Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final presents an enticing opportunity for both the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night. While the Lightning will try to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, the Stars will look to turn it into a best-of-three. A 60-minute effort could be the key to their success.
There are a handful of things that we haven’t yet seen from the Dallas Stars through three Stanley Cup Final games that had become relatively typical and expected during the first three rounds of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For one, their top line has been primarily absent on the scoresheet. After making a notable and even game-changing impact throughout the first 18 games of the postseason, Jamie Benn (eight goals, 18 points) and Tyler Seguin (two goals, eight points) have yet to register a point in the Final, while Alexander Radulov (eight goals, 17 points) has contributed three assists.
On top of that, the Dallas power play has been absent and largely invisible through the first three games against the Lightning. After posting a League-high 29.8 percent on the man advantage during the first three rounds, the Stars have only capitalized on one of their 11 chances against Tampa Bay (9.1 percent).
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But perhaps most importantly of all, the Dallas Stars have yet to put together a full 60-minute effort against the Lightning.
It showed in Game 1 as Dallas built an early lead in the first 40 minutes and essentially turtled in the third period. It was present in Game 2 as the Stars were throttled in the opening frame and couldn’t claw back after a dominant second period and average third.
It was once again the story on Wednesday night in Game 3 as Dallas was the stronger and more engaged team in the first period despite the Lightning scoring two early goals, but became largely inconsistent and struggled as Tampa Bay imposed its will in the final 40 minutes of a 5-2 loss.
And while all of the Stars’ inefficiencies need to be fixed if they expect to win three more games and clinch the Stanley Cup against a deep and efficient Lightning team, putting forth a 60-minute effort could be the key in getting the rest of their game up and running.
Runs and hot streaks have been a primary storyline through the first three games of the series. The Stars came out of the gate strong in Game 1 and built a lead before essentially parking the bus and protecting that lead. Game 2 was primarily controlled by the Stars, but an early surge by the Lightning and bad penalties taken by Dallas resulted in an insurmountable Tampa lead through 20 minutes.
"“When you’re on them, you try to not think too much, keep doing the things that you’re doing, stay focused, turn the other way, and ride them out as long as you can. When they’re going against you, it’s up to the guys to really take a deep breath, turn it back, and get back to a forecheck shift.” – Joe Pavelski on streaks in the first three games"
And in Game 3, the Stars once again found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard after the first period, though they had been the better team. It was the final 40 minutes that did them in as the Lightning found a hot streak and outshot Dallas 24-8 while outscoring them 3-1 in the final two periods.
“I really liked our first period,” Pavelski said. “We had a lot of energy, they get a couple of breaks off our sticks, and go from there. It’s something that shouldn’t change our game from first to second period like it did. For us when we get stuck in the penalty box, I think it hurts our runs a little bit. When we’re playing five-on-five and rolling our lines, it’s in our favor.”
The fact of the matter is that the Dallas Stars have to be on top of their game from opening puck drop to the final horn. If it wasn’t already obvious, it is now. The Lightning are too deep and skilled of a team and can both force and capitalize on errors by their opponents. It’s one of the main reasons that many say the Stars have beaten themselves more than the Lightning have.
Four penalties by Dallas in Game 2? Tampa Bay capitalized on half of them. A Miro Heiskanen turnover in Game 3? They put it in the back of the net. Esa Lindell mistiming an attempted check a few minutes later? Same story.
"“Our details need to get a little sharper and our execution needs to get a little bit better. We need to find that energy and stay with it longer. If we can do that, we’re in every game. We don’t need to be down two, three goals after the first like we have been. Our execution right from the start can go up, our details can go up, and the commitment to do this together and not getting spread out and trying to go on our own. It’s hard. You get into this and you get two good teams. It’s a fine line and you have to be sharp.” – Joe Pavelski on avoiding mistakes against Tampa Bay"
What makes the Lightning such a threat is that they can quickly turn bungles by the opposition into turning points in a given game. And that’s all the more reason why the Stars have to be on their toes instead of their heels for a full 60 minutes.
“You want the intensity with composure,” Stars forward Tyler Seguin said on Wednesday. “I think we got away from our structure a bit. We’ve had great periods in this series so far. We haven’t had a full 60-minute Dallas Stars hockey game yet, so that’s what we’re looking for right now.”
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Now, that’s easier said than done. After all, the Lightning are doing their part to make it difficult on the Stars right now. It’s been evident in their scoring struggles and excessive penalties taken throughout the past two games.
But for the Stars to get back to their style of play and effectively turn this series into a best-of-three on Friday night, staying sharp and keeping their foot on the gas for 60 minutes could play a pivotal role in helping them take over.
“We beat ourselves the other night, clearly, with the easy goals we gave them,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said. “We’ve got to get our structure back and our mentality back of how we play. We’re still trying to get our defense a little bit more involved in the other zone. The details of our game have to be there for 60 minutes, and that’s been lacking.
“It’s up to the players now. We know what we have to do and we need to get prepared to do it. It’s as simple as that. We need to get out there and execute, play with determination, and all the other things you need to do in order to give yourself a good chance to win the game.”
And as it always seems to happen, Game 4 presents a unique opportunity for both the Stars and Lightning. For Tampa Bay, a win would put them on the brink of closing the series and push Dallas into full survival mode. But for the Stars, a win evens the series up and gives them a jolt of momentum going into the second half of a back-to-back on Saturday.
“Right now, there’s one game on our mind and it’s the next one. It’s a key moment in the series. 2-2 looks way better than 3-1. Right now, it’s get our game back and get it back for longer stretches. At times, we’ve chased the game in this series. Just get back to better details on our part. There’s a different level to this Stars team, for sure.”
“I think we’re used to it,” Seguin added about the back-to-back schedule. “Obviously, we’re not there yet and that’s tomorrow. In these moments, you just focus on tonight and this game and not worry about the next day.”
The dynamic surrounding Game 4 is an entertaining one. The Dallas Stars still know that they can play with their opponent, but have found ways to beat themselves over the past two games. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is riding a wave of confidence that includes two straight wins and eight combined goals in the span.
“I think we may be more excited right now being down 2-1,” Seguin said. “We didn’t think it was going to be easy. This is what it’s all about, being down in a series in these big moments. This is what we play for, so there was a lot of smiles today.”
Getting back to a full 60-minute effort of aggressive and stingy play should yield a lot of positives for the Dallas Stars. Their top line of Benn, Seguin, and Radulov looked strong and energetic in the first period of Game 3, but fizzled into the background as the game went along. The power play has been generating looks, but can’t seem to break through.
"“We’ve had our chances that haven’t gone in, but obviously we need more as well. It’s the oldest cliche of all time. Your top players have to be your top players. We have to find some production here.” – Seguin on the play of the Stars’ top line"
The absence of Blake Comeau, who is a game-time decision on Friday after missing Game 3, was felt on Wednesday as the Stars struggled on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone. His compete level seems to bring a positive energy to the entire team, and accessing that energy for 60 minutes should be beneficial.
Anton Khudobin has been a rock and had plenty of heroic moments for Dallas throughout the postseason, and a balanced and consistent attack should help him gain some confidence and momentum back after a rough Game 3.
All in all, the Dallas Stars can greatly benefit from finding a way to start strong and transfer that momentum between periods in Game 4. Regardless of the outcome in the previous game, only one win separates the two teams right now.
A win tonight evens it up and gives the Stars a chance to seize back momentum as the series grows closer to crowning a champion. If they can get back to playing their style of hockey and using their speed and skill to be the better team for three periods, they just might find a way to turn this series into a best-of-three.
The belief is there. All that’s missing is the consistency.
“We were down 2-1 to Calgary and battled back,” Bowness said. “I don’t think we’ve been the favorite going into any series, so we’re counted out before it begins. I don’t think that bothers us one bit. We have the same mentality going into every game, regardless of the opponent.
“We know what we have to do to be successful. We’ve made it to the final two with the two top teams in the League. Do people count us out now? Probably. We don’t, and that’s all that matters.”