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
Was there ever any doubt? Well, yes. But the Stars sure played like there wasn’t. Their top three lines scored en route to a 4-1 victory. Jake Oettinger continued his run of “Can’t Beat Me” vibes. Miro Heiskanen maintained his defensive brilliance, shutting down Kirill Kaprizov.
But this wasn’t just a win to close out the series; it was a statement win. Not only did all of Dallas’ scoring lines get on board, but they did so at even strength. They even, dare I say, showed no mercy, padding their lead in the second with less than a second left. It’s the kind of play we’ve come to expect from Pete DeBoer’s aggressive system, and it’s delivering when the stakes are highest.
Matt Dumba’s hit on Joe Pavelski is still gruesome. Marcus Foligno and the sideshow between Minnesota‘s burly winger and the league’s questionable officiating is still grating. Those were and are their own narratives, but don’t let the absurdity distract you from the work Dallas got done. Oettinger managed to outduel one of the very few goalies who was statistically better than him in Filip Gustavsson, the best goalie in the West. Tyler Seguin, who helped initiate the Jim Nill era, was integral to getting the Stars past an otherwise capable penalty-killing unit. Now Dallas is unlikely to face a defense this good until—unless—it makes the Stanley Cup Final.
If I’m getting ahead of myself, it’s because that’s the nature of playoff hockey. Playoff efficiency only matters until you’re celebrating with the Cup (or maybe, possibly throwing it off a rock star’s balcony). Because of that, it’s hard to think about anything other than what happens between Colorado and Seattle. How would Dallas look against the Avalanche, who keep losing key players and whose best players have been somewhat unhinged? How might they look against Seattle, who look capable, but not exactly the most threatening? I’m not saying the road is paved. But the Stars put away a good team a lot more comfortably than their peers did—and that’s presuming teams like Boston, Toronto, New Jersey, Colorado, or Edmonton make it out of the first round alive.
And that’s the difference between this team and the Stars of years past. They haven’t been perfect, but they have been bold. They’ve perfectly blended their old guard with a new core, and the result is an assertive bunch instead of one that leans on some half-cocked identity of “grit first” (ahem) or whatever. That makes the Stars the team to fear for a second round in a row. And if they keep playing like they did on Friday, perhaps much longer than that. —David Castillo
What It Felt Like
Try as we might, there is no discerning the precise moment when a team has been beaten into submission.
You cannot spot when its collective fight has evaporated, when its members recognize that they are well and truly defeated. For some of them, it might not be a moment at all so much as a gradual realization that whatever they have is just not good enough.
But you can, for instance, hear the diminuendo in the Xcel Energy Center after Roope Hintz drilled the goal of the series in the first period. You can pick out the lethargy in Minnesota’s attack, which was outshot 18-5 in the climactic second period and 33-24 for the game. You could read the dejection on Gustavsson’s face after Mason Marchment’s flashbang of a buzzer-beating goal. The Wild were finished a couple of hours before the final buzzer sounded on their season, and perhaps a good bit longer than that, too.
This was expected fare. We’ve said so in this space since early this series, when it was obvious that Dallas was the more skilled, better-rounded squad. More than that, it’s what team and coach alike are accustomed to. The Stars have reached the second round in four of their past five playoff appearances. Pete DeBoer has done so in seven of his eight playoff appearances as a head coach.
But we need only look to the Stars’ co-tenants in the American Airlines Center to appreciate a team that plays to its ceiling and then some; that absorbs setbacks like Pavelski’s injury and that double-overtime loss on home ice to open the series, and shrugs them off. Better still, a team capable of repairing its flaws, as the Stars may have just done on even strength in this game. Dallas got stronger as the series went along and could be even more formidable if Pavelski, who was a game-time decision Friday, makes it back for the beginning of the second round. That should have a knock-on effect on Jason Robertson, who has only delivered flickers of the player who just set the franchise record for points in a season.
There’s plenty of of room to go before this team hits its ceiling, in other words. Right now, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about Dallas’ chances of climbing a few more rungs toward it. —Mike Piellucci