23:24 of ice time and was named the First Star of the Game for his heroic efforts.
Taylor Fedun, 30, was the oldest Star to make his playoff debut on Wednesday night and was relatively quiet while playing on the third pairing with Ben Lovejoy (who put on a solid performance). He only skated for 9:41 and didn’t touch the ice for the final 6:36 after being on the ice during Nashville’s second goal. Even so, he blocked two shots and contributed in the defensive zone.
Sure, the Predators may have had a significant lead in terms of extensive playoff experience. This is Nashville’s fifth consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and they have kept the majority of their core intact for the past half-decade. Meanwhile, the Stars are back in the postseason for the first time since 2016 and have seen a substantial turnover in their roster makeup since their last trip.
But on Wednesday night, the experience didn’t seem to matter. The young guns stepped in and made an immediate impact, helping the Dallas Stars out in different areas and ultimately helping them to a massive win in the series opener.
It was one of many pleasant surprises for the Stars in a monumental game one performance.