The Dallas Stars watched as a few costly errors and issues to start the week turned a 3-1 series lead against the Colorado Avalanche into a 3-3 tie. And now, as the Stars once again approach another do-or-die Game 7 in the second round, it will be imperative that they find a way to seize back the lost momentum.
In the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a short memory might be more imperative than ever for a team like the Dallas Stars.
Throughout a typical (or atypical, when talking about 2020) NHL postseason, there are a handful of common mantras and beliefs shared by the teams in contention. Some of those might include not getting too high or too low, staying in the moment, and having a short memory.
That last one can always come in handy, regardless of the outcome of a game. If a team wins, a short memory of the victory is key on not getting too comfortable and being ready to build on it in the next game. For the losing team, it’s a chance to erase any negativity from the game and prepare to bounce back in the next contest.
And since Monday evening, Dallas has been in dire need of a short memory and hard reset.
In a matter of three days, the Stars watched a nine-day stretch of exciting progress be completely undone by the Colorado Avalanche. With a 6-3 loss in Game 5 on Monday and a 4-1 loss to follow it up on Wednesday, a 3-1 series lead for Dallas has evaporated and turned into a 3-3 series tie with a win-or-go-home game scheduled for Friday.
After becoming the highest scoring team in the postseason, winning five games in a row from Game 4 of the first round to Game 2 of the second round, and burying the Avalanche with goals and pressure through the first four games, the Stars rolled into Game 5 with a surge of confidence.
Due to a mass of injuries, the Avalanche were missing a handful of starters and were down to their third-string goalie in Michael Hutchinson. Meanwhile, the Stars received a medically-cleared Ben Bishop, who had spent the previous 18 days on the “unfit to play” list, to help them close out the back-to-back and, as a result, the series.
Everything seemed to be in place for the Dallas Stars to finish off the unexpected and impressive feat by eliminating the Avalanche in five games.
But then, the first period happened.
The Avalanche roared out of the gate, established possession and set the tempo, and took control the game in a matter of minutes. They outshot the Stars 13-3 through the first 12 minutes and put four shots past Bishop to end the goalie’s night on an early note. Anton Khudobin took over in the crease after playing the day prior and gave up one more goal to make it 5-0 at first intermission.
From there, the focus shifted from winning to losing by as few goals as possible and building momentum going into Game 6.
On Wednesday night, Dallas put together an encouraging start to the game. They seemed to have fixed the energy and effort problems that had plagued them through the start of Game 5 and looked ready to end the series.
That is, until they started to fill up the penalty box. The Stars spent 10 of the first 35 minutes of the game shorthanded. And while Dallas successfully killed off all five penalties, they lost out on valuable minutes to get their best players on the ice and generate an offensive attack in the other direction.
“It’s not ideal,” Bowness said about the penalties following the game. “We have too many key guys sitting on the bench. We shot ourselves in the foot with the penalties. Whether they score or not, their best players are on the ice a lot. They’re getting in the game and giving their team momentum. You take five penalties and you’re sitting, that’s not part of the game plan.”
Miro Heiskanen upped his point streak to seven games by scoring the opening goal of the game late in the first period. It was quickly negated, however, by a goal from Nikita Zadorov that kept things level at first intermission. And in the second period, aside from Jamie Benn and Corey Perry each spending two minutes in the box for penalties, the Stars didn’t generate much of any threat or attack. As a result, the Avalanche got a goal from Cale Makar that would eventually hold up as the game winner.
In the third period, the Avalanche’s top players stepped up as Mikko Rantanen scored a goal on a nice saucer pass from Nathan MacKinnon to take a 3-1 lead. MacKinnon put the game away a few minutes later with an empty-net goal to make it 4-1.
They weren’t ready in the first few minutes of Game 5, and the Avalanche made them pay for it. In Game 6, the Dallas Stars struggled to stay out of the box and didn’t receive a strong enough push from across the lineup for 60 minutes. Their top players have shrunken in the biggest moments over the past two games while Colorado’s best skaters are taking control.
Mix all of that together and you’ve got a 3-3 series tie and a deciding Game 7 scheduled for Friday.
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It’s been a different issue in each instance, but the Avalanche have capitalized both times and clawed their way back into the series. And now, the Stars must find a way to shake off the mistakes and errors from the past two games and get back to their style and execution from the first four games of the series.
But, how do they go about doing that?
Well, another fast and aggressive start will be needed. In two of their three wins against the Avalanche, Dallas scored three goals in the first period and built a sturdy lead. And if they want to play “Dallas Stars hockey” and protect a lead in the third period as they have done so well for two years, that lead has to be generated early.
“It starts with the start of the game,” Seguin said on Wednesday. “We were better tonight. We’ve got another gear in us as far as starting the game, kind of like a couple of games ago when it was an all-out attack.”
Staying disciplined will also be important. That means avoiding senseless penalties in the offensive zone and using the newly-found offensive firepower to force Colorado into mistakes and penalties.
There’s also a need to put more pressure on Hutchinson in the offensive zone. The goalie will be making his third career start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Friday night. And while he has made some good saves in his first two games, there’s an obvious need for the Stars to test him more often.
“It’s a matter of getting second opportunities and getting the puck on net,” Perry said about challenging Hutchinson. “I think he saw a lot of pucks the last couple of games. It’s the o-zone time, wearing them down, and getting those second opportunities that we can really capitalize on.”
“Give Colorado a lot of credit because they’re doing a great job protecting him,” Bowness added. “They’re not giving us much, so we’re going to have to battle harder. One thing we preach as coaches is to never pass up an opportunity to put the puck on the net. If you get too cute, you’re playing right into their hands. We’re making it an easier night on the goalie than it should be. We’ve got to make the night a lot harder for him.”
The Dallas Stars also need more from their top players. That all starts with the top line.
In the first few games of the series, the top trio of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov set the tempo and pace of the game with their physicality and determination. They were possessing pucks, creating scoring chances with every shift, and wearing down the Avalanche defense with their speed and pursuit.
“We need them to produce. It’s as simple as that. That’s what we talked about after the game. Their top players are producing and our top players are not. Don’t sugarcoat it. It’s what it is. Your top players have to carry you at this time of year and they’ve got to produce. You put them in the position with as much ice time as you can and the best offensive positions as you can, and they have to produce. That’s as simple as it is. That’s what it is.” – Rick Bowness on the Stars’ top line
Benn, Seguin, and Radulov combined for six goals and 15 points through the first three games of the series. In the past three, they have combined for two goals and three points.
A Game 7 provides top players an opportunity to seize control and change the tide with big plays and a strong, game-shifting effort. The Dallas Stars need that effort from their entire lineup on Friday, and that all starts with the top line setting the tone early.
“We need more o-zone time,” Seguin said. “The effort is there, our execution just hasn’t been there. Obviously, a lot of penalties in the last few games and you lose some rhythm, but there’s no excuse at this time of year. We have to find a way to help our team and we can win games as a line. Put it all in the past now. One game, winner take all, it’s gonna be a good one.”
And finally, it’s a matter of properly assessing the magnitude of the situation and using that as momentum. It’s a Game 7 for all the marbles. The Stars have dealt with adversity all season long and, for the most part, have handled it well. They are one of the final seven teams standing in the postseason and have a chance to punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals. It would be the franchise’s first trip since 2008 and would help Dallas get over the Second Round, Game 7 hump that has served as the team’s undoing in each of the past two trips to the playoffs.
“We all know what happened last year,” Seguin said. “We lost last year, so we have a chance to redeem ourselves. I definitely do think as an organization, we’ve been trending the right way. This is the next step. It’s going to be a big one for us.”
It’s a big moment and a big stage, and that should bring out the best in each player in the locker room. Whether rookie or veteran, stepping up and being the determining factor in a Game 7 is and always has been the dream.
And after two rough losses that neutralized the Stars’ progress and momentum, the plan is now for that dream not to turn into a drastic nightmare. A short memory should help with achieving that goal.
“We put it behind us now,” Bowness said. “We talk about the issues that we struggle with tonight, and they’ve already been dealt with after the game. We put ourselves in this position and now we have to deal with it. Someone’s going home on Saturday, so you put your best game on the ice and see what happens.”