Shoulda, coulda, woulda. After proving to be the much better team in Game 3 on Friday night, the Dallas Stars came up just short in a 2-0 loss to the Calgary Flames. Missed nets and missed chances played a large role in a loss that Dallas must still find a way to draw positives from before Game 4 on Sunday.
The Dallas Stars were the better team on Friday night. But sometimes, being “better” isn’t enough.
The Stars learned that lesson the hard way in the early hours of Saturday morning as they fell 2-0 to the Calgary Flames in Game 3 of their Western Conference First Round series. The win awarded Calgary a 2-1 series lead and forced Dallas back into rebound mode.
But it wasn’t due to a lack of trying, stale offensive efforts, or better execution by the Flames. Instead, the loss was centered around the Stars’ inability to finish on a multitude of chances.
“We probably played better tonight than we did last night,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said after the game. “The scoring opportunities were unreal. [Cam] Talbot was great, so give him a lot of credit. I think we missed the net far too many [times]. Some of our best scoring chances were missing the net. It’s hard to explain that one. We hit goal posts and we missed open nets.
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“Give the goalie credit. Put some blame on us for missing the net on some of those glorious opportunities. … We had great scoring chances tonight, we just didn’t put the puck in the net. It’s as simple as that.”
In total, the Stars had a decisive 76-37 advantage in shot attempts and controlled possession for more than two-thirds of the game, according to Natural Stat Trick. All four lines were generating, they spent significant chunks of time in the offensive zone, and the number of high-danger scoring chances kept piling up. The problem? Most of them didn’t require Cam Talbot (who was perfect with a 35-save shutout) to make an initial save.
Two minutes into the first period, Tyler Seguin rang a shot off the top corner of the goalpost that looked like a goal (the goal celebration spotlight even flashed on at Rogers Place). The puck bounced out to Alexander Radulov, who had Talbot out of position and a wide open net. But his shot fired wide and missed the net entirely.
A few minutes later, Denis Gurianov blew by the Calgary defense and had a step on his way to the net. But he lost the puck before he could get a shot away.
In the final seconds of the second period (that were actually played after second intermission), Radulov fed a cross-ice pass to John Klingberg on the power play. Klingberg had an empty net as Talbot couldn’t recover in time, but he banked it off the side of the net.
Mattias Janmark had a point blank chance late in the game. Seguin had a backhand chance late in the third period that was turned aside by Talbot to keep Dallas off the board.
The Stars outshot the Flames 27-12 in the final 40 minutes of regulation, but were outscored 2-0 after a flukey Mikael Backlund shorthanded goal and TJ Brodie blast from the blue line found their way past Anton Khudobin. Calgary blocked 22 shots, but Dallas did themselves no favors by firing another 19 wide of the net.
Chances upon chances, but no results became the trend in Game 3. And for a Stars team that struggled to generate consistent offensive zone time and scoring pressure for most of the 2019-20 season, they seem to have righted many of those wrongs in the past two games.
In Game 2, Dallas was overwhelming with the puck at times and rattled off five goals after another early goal against to claim a 5-4 win. It was chaotic and fast-paced, but an important win and display of resilience by the Stars.
They wrote a similar script in Game 3, just without the results.
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“We go in early, we hit goal posts, and we miss an open net,” Bowness said. “We probably hit four goal posts and missed that wide open net in the first, and then they go down and get a cheesy goal. That’s hockey.”
That may be hockey, but that’s a frustrating way for the Dallas Stars to go out in a critical game. The Stars were the better team, but still found their way to the wrong end of the scoresheet and a 2-1 series deficit.
So, in a game of frustration and missed opportunity, what kind of positives can the Stars find? Are there any?
While it may seem like bad luck and a lack of capitalization dominated Game 3, there were actually a number of pros that the Dallas Stars can draw from the loss and apply to a pivotal Game 4 on Sunday afternoon.
First and foremost, the Stars set the tempo and commanded the game. Dallas posted a 27-8 advantage in scoring chances at 5-on-5. They allowed the Flames seven shot attempts in the second period while they fired 36 of their own. They were creative in the offensive zone in different situations, generating chances and leaving Calgary skaters to scramble.
The offense and possession time were as dominant and threatening as they had been all season. The only thing missing was the puck being buried.
“A lot of good looks, just didn’t find the back of the net,” Seguin said. “A lot of positives to look at. Just gotta maybe put more shots on net. I think we missed the net a couple times. I missed high and wide a few times. We have to be getting some more rebounds.”
“We were confident coming into this game and there were a lot of really good things that we can build off of for the next game,” Blake Comeau added. “I thought we had a lot of zone time and generated a lot of good looks. There’s obviously a couple things that we can clean up, and I’m sure we’ll look at it and we’ll be ready to go next game.”
Pucks and Pitchforks
It was a Dallas Stars team that hadn’t existed for most of the 2019-20 season. Not only were they stingy and suffocating in their own zone, but they took it to the Flames in the other end. That’s how good teams respond in crunch time.
“I feel that [if] we just keep doing the same work and trust the system when we play, it gets us the wins we need,” Esa Lindell said on Saturday. “We all know it’s not going to be easy and there’s going to be adversity. We felt good yesterday, even though we lost it. If we keep playing like [we did] in the last two games, we’re going to get the wins we need.”
And that’s another element that Dallas needs to extract from Game 3: confidence. The Stars looked like an underdog in Game 1 as Calgary set the tone early and limited any attacks that Dallas tried to spring. But in the past two games, the Stars have proven to be the better team. Staying confident in their abilities can go a long way, especially when each game in a best-of-four is substantially magnified.
“We can’t get too frustrated if we’re down 2-1,” Roope Hintz said. “I think we have to trust our system and our style of how we play. I think it’s going to come that way.”
Whether you want to think about it or not, the Dallas Stars are now 50 percent closer to the end of their season than they were five days ago. That adds a heightened sense of urgency to the equation and should give the Stars an added jolt going into Game 4 at 1 p.m. CT, which will be their third game in roughly 64 hours.
“We gotta leave this game behind and look at the next game,” Mattias Janmark said. “You can’t get too high after a win and you definitely can’t get too low after a loss. We just gotta keep working and focus on the next game. We lost this one, and we’re gonna go out and win the next game.”
As much as the Stars may want to rest in the fact that they have been the better team in the past 120 minutes of play, they can’t. What they must do, however, is harness that level of execution and apply it to Game 4. It was a rare performance by Dallas, but one that they will need to replicate if they expect to get back into the series.
“It’s a little frustrating, but we’re a very confident team,” Bowness said. “We know that if we go in here on Sunday afternoon and play like that, I like our chances a lot.”
The Dallas Stars should have won Friday night’s game. They should be sitting pretty right now with a 2-1 lead in the series and most of the momentum after two dominant performances. But if there’s anything you need to know about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s that unpredictability reigns supreme.
Dallas will now have to do what they did in the First Round in 2019 against the Nashville Predators and respond to a 2-1 series deficit. They proved that they can respond twice in the 2019 postseason, clinching the series against Nashville in six and taking the St. Louis Blues to Game 7 after being down 2-1 in both series.
"“There’s going to be more adversity every game and every period, and you have to deal with it and fight through it. That’s the mental toughness part of playing in the NHL playoffs. Whatever happens, you have to deal with it, you have to overcome it, and you need to be mentally strong. You can’t let adversity push you back.” – Rick Bowness on Saturday afternoon"
But this is a new year, a new team, and an entirely new setup. This is the point in a series where good teams battle adversity by relying on internal skill and consistency (along with the hope that finishing on chances comes along soon).
The frustration is obvious after letting a strong performance turn into a loss. But it’s within that performance that the Stars have to find positives and build on them throughout the rest of the series.
“You deal with things,” Bowness said on Saturday. “That’s what you do every day. In this League, there’s something new to deal with every day, so you deal with it up front and you move on. You go back to last year, we were down 2-1 to Nashville and we battled back. We’re down 2-1 again, so we have to battle back again. We’ve got a long way to go here.”