The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.
What We Saw
When our Iztok Franco asked me about hockey the other day, I told him that the NHL is the perfect blend of basketball (with its emphasis on the best teams being driven by its best players) and boxing (the ultimate wicked environment). Game 1 between the Wild and Stars—a 3-2 Minnesota win in double overtime—showed us more of the latter than the former, as Joe Pavelski took a brutal hit from Matt Dumba that took him out of the game, and likely longer. Hockey loves promoting the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a form of pugilism, and while there’s a whole other discussion about the ridiculous lengths hockey goes to normalize cruelty, we saw the blueprint for how Minnesota pushes Dallas to the edge: by making it a street fight.
When you move past Minnesota’s indiscretions, it’s easy to see how the Wild got here. They’re a lot like the Dallas teams of yesteryear, with their emphasis on tight hockey. They break out of the zone in a way that naturally counters Dallas’ forecheck. They have an extremely deep blueline. They’re led by a dynamite left winger (Kirill Kaprizov) and a brick wall of a netminder (Filip Gustavsson). I don’t think the Wild showed us anything that reveals they can take the series over the long haul, but it was enough last night.
Still, in a game defined by the muck (and there was a lot of that), there were plenty of positives. We saw Thomas Harley and Wyatt Johnston transition seamlessly from regular-season hockey into postseason hockey. We saw Dallas’ fifth-ranked power play work over a top-10 penalty-killing unit. And, most critically for Dallas’ outlook, we saw Jake Oettinger prove that his historic performance last year against Calgary in Game 7 was not only not a fluke—it just might be his standard.
This won’t be reassuring for Stars fans who will now see red every time Dumba’s name gets mentioned. But outcomes don’t show us who teams are. Processes do. Which is why I’m confident calling the Stars the better team even after a heartbreaking loss. For one series, however, they’re gonna need to be the better fighters, too. —David Castillo
What It Felt Like
The prologue of an epic. A table setting for what’s to come.
Because, save for their usual efficiency in the face-off circle and those hare-quick goals on the power play, little of what we saw Monday represented the Stars at their consistent best.
Sure, Dallas gained steam as the game went on. The team that appeared so languid in the first period was downright rabid by the third, a development that must have been sparked to some degree or another by the mugging Pavelski took in the second period. (Yes, it should have been a major, at minimum.) It was even more imposing in the overtime periods. Do not allow a cosmically terrible bounce on Ryan Hartman’s game-winner to obscure how Dallas grew into the game with each passing shift.
But these Stars also lapsed into sloppiness. For much of the first two periods, they were outshot and out-disciplined and out-hustled in the neutral zone. This scanned like an extended dress rehearsal for a team that has grown accustomed to dictating play. And should Pavelski miss significant time, it’s possible they never get untracked. No player matters more to this group’s ambitions, after all, and so maybe Dallas’ rhythm remains a hair or three off. Understudies could get stretched trying to replace him alongside Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson on Dallas’ vaunted top line. The power play might lose its jolt. That’s an easy-to-follow recipe for the Stars bowing out of a series they should win.
Still, even if the worst comes to pass, expect that to take a while. Because we just watched hockey at its angriest, and once bile like that is stirred up, it feels destined to stick around for a while, to fester. This series will not end soon. And just as the Stars’ shade of rough-and-tumble hockey only carried them so far a year ago, the latter stages of Monday’s game make it hard to feel like Minnesota’s won’t play into their favor this time around—that, sooner or later, quality and stylistic diversity will carry the day.
Last year, I wrote that Dallas’ Game 7 against Calgary felt like the end of something. And it was. So consider last night the start of many somethings. A playoff series. A new postseason era under its first-year head coach. Perhaps even a Cup run, too. It just happened to be an exhausting way to get each of them going. —Mike Piellucci