Dallas Stars: Significant Opportunity Awaits In Game 5 Against Avalanche

After a furious start on Sunday, the Dallas Stars secured their third win in four games against the Colorado Avalanche. And with Game 5 just a few hours away, the momentum seems to be in their corner as they prepare for another second-round elimination game.

4 minutes, 27 seconds. That was all the time the Dallas Stars needed to score three goals and hop into the driver’s seat of Game 4 on Sunday evening.

After a three-day break (their longest period of time without a game in three weeks) that began with a Game 3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, the second-round series shifted to a pivotal Game 4. Either Dallas would take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series, or Colorado would eliminate the Stars’ early series momentum and turn it into a best-of-three.

The Stars took that possibility to heart early Sunday evening and used it to produce one of their most furious starts to a game in a long time. They held the Avalanche to zero shots on goal through the opening 18:26 of the game, stifled the Colorado power play on two different occasions, logged 26 hits and were overwhelming on the forecheck from the opening puck drop, and unloaded a three-goal assault in a span of less than five minutes during the period.

“We wanted to answer the bell from the last game,” Radek Faksa said about the start following the game. “We tried to get the puck deep, be physical, have some [offensive] zone time, and set the pace of the game.”

John Klingberg scored on a strong drive to the net front to clean up a rebound and open the scoring, Faksa followed it less than 140 seconds later with a power play goal on the doorstep, and Jamie Benn finished the surge 2:12 later with a redirect on the power play in front of the net.

Just like that, Dallas had a 3-0 lead and the Avalanche were reeling. And while Colorado controlled the second in terms of scoring, chances, and setting the tempo, the Stars opened the third with a determined penalty kill to keep the lead at 3-2. From there, the door opened for younger players to make an impact, and they did so.

Roope Hintz scored the Stars’ third power play goal of the day by exhibiting impressive patience and control in the slot. He waited for the Colorado penalty kill to scramble and break down after finding the puck and flung it home upon finding an opening. 32 seconds later, Denis Gurianov capitalized on a costly puck-handling error by Cale Makar to restore the three-goal lead midway through the third period. And though Valeri Nichushkin scored his second of the game a few minutes later and Vladislav Namestnikov scored during an empty-net, 6-on-5 situation with four seconds remaining, the Stars pulled off the 5-4 victory to take a commanding series lead.

While the game had its fair share of momentum swings (as each one has since the series began), the Stars once again looked calm and collected throughout and used that confidence to their advantage.

And now, only a few hours separate the Dallas Stars from being able to punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2008. As a reference point for how long it’s been since the Stars were in the conference finals, Brenden Morrow was in his second season as captain, Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen were on the roster, and Dave Tippett was the head coach.

Morrow now works in the Stars’ front office, Modano and Lehtinen’s numbers have been retired by the organization, and Dave Tippett is now in Edmonton after spending eight seasons with the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes. It’s been awhile.

But this is an opportunity that the Dallas Stars are used to. In each of their past two trips to the second round, the Stars have reached the three-win mark and been one win away from a berth in the conference finals.

In 2016, the Stars stole a win on the road in Game 6 against the St. Louis Blues to even the series at 3-3 and shift it back to Dallas for a deciding Game 7. Last season, Dallas won Game 5 against the Blues on the road to take a 3-2 series lead and had two chances to eliminate St. Louis. In both instances, however, Dallas couldn’t land the knockout blow.

This time around, the Stars have a 3-1 advantage. It’s their first 3-1 series lead in a playoff series since the first round of the 2016 postseason against the Minnesota Wild. That means they have up to three opportunities to eliminate Colorado, while the Avalanche can only advance by winning out.

But for the Stars, the focus is on expecting the best out of Colorado and being ready to bend, but not break during the critical points in Game 5 (8:45 p.m. CT; NBCSN).

“There’s not a whole lot separating these two teams,” Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said. “There’s no chance that one of these teams is going to go out and dominate this game for 60 minutes. We tell our players to stay in the moment. They’re going to come at us and we’re going to go at them. Both teams are highly-skilled and competitive teams.”

He’s right. Both the Stars and Avalanche have controlled each of the first four games in spurts. Each contest has involved comeback efforts, late-game heroics, surges and spikes in momentum and energy, and flips in who controls the tempo and pace. The only difference is that the Stars have found a way to capitalize more often when the momentum is in their corner.

While these games have been thrilling and wildly entertaining, they’ve been closely-contested. That’s expected to continue in Game 5 on Monday night with everything on the line for both teams.

And that’s where the Stars can draw from past experiences, both in other playoff years and even in this year’s first round against the Calgary Flames.

The Flames shot out of the gate in Game 6 against the Stars and had a 3-0 lead midway through the period. Only after Bowness called a timeout to reassess and refocus did Dallas push back and score seven unanswered to win the game and end the series.

“We better bring our A-game tonight and bring our best game,” Bowness said. “Calgary threw everything they could at us and clearly we were down 3-0 early. We were on our heels. It’s very important for us to learn from that and know that Colorado is coming hard.

“They’re not going to sit back and wait and see what happens. We have to be playing on our toes and not on our heels.”

Since the second round began on August 22, the Stars have been one of the best teams in the postseason in terms of statistics. They own the highest goals for average (4.75), highest power play percentage (35.7 percent), and second-best penalty kill percentage (82.4 percent). They have also scored the most goals at 5v5 (13) and have the most goals on the man advantage (5).

Dallas has the most hits (211) and second-most blocked shots (83) among remaining postseason teams as well.

“We feel good as a team. It was a little bit of maybe a rough start of this startup here in the bubble, but we were never panicking. We just worked on our game and worked on what we were doing throughout the whole camp. You can see a lot of that is coming along very good right now. We’re a confident group. [Monday] is going to be the hardest game. It always is when you can close out a series. We expect Colorado to be even better [on Monday].” – John Klingberg on the Stars’ confidence

Simply put, they have looked locked in and committed to winning since the puck dropped in Game 1 just 10 days ago. They have earned the opportunity to end this series in five games, but they must make sure to do it the right way.

As they did on Sunday evening, starting the game on a fast and physical note could be a key in gaining early momentum. If the Stars can begin wearing down the Avalanche early with their heavy style, they could start seeing mistakes by Colorado and focus on taking advantage of them.

“I think that’s a big part of our team and you saw that from the first shift,” Klingberg said following the win in Game 4. “Faksa’s line led the way there and it was easy to follow after that. A really good start of the game from that line and it was easy to follow. It’s a big part of our game.”

Another key will be to stay out of the penalty box. While the Stars have allowed the third-fewest power play goals (3) in the second round, they have been shorthanded more than any other team. And with the increased emotions in an elimination game, they can expect the Avalanche to be at their sharpest when it comes to the man advantage.

Anton Khudobin is expected to start his ninth consecutive game (a record-high in his time with Dallas) and the second of the current back-to-back tonight, so limiting Colorado’s chances early could be effective in helping him get comfortable after a short rest.

All in all, Game 5 is a chance for the Dallas Stars to finally get over the hump that has blocked them for 12 years. The Stars are one victory away from a berth in the Western Conference Finals, but that victory would mean exponentially more.

After a decade of shuffling through head coaches, dealing with bankruptcy, swapping general managers, acquiring high-end talent in the summers, and attempting to turn this team into a proper championship contender with each passing offseason, the Stars are once again on the brink of the conference finals.

They shook off a messy start in the round robin and have been the better team in each of their first two playoff series. All four lines are rolling and contributing on a nightly basis, the defense is playing a role in all three zones, the special teams personnel is coming through at big moments, and Khudobin is holding down the fort in Ben Bishop‘s 17-day absence.

And now, the Dallas Stars once again have a shot at reaching the halfway point of the long and twisting journey to the Stanley Cup. All the pieces are coming together at the right time, and the Stars are rolling with a certain confidence and determination that hasn’t enveloped the franchise in a while.

“We’re keeping our composure,” Benn said. “We know how hard that Game 6 was against Calgary. Obviously, we didn’t get off to a good start at all. We’ll sit on this one for a couple hours, move on, and get right back at it [on Monday].”