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Hockey

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Stars-Avalanche, Game 4

A stunning pregame suspension leads to a Dallas rout in Denver.
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The Stars did plenty of celebrating as they put Colorado on the brink of elimination. Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

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

The bombshell dropped roughly an hour before the game: Avs forward Valeri Nichushkin had entered Stage 3 of the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program, effectively ending his postseason and suspending the forward for at least six months without pay. From the sound of things, his tenure in Colorado might be over. 

It could not have happened to a more pivotal player. The ex-Stars first-rounder had scored in seven of Colorado’s first eight postseason games and was tied for the playoff lead in goals. Even on a team with Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, Nichushkin was Colorado’s most dominant player in the first three games of this series. Making matters worse, roughly 40 minutes later, the Avalanche took warmups without an ill Devon Toews, their top-pairing defender and Makar’s running mate. 

The game hadn’t even started, and already the Avalanche were falling apart.

Then Wyatt Johnston took care of the rest. 

Playing his final game as a 20-year-old—he can buy his first legal drink today—Johnston scored both shorthanded and on the power play, becoming the first 20-year-old to score on both special teams in a playoff game since some guy named Wayne Gretzky. 

He did it through a mix of flair and practicality. On his shorthanded goal, he took a smart, simple route on the forecheck, calmy positioned himself at the front of the net, and won a battle for his own rebound. Later, on the power play, Johnston was ready for the seeing-eye pass from Jason Robertson, picturesquely dropping to one knee for a tight-angle one-timer. 

One of the youngest Stars set the tone, and his teammates followed. 

Even with a Colorado goal in the second period, the Avalanche never looked like it had a legitimate chance to come back. The Stars played simple, stifling, effective hockey in the third period, allowing Jake Oettinger to see and hold everything. Evegenii Dadonov added an insurance marker to make it 4-1. Johnston passed on the empty-netter, dishing to Sam Steel instead of taking his own hat-trick to make it 5-1. 

That last bit was a final show of maturity from a player whose presence and importance extend well beyond his years. Johnston broke the Avalanche in Game 4. Don’t be surprised if he and his teammates  strike the final blow in Game 5. —Sean Shapiro

What It Felt Like

It must be strange, that sensation of confidence. 

Colorado was and is a team to fear. Players such as Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar inspire that, as they should. But boy, has Dallas collectively understood the assignment. That’s back-to-back wins in hockey’s toughest barn, with Monday perhaps being even more dominant than Dallas’ impressive Game 3 victory in Denver. 

This series has been building up to this. While I thought Colorado came away looking like the better team in Game 1 even while needing a comeback, in hindsight, that opening game looks like an omen. A team built on momentum and opportunity could scrape together only a single extended barrage, and that barely earned them a victory. The pattern has been clear: the Avalanche can’t keep up.  

To that end, a lot of credit goes to the usual suspects in Chris Tanev, Jake Oettinger, and Wyatt Johnston. (Especially Johnston; seeing him puckjack Cale Makar for a shorthanded goal was the latest indicator he might be the best player out of the 2021 draft.) However, while the individual superheroes were on full display, hockey is not a Marvel lineup. A victory isn’t built on one ability, from one person, but a collection of abilities to meet the needs of sustainable accomplishment. Evgenii Dadonov (who blew the game open in Game 3 and notched another on Monday) and Sam Steel (who did some yeoman’s work on Johnston’s shorthanded goal, a fact likely not lost on Johnston given that lay-off on the empty netter) may be on the hockey version of custodial duty, but they’ve been phenomenal at it. 

It’s a nice counterpoint to the trickle-down version of what Colorado is serving, and maybe that’s why this series feels over. Nobody can replace MacKinnon and Makar. But players like Andrew Cogliano and Zach Parise? I’d argue that Radek Faksa and Ty Dellandrea are better forwards at this point in their respective careers, and they’re Dallas’ two healthy scratches!  

So you’re saying it’s over. Jeez, thanks for the jinx! 

I said it feels over. Emotions are not facts, but they can be a strong clue for what we know to be true, which is this: Colorado hasn’t officially lost the series, but it certainly feels like Dallas is on the verge of winning it. —David Castillo

Authors

Sean Shapiro

Sean Shapiro

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Sean Shapiro covers the Stars for StrongSide. He is a national NHL reporter and writer who previously covered the Dallas…
David Castillo

David Castillo

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David Castillo covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has written for SB Nation and Wrong Side of the Red Line,…
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