The first two games of the 2020 Western Conference Final have created an intriguing ride for the Dallas Stars. And with the Vegas Golden Knights picking up a 3-0 shutout win in Game 2, the Stars will look to regain the series lead on Thursday. A lot of that centers around finding more offensive pressure.
It’s kind of baffling to think about how long the Dallas Stars (as well as the Vegas Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning, and New York Islanders) have been in the bubble.
For some of the 24 teams, the bubble experience lasted two weeks due to a failed effort in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers following training camp. Other teams lasted a little over three weeks before getting knocked out of the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And some teams even lasted up until this past weekend before getting eliminated in the Second Round.
But for the Stars and the other three remaining clubs, this is the middle of Week 7 in the bubble. It’s been 47 days of practicing hockey, playing competitive playoff hockey, enjoying cards, ping pong, or video games, and doing whatever else they can to stay busy. That includes the occasional field trip to a football stadium or driving range.
“Until you’re living this, it’s hard to imagine. The guys enjoyed touching grass and walking on grass yesterday. We haven’t walked on grass in so long. They needed a mental break day, no doubt, to recharge the batteries.” – Rick Bowness on taking Wednesday off following Game 2
47 days. That’s a long time to be in a rather confined zone and commit to a standard daily routine. And while the four remaining teams have their focus set on the goal, life outside the bubble and back home is still on the mind.
“It’s been tough,” Blake Comeau said about keeping in touch with his wife and three daughters during bubble life. “I try to FaceTime them every day, but there’s a lot going on right now outside the bubble. Trying to figure out the school situation, my wife being back there by herself with three girls. There’s a lot on our plate.
“There’s been some days where it’s been tougher than others, but I think everyone in this bubble has made some big sacrifices. Hopefully, we can accomplish our ultimate goal and justify being here for so long.”
At the end of the day, it’s been a long and intense experience for the Dallas Stars. To be one of the four remaining teams in the bubble is an impressive and rewarding thought, but it also further pushes time into perspective.
What’s perhaps even more mystifying to think about is the transformation the team has undergone since entering the bubble.
When the Stars began round-robin play, they looked very similar to the team that had finished the season on an 0-4-2 losing streak. Besides a strong 20-minute push in the middle of their first game against Vegas, Dallas looked out of sorts. Their offensive attack still looked stale, their power play went 1/9, and their defense struggled to keep up with high-flying opponents.
Altogether, the Stars were outscored 10-4 in regulation during the three games and went 1-2-0 after picking up a shootout win against the St. Louis Blues.
A large emphasis was once again placed on the offense needing to score as the Dallas Stars entered the First Round against the Calgary Flames. They went a stretch of 146 minutes, 46 seconds without scoring a goal that stretched across a portion of all three-round robin games and looked exactly like the team that had finished 29th in total goals scored during the 2019-20 season.
But then, a switch flipped. With the intensity of the playoffs and elimination games settling in and the Stars getting their defensemen more efficiently involved in the offensive attack, the Stars became a scoring machine practically overnight. They scored 21 goals in six games against the Flames and fell just one goal short of the League-high during the First Round. That included seven unanswered goals in the deciding Game 6.
In the Second Round, it was much of the same for the new-look Stars. They reached the five-goal mark in each of the first two games of the series and finished the seven-game stretch with 28 goals.
Going into the Western Conference Final, the Dallas Stars averaged 3.77 goals per game (highest among remaining teams) and had a new offensive swagger about them that seemed to breed hope and confidence for the team and its constituents.
But through two games against the Vegas Golden Knights, that offensive swagger has been hard to come by. In fact, it’s been relatively nonexistent.
The Stars have scored one goal in 120 minutes of play. And while that one goal from John Klingberg helped them secure a 1-0 win against Vegas to open the series, it came rather early in Game 1.
As a result, it’s been 117 minutes, 24 seconds since the Stars last found the back of the net. That drought led to a 3-0 shutout by Robin Lehner and the Golden Knights on Tuesday, giving Vegas its first win of the series and turning the conference final into a best-of-five.
So, what happened? How come zone time and scoring chances have been cut down through the first two games? Why haven’t the seven different Stars players with double-digit points produced more often?
Simply put, this Vegas Golden Knights team is stingier and more structured than any of the Stars’ previous opponents.
“A lot of it has to do with who you’re playing against,” Stars GM Jim Nill, who was named a finalist for the 2020 General Manager of the Year Award on Wednesday, said about the sudden drop-off in offense between rounds. “Vegas is a very good team and I think we’re very similar teams. We’re both big, heavy teams, we both support the puck well, and we both get great goaltending.”
He’s right. The Golden Knights, like the Stars, are a veteran-heavy team with experience and knowledge. They play a physical, gritty style of hockey that makes it difficult for the opponent to score (or create offensive chances, for that matter) and capitalizes on mistakes. They roll four lines, their defense is active in the attack, and their two-headed goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury is among the best tandems in the League.
“I think it just goes to show how well structured and how good of a team Vegas is,” Jamie Benn said. “They don’t give you much and you have to take advantage of your opportunities. Probably for us, we have to take advantage of our power play time. It has to be a difference in this series.”
But what happens when you run into a team that so closely mirrors your style? How do you essentially counter yourself and find success?
It all starts with staying committed to their identity as a team. That begins with remembering both old and new positive habits while avoiding the habits that caused the Stars grief during the regular season.
Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness noticed some of those in Game 2.
“I saw some things creep in offensively that I didn’t like,” Bowness said. “We thought we had broken some of those habits, but I saw them creep in a little last game. So, I didn’t like that. They were addressed, and we move on and get ready for tonight.”
Some of those habits were seen in the Stars’ transition game and efforts with the puck.
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“We just didn’t support the puck,” Bowness added. “I didn’t like the support we had on the puck on our attack. It just became too much one-on-one. It became too many poor decisions coming through the neutral zone with turnovers. Even when we shot the puck in because we had no other choice, it wasn’t going where we could actually put pressure on them.”
The Stars were shutout for just the third time in their 21 games in the bubble on Tuesday. After weathering a Vegas attack spawned out of a sloppy Game 1 loss in the first period, the Stars didn’t swing back hard enough or consistently enough in the second period. As a result, the Golden Knights had a chance to take over the game and capitalized with a three-goal effort.
They opened the scoring with a Paul Stastny goal on a mistimed line change by the Stars that gave Vegas a chance on the rush. A few minutes later, William Karlsson scored a power-play goal to get the Golden Knights’ special teams going. To close out the scoring, Tomas Nosek scored with a tic-tac-toe goal on a 3-on-1 rush.
Following the loss, the Stars talked about how they believed that they could still rally in the third period, but also mentioned that they got what they deserved.
Even so, the focus on Game 2 came down to the little details of the game.
“We had some good opportunities,” Bowness said. “I think if we had scored one, we would’ve been fine and would’ve gotten our game rolling again. But we didn’t do that. Lehner made some good saves and we didn’t put enough pressure or quality chances against him for sure. We were clearly off of our game.”
And now, the focus shifts on the quick turnaround to Thursday night as the Stars and Golden Knights prepare for Game 3. Since the NHL adopted the conference format in 1981-82, teams that take a 2-1 lead own a 44-11 series record.
So, Game 3 presents another significant pivot point in what has already been an intriguing series. Both teams have been shut out once, only three total goals have been scored at even strength between the two teams, and the goaltending has been impressive in both creases.
“I think the games that we’ve won and play well, I feel like we’re emotionally invested right from the start. The games where we haven’t had good starts or won, I feel like there’s been lapses in our game. At this point of the season, those will cost you. I think it’s important that we come out like we did in the first game where we’re playing physical, we’re emotionally invested, we have four lines rolling, and all of the [defensemen] are going.” – Blake Comeau on starting games strong
But if the Stars want to take back the momentum and regain a series lead, it’s going to come from committing to their identity and avoiding the frustration that can come from facing the Golden Knights’ stingy defense.
Getting a couple of goals from big-name players could also provide a sizable boost. Tyler Seguin hasn’t scored a goal in six games, while Denis Gurianov has gone five games and Jamie Benn and Joe Pavelski have each gone four games without finding the back of the net.
But those chances can’t come from risky play spawned out of frustration. They have to come from playing the right way, sticking to the system, and taking advantage of the opportunities as they appear.
“One thing I’ve noticed in this bubble is the ebbs and flows in the game and the momentum changes,” Nill said. “So far, we haven’t seen that in our series. I think that’s because both teams have great structure and are very consistent that way. But there’s always games within the games.”
Rick Bowness noted on Thursday morning that Ben Bishop, Taylor Fedun, and Stephen Johns are all still unfit to play, meaning that Anton Khudobin will likely be the starter for the fifth straight game and play in his 14th straight contest. Joel Hanley will likely be relied on once again to serve on the third pairing.
This is still a winnable series for the Dallas Stars. It’s all even at 1-1 and the winner of Game 3 should have a leg-up on taking control of the momentum in the series.
But if the Stars are going to get that win tonight, it’s going to take a fast and aggressive start, timely offense, and a recommitment to the details that have gotten them to this point.
“I feel like most of our games are pretty similar,” Benn said. “Two good teams with a lot of depth, good goaltending, and some great players on the back end. This whole series will be a chess match and we’re just looking forward to [Thursday].”