If this Stanley Cup final is going to be hijacked by role players, suffocating goaltending and defensive play, you really have to like the Dallas Stars’ chances to win their second championship in franchise history. We all know that the longer the playoffs go, the less compelling the hockey often gets. By this time of the tournament, you’re basically just trying to stay upright.
So when the Stars took Game 1 of the final with a 4-1 win Saturday night, we should not have been too surprised. Under coach Rick Bowness, the Stars are learning more and more how to win. And they’re also learning that it’s much easier to destroy a masterpiece rather than create one. The Tampa Bay Lightning are tired and banged up and, yes they’re a much better defensive team, but if they’re going to be prevented from dictating the pace of play they way they were for the first two periods of Game 1, that stunning array of talent isn’t going to mean much.
How many times have we heard that in order to win in the playoffs your best players have to be your best players? Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question. For the Stars, their best players didn’t have to be their best players because lower-rung roster players such as Joel Hanley, Jamie Oleksiak and Jason Dickinson took care of the offensive heavy lifting. And so did Joel Kiviranta, who is either a star in the making or a guy having the best couple of weeks of his life. “If I was any smarter a coach,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said, “I’d have had him playing a lot earlier than this.”
The Lightning, on the other hand, looked every bit the team that had a one-day turnaround from its previous series. It’s no secret that Brayden Point is playing through an injury and not only was he held off the scoresheet, he had no shots on goal and three shot attempts on the night. One of the reasons why the Lightning stalled was due to their top line being shut down by the Stars’ fourth unit consisting of Dickinson between Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau. See what we said about destroying the masterpiece?
“They’ve done a great job for us, not only during the playoffs, but all season long,” Bowness said. “Dickie has stepped in for us and taken (the injured Radek Faksa’s minutes). That’s what we expect from them and they did a great job for us.”
As far as the Lightning are concerned, not sure about how others feel, but your trusty correspondent is getting a little weary of hearing about how this team has become so much better defensively and is comfortable playing in low-scoring and, frankly, boring games. There’s no doubt you have to be a well-rounded team and a good one defensively to win, but you’re also not going to triumph if you don’t play to your true identity.
New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz said during the Eastern Conference final that he didn’t want to turn the game into a track meet against the Lightning. The problem for Tampa was that it was content to keep the game at a turgid pace and it almost cost them. If you’re the Lightning, why not turn it into a track meet? Why not come out and dictate the terms of engagement and see how the other team responds? The Lightning won the Stanley Cup 16 years ago under John Tortorella relying on the mantra ‘Safe is Death’. The Lighting would be well-advised to dig that sign out of the storage room at the Amalie Arena, send it emergency overnight express to Edmonton and plaster it prominently on the wall of their dressing room. “ We had to do a lot more than just what we did in the third period,” lamented Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I don’t even know if you can take a shower after the first two periods.”
The Lightning seemed to get the message between the second and third, outshooting the Stars 22-2 in the third frame on the strength of three power-play opportunities. But as terrific as Stars goalie Anton Khudobin has been – and he has been very, very good – the Stars are also very good at not allowing too many 10-bell chances while being outshot.
“We try to keep them to the outside…we’ll give them the outside shot,” Bowness said. “Their power play had some great looks because they’re so highly skilled and elite level. But for the most part, when we’re playing our game, we’re keeping shots to the outside, which we’re willing to give up. Your goalie has to know what we’re willing to give up. For the most part, we’re protecting the middle of the ice and we’re going to give you that outside shot.”
And because of that, the Stars have better than an outside shot to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, three more performances like Game 1 should do the trick.