Our brains are designed to spare us future hurt by teaching us to avoid the causes of past trauma. Fool me once, shame on you, and so on. But some areas of life demand that we continue exposing ourselves to pain, no matter how savvy we become. The reason Taylor Swift made a name for herself with breakup-revenge songwriting is we much prefer to blame others for our heartbreak than to sit with the pain our own choices always have the potential to bring. I’m basically just recapping the plot of Bridesmaids at this point, I guess.
Anyway, only three teams are still playing in the NHL this season, and the Stars are one of them. After squandering a late lead in Game 2 against the Vegas Golden Knights, and after pulling a [redacted] in Game 3, Dallas had more or less appeared to have recused itself from consideration for the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl. The captain had embarrassed himself, and some fans followed suit, which made a measly overtime victory in a win-or-go-home Game 4 feel like a consolation prize.
And then the Stars won Game 5, becoming just the fifth team to force a Game 6 after going down 3-0 this late in the playoffs. Stars fans should know this feeling. In 2008, Dallas went down 3-0 against a Detroit team that was one of the best NHL teams of the modern era,with Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidström, and Henrik Zetterberg headlining a squad that made every game feel like Dallas was skating uphill. Nevertheless, the Stars scraped together a pair of wins behind Marty Turco, who held Detroit to just one goal in each victory, only to succumb to a host of injuries plus Detroit’s superior firepower in a 4-1 elimination loss in Game 6.
This series feels different, though. It’s not a juggernaut facing a mere contender that punches back when the dominant team takes a breather. This is two evenly matched teams slugging it out. Two of Vegas’ three wins have come in overtime. Mistakes are getting punished. Goaltenders on both sides have needed to be heroic. So a 3-2 series one way or another was always likely, albeit not in this way.
While it would take three more games to bear fruit, the seeds of the Stars’ comeback were planted after Game 1, when they began overloading the strong side, leading to better scoring chances than Vegas usually allows. The Stars have forechecked harder and more aggressively, and it has led to a few more 2-on-2 and even 3-on-2 chances against. But Dallas’ defense corps has borne the weight of dynamic hockey much better than Vegas lately, with Thomas Harley in particular helping the Stars’ breakout to be more efficient than ever.
Otherwise, much has been made of the Stars’ penchant for being a low-to-high team, and Luke Glendening’s tip-in goal on Saturday was a great example of that. But the real reason Dallas is getting the opportunity to tie the series is that, just like the previous two series, the Stars are adapting their game on the fly. They’re happy to bump it back to the point and create chaos and traffic, but they’ve also found ways to reimagine their attack such that they’re getting to puck in good areas much closer to the net.
Jason Robertson is the most obvious example, given how Game 4 was his best game of the postseason. He’s not alone, though. The new-look fourth line has managed good offensive-zone time for two straight games, and Ty Dellandrea finally proved that Adin Hill’s inner Arizona Coyote still comes out from time to time. Even Ryan Suter had a strong game, recovering from a goal-against early to set up another one by leading a great rush on Robertson’s goal from a similarly dangerous spot. Max Domi has been fantastic at both ends of the ice lately. And all of that plays up because Jake Oettinger has regained his dominant form, including a huge stop on William Karlsson in Game 5 to keep the Stars within one goal at the end of the first period.
Ultimately, after seeing their offense stifled by Vegas for three games, the Stars had to find a way to open things up, and they have. Per Natural Stat Trick, through the first three games at 5v5, they averaged only six high-danger shots per game. In both Game 4 and Game 5, they piled up 15 high-danger shots.
Here’s the bad news: as great as all of that sounds, it has been just enough for the Stars to eke out come-from-behind wins in close games. That’s not a criticism of Dallas so much as testament to the nature of playoff hockey against great teams. Bounces off the boards were a huge talking point after Game 1, and more bounces will surely turn things one way or the other in Game 6. As David said after Game 5, momentum is fickle. When you start to ride the wave, you don’t get to guarantee when it will crash.
I’d expect Vegas to come out as the more desperate team in Game 6, but the Golden Knights’ desperation has burned them already, like when Nicolas Hague shoved Domi into his own goaltender right before Dellandrea scored the Stars’ fourth goal on Saturday. Still, they will continue to target Dallas’ weak links as best they can, on zone entries, breakouts, and neutral-zone positioning. The Golden Knights got some great looks because Bruce Cassidy sees what’s going on, and he’s going to change things in an effort to counter Dallas’ pressure and willingness to give up some odd-man rushes. I wouldn’t expect the Stars’ fourth line to continue dominating Vegas as it has done recently, but this has never been a series about one or two battles. These teams are too good and too deep for that, and Dallas is about to get that much deeper with Jamie Benn re-entering the lineup.
The Stars probably won’t win this series, because winning four elimination games in a row against a good team is never probable in hockey. We all heard too many times after Game 3 that only four teams have ever come back to win from a 3-0 hole in NHL history, which is why many of you detached yourselves emotionally after the embarrassment of that loss. But now, through hard work, some bounces, and more heroics, they’ve gone and pulled you back in.
Now there’s a choice: You can stay detached, knowing the odds are more likely to vindicate your choice and spare you greater pain, or you can dive all the way back in. This is always the battle, isn’t it? We can choose to care, or we can listen to our pain and fear.
But how can you not care right now? How can you not punch your fist in the air when Robertson dives onto his belly to clear a puck out of the defensive zone in the final minutes of Game 5? Hope unsought is the sweetest sort, and the Stars have stubbornly provided it for two games with their backs against the wall.
Wilson Phillips said it best: no one can change your life except for you. The Stars have pushed back twice now, and making it this far is the single best reason to believe they just might possibly make it the rest of the way. It’s not likely, but it’s nowhere near as impossible as it felt five days ago. They just need to hold on for one more day, two more times.