It was a great opening game for the Dallas Stars on Monday night. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t anymore. But in a 5-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in their first round-robin game, the Stars found a way to grow both optimism and uncertainty about their upcoming playoff journey.
When the Dallas Stars scored at least three goals in a game during the 2019-20 regular season, things usually turned out pretty well for them. The word “usually” might even be an understatement.
When hitting or passing the three-goal mark during the shortened 69-game season, the Stars turned in a record of 30-4-3. That means that roughly 81 percent of their total wins, 17 percent of their regulation losses, and 38 percent of their overtime/shootout losses were caused by crossing the three-goal threshold.
In other words, it’s a reaffirmation of the obvious: the Dallas Stars are a ‘defense first’ team that relies on a shutdown structure and consistent goaltending to win games. And if they can add at least three goals to the scoreboard, their chances at a win increase greatly.
But probability was not on the Stars’ side on Monday night.
The Stars squared off with the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday night in their first of three round-robin games up in Edmonton. It was their first meaningful game that counted for something in almost five months and offered Dallas a chance to begin their hunt for the top seed in the Western Conference. They won that opportunity by finishing fourth in points percentage in the conference when the League paused its season due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12.
As they approached the game, the focus was centered around further implementing new strategies from training camp into their game. A common theme between those strategies was generating more scoring chances and possession time in the offensive zone.
The Stars put a lot of emphasis on creating more offense in training camp. After averaging 2.58 goals per game (26th in NHL) during the regular season, the need for more scoring if Dallas wanted to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender was atop the list.
And through the first 40 minutes of the game against Vegas, it looked as though everything had fallen into place perfectly. The Stars were making decisions quickly, spending quality chunks of time in the offensive zone, controlling possession, and setting the pace of the game. They were forcing the Golden Knights into mistakes, rolling all four lines, and activating defensemen in the offensive zone.
“We’re trying to get our defense a lot more involved both on the rush and in the offensive zone. Miro was a perfect example of that last night. He led a couple of rushes because he broke up some plays and he wasn’t hesitant. Look, he’s one of the best skaters in the League. He was flying last night and I thought he was the best defenseman on the ice for both teams. He did a lot of great things.” – Stars coach Rick Bowness on Miro Heiskanen‘s performance
Had it not been for Chandler Stephenson scoring a goal on the first shot of the game for Vegas, it would have been a perfect 40 minutes for Dallas.
Joe Pavelski opened the scoring for Dallas in the second period during an extended shift in the offensive zone for his line. Jamie Oleksiak scored moments later on a beautiful shot from the slot that was set up by a nice pass from Blake Comeau. A few minutes after that, Corey Perry deflected a Miro Heiskanen point shot on the power play.
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In a matter of 4:52, the Stars went from a 0-1 deficit to a 3-1 lead. The defensemen were more involved on offense, with Oleksiak scoring a goal and Miro Heiskanen logging three assists. Their power play was 1/1 and their penalty kill was 2/2. The Stars simply looked like the team they wanted to be and built up a lot of promise and potential.
“Those two periods were really good for us,” Radek Faksa said on Tuesday. “We were playing really fast, the forecheck was on, and I think we played five minutes together. Everything came from the forecheck and I think we were really quick on their guys. They had no chance to break out on us.”
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And then, it all fell apart in the third period. Dallas collapsed under the weight of a strong Vegas forecheck and offensive assault, giving up three goals at even strength in a span of 5:01 and a fourth into an empty net to seal the game at 5-3. The Golden Knights turned on an unprepared Dallas Stars team with a lead and used their experience and playmakers to turn the tide.
“We just got away from our game,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said. “There’s only one way to play this game and it’s the right way. We stopped playing the right way and got very soft on the puck. The plays at the blue line were both very soft, and all that does is give the other team momentum. We just made it too easy for them to play.”
By the time the game was over, it was difficult trying to figure out just how to assess the game. On the one hand, the Stars had become much more effective in the offensive zone and shown significant strides in their offensive execution since training camp started on July 13. But on the other hand, they sat back in the third period and tried to protect a lead instead of adding to their positive efforts from earlier in the game.
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What’s left now is a cloud of uncertainty. That uncertainty is still prevalent as Dallas prepares for their second round-robin contest against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night.
The Stars will go for their first win in almost six months tonight against a Colorado team that already won its first round-robin game against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. And while the Stars can no longer clinch the first seed in the Western Conference (the best they can get now is second), there is still a lot to play for and focus on improving.
Colorado should be a good opponent to do that against.
“We have to learn from what happened yesterday and move on to the next game,” John Klingberg said on Tuesday. “We were very happy with where we were in the first 40 minutes. What happened in the third period is something that we can fix as a team. We addressed it today and moving forward.”
The Stars went 4-0-0 against the Avalanche during the 2019-20 season. Then again, three of the four games were decided by one goal and the two teams haven’t played each other since January. Teams are back to full health and full strength, and that should create an interesting dynamic ahead of tonight’s game.
Dallas seems to play Colorado well. Their stingy defensive system typically goes up well against the Avalanche’s high-flying offensive attack. Then again, this is an entirely new game in an entirely new setting and the Avalanche are one of the most dangerous teams in the League.
But at the same time, the Stars have to focus on finding a way to keep building on the positives from the first 40 minutes of Monday’s game while still sticking to their identity and securing the defensive zone. That can be a difficult line to toe at times, especially for a team that didn’t make many offensive changes or improvements during the regular season.
Sure, the Stars looked like the better team for most of the game against the Golden Knights. Sure, they did as best they could against the Avalanche during the regular season. And sure, the round-robin doesn’t mean a ton for the Stars when looking at the bigger Stanley Cup Playoffs picture.
But Monday made it clear that Dallas still has some kinks to fix.
The line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Denis Gurianov was relatively invisible for most of the game and didn’t combine for a single shot on goal. To his credit, it was Seguin’s first game against another team since March. But Bowness believed that both looked rusty and reemphasized on Tuesday that they need their best players performing at their best if they have any shot of making a deep run in the playoffs this summer.
“I actually double shifted them a couple of times just to try and get them going,” Bowness said about Benn and Seguin. “They didn’t have a very good game. We have to count on them being a lot better tomorrow. If we want to win this thing, we’re going to have to count on those guys being a lot better.”
As a result, he switched up the lines at Tuesday’s practice, putting Gurianov back with Jason Dickinson and Corey Perry and wedging Roope Hintz between Benn and Seguin. It’s in an effort to get the top two players going while paired with one of the team’s most threatening forwards in the offensive zone.
“We have to try something different and we’re willing to try that,” Bowness said. “The other two lines are playing really well and we don’t want to tinker with them. Dickinson, Denis, and Corey played together last year, and Roope has been up there with Jamie and Tyler at times. We’ll start with that and see where it goes.”
Gurianov, Dickinson, and Perry spent a good chunk of December and the beginning of February together as a line and seemed to build up some good chemistry. Benn, Hintz, and Seguin haven’t been together as much, but it certainly creates an interesting dynamic and balance between speed, scoring punch, and physicality.
The starting goaltenders remains a mystery, though the Stars will likely draw Pavel Francouz in Colorado’s net. They didn’t face Francouz during the regular season, so it should be an interesting matchup.
In the Stars’ end, Anton Khudobin might get nod. He had the best save percentage in the NHL during the regular season and if the Stars were to need him during the postseason at some point, it would be good for him to at least have one playoff start already under his belt.
The Avalanche offer another high-speed offense and creative attack to counter, so it should be another stout test for the Dallas offense and defense to handle.
More than anything, though, Wednesday’s game offers the Dallas Stars a chance to continue getting better in the areas that need improvement. It’s a chance for their top players to start or continue stepping up and chipping in as this round-robin journey continues. And it’s a chance to see just how sturdy this team can be in a 60-minute contest against one of the League’s best teams.
“This is the playoffs,” Klingberg said. “This is when everyone wants to be at their best. You can see that there are a lot of guys on the team that are going really good now. I feel like we have really good players that can lead the way, and obviously some of us want to do more as well.”