On the Radar: Back in the Fight
The longer this season goes, the more the Dallas Stars find new obstacles hurled in their direction. And the longer this season goes, the more they find new ways to overcome them.
In a season filled with injuries, illnesses, cardiac events and more, the Stars have gotten used to punching their way off the ropes and back into a fight. But it appears that they waited for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to land their largest blow yet.
The Stars, who were sizeable underdogs in their opening-round series against the Western Conference regular season champion Anaheim Ducks, got off to a rocky start in their return to the playoffs after a five-year absence. Icing a roster with 13 players who had never skated in the NHL postseason, Dallas struggled in the first period of Game 1. They gave up three early goals to fall behind, and although they admirably clawed their way back to make it a one-goal game, the feeling was that the Stars might be in over their heads. You couldn’t blame them for not being ready to adjust to the biggest spotlight their sport had to offer. Over half of them had never been here before.
In Game 2 they largely dictated play, but some bad turnovers and opportunistic finishing by their opponents again did the Stars in. Two decent performances. Two lessons learned. But two losses.
That’s ok. It was a good run for a first-year unit rebuilding their way back into NHL relevancy. It was probably time to simply say, “Good Job. Good Effort,” but understand that they just weren’t ready to contend with a Stanley Cup Favorite that set franchise records in wins and points. There’d be no shame in bowing out gracefully at this point of the season. Especially after exceeding the expectations most people had for them in the first place.
There’s just one problem. These Stars don’t know how to bow out.
Over the last seven months the Stars have been met with so much adversity, so many proverbial forks in the road, and so many opportunities where it would’ve been completely understandable and justified to concede defeat. But they never did. It’s just not in this team’s DNA. No matter what new hurdle presents itself, the Stars always seem up for the challenge.
Their most recent Houdini-like escape featured a new task for this never-say-die collection of men. A 2-0 series deficit against a hot team, with a hot goaltender, and all the momentum in the other locker room. You can say you need to take things one game at a time all you want, but the fact is that Dallas needed to come home and beat Anaheim twice in a row to stay alive in the series. Certainly not an easy task versus a club that was 13-4-1 in their prior 18 games heading into Game 3. The Stars responded by getting a series-high, 37 saves from Kari Lehtonen and some timely scoring in a 3-0 win on Monday. The Stars also continued to play a physical brand of hockey that started to take Anaheim out of their comfort zone. With a lot of verbal jabbing between Games 3 & 4, the Stars task promised to be even more difficult on Wednesday.
When Game 4 began the Stars seemed energized and poised to make a run at evening the series. But then things changed. After all it wouldn’t be the Stars way to post back-to-back wins without making it interesting first. Dallas went dark in the back half of the first period, failing to record a single shot. They allowed the first two goals of the game and went into first intermission trailing for the first time since Game 1. The news got even worse when they lost defenseman Patrik Nemeth with two periods to play. Already without Brenden Dillon, Nemeth had nicely filled a spot on the second pairing eating up valuable minutes. So, here were the Stars. Down 2-1 in the series. Down 2-0 in the game. Down to five defensemen, including two on their third pair. And facing all of this in a virtual must-win game. How would they respond?
If you’ve watched the Stars this season, you knew exactly how they’d respond.
The Stars scored in the opening minute of the second period and never looked back. They outshot the Ducks 16-3 in the frame. They tied the score, and then added two more goals to pull away in the third period. With a shorthanded blue line, they held the NHL’s #1 offense in the regular season to 12 shots over the final 40 minutes.
Remember that young, hot, rookie goaltender for Anaheim? They chased him from the game, handing him consecutive losses for the first time in his career. Remember that physical play we talked about? The Stars executed their game plan so well that they got Ryan Getzlaf to fight in Game 3, Corey Perry to fight in Game 4, Patrick Maroon to get sent off early in both games, and Bruce Boudreau to focus on that, above all else, in his press conferences. They have completely thrown Anaheim’s mental game into disarray, and the Ducks look like a severely rattled group right now.
The Ducks had a 2-0 stranglehold on this series. Now they have a goaltending controversy, a subplot about physicality they have to answer to, an injury to their captain who missed Game 4, a thin blue line hampered by injury, a disgruntled future Hall-of-Famer who was unexpectedly sat down in Teemu Selanne, a Head Coach who seemed agitated in his Game 4 press conference, a whole bunch of tight collars back in Orange County, and a team in the Stars who will not stop coming at them.
Meanwhile, the Stars have drawn more penalties than they’ve taken, have outscored the Ducks 11-9 (including 11-6 since the opening period of the series), could be getting healthier with Dillon and Nemeth both questionable for Game 5, and have a Head Coach who smiles and laughs when asked about the physical play, simply calling it “playoff hockey.” Through four close games, it’s the inexperienced Stars who have a 5-1 advantage in third period scoring. Dallas looks poised and confident. And most importantly, they have every reason to believe that they’ve been the better team through four games.
Which one of these teams was the #1 seed again? Which one of these teams is chock-full of playoff rookies?
A once-tilted Best-of-7 has now become a Best-of-3. The Stars have struggled on the road this season and Anaheim had the third best home record in the NHL. The Ducks still have home ice advantage, meaning the Stars will have to figure out how to win at least once at the Honda Center. Home teams are a perfect 4-0 in this series so far, and 13-1 in the Western Conference playoffs. Because of this, despite all of the turmoil currently inside the Ducks room, many people still believe that Anaheim will prevail in the series. And that’s just fine with the Stars.
Dallas has slugged its way back into the series. Game 5 is in Anaheim on Friday. Game 6 returns to the AAC on Sunday, where one team will have a chance to close out the series. If necessary, the series could be decided in a Game 7 back in California on Tuesday. Wherever and however, the Stars are hoping to land two more haymakers to carry them into the next round. They’re still not the favorites. They’re still not expected to get there. But they’ve defied the odds all season long. Why should now be any different?
After watching what you saw in Games 3 and 4, would you want to bet against them?
Following a four-game split, the Stars and Ducks will close their series this week for the right to advance to the second round. Here are some things to keep ‘On the Radar’ for the remainder of the opening round series:
Stars defensemen Alex Goligoski continues to defy the laws of fatigue as he stockpiles minutes in the playoffs at an even greater rate than he did in the regular season. He led the Stars with an average of 24:18 of ice time per game in the regular season, finishing 21st overall in the NHL. In the postseason he has averaged 29:08 through four games. He ranks 7th in the league, however that is a misleading placement, considering the six players ahead of him have all played in multiple overtimes that still count as parts of a single game. In terms of playing a percentage of his team’s overall minutes, no one in the 2014 NHL Playoffs has played more than Goligoski. In Game 4, the Stars blue liner wore the brunt of Dallas playing short a defenseman for the final two periods, and he logged 32:48 of the 60 total minutes.
What’s even more impressive than the minutes Goligoski is playing is the quality he is delivering in those minutes. He has two points in the four games, and is tied for the team lead with a +4 rating. He has also been matched up against the Ducks top line as often as possible, and despite his high-volume minutes, he has only been on the ice for two goals against in the entire series. One of those goals came on a Ducks power play.
Controlling the Circle
In the regular season series with the Ducks, the Stars won the faceoff battle in all three games. They finished the head-to-head series with a 57.2% success rate on draws. After getting out-drawn 46-37 in the opening game of this playoff series, the Stars have won the majority of faceoffs in each of the last three games. Overall the Stars have won 150 of the 282 faceoffs in the series (53.2%). That includes a stellar mark of 82-56 in games at American Airlines Center. Faceoffs are a key component for a team as focused on puck possession as the Stars.
Leading the way in the faceoff circle has been veteran Vernon Fiddler. This is Fiddler’s first postseason since 2011, and he has been terrific thus far. He had the game-tying goal in Game 4’s eventual comeback win, and has been very strong physically and defensively. However, his largest contribution may be in the faceoff circle. Fiddler has won 45 of his 66 faceoffs taken, for a winning percentage of 68.2%. That mark ranks him third among all players in the NHL postseason. In a series that is coming down to the wire and could hinge on winning an offensive or defensive zone draw, Fiddler and the Stars should feel very confident in their ability to gain possession during the key restarts to come.
Haunted by the Past
While the majority of the Stars have very little Stanley Cup Playoff past to draw from, one key figure for the Ducks has a history he’s trying to re-write. Anaheim Head Coach Bruce Boudreau is one of the more well-respected coaches in the NHL. Since becoming a full-time NHL Head Coach in 2007, he has led his teams to a remarkable 312-143-62 regular season record. That amounts to a winning percentage of .663. Even further impressive is that his success has come with two different teams in the Washington Capitals and the Ducks.
However, for all of his regular season success, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have proven to be a difficult hurdle for Boudreau-coached teams. Including the first four games of the Dallas-Anaheim series, Boudreau is just 22-26 all-time in his NHL Postseason coaching career. This is Boudreau’s seventh season behind a NHL bench, and despite the fact that his teams have never been worse than a #3 seed, Bourdreau has only made it past the opening round twice, and has never gone further than that. Boudreau has been the higher seed in every postseason series of his NHL coaching career, but only has a 2-5 series record to show for it. He has coached in five Game 7’s in the NHL, and is 1-4 in those games. He coached the home team in all of them. His most recent playoff blemish came last season when his #2 seeded Ducks were ousted in seven games by the #7 seed Detroit Red Wings. If the Stars can win one more game and push Boudreau’s club to the brink of elimination, history will not be on Anaheim’s side.
During the series shift to Dallas, many comments were made in the media regarding a perceived heightened physical play by the Stars. Several Anaheim players and coaches suggested that they felt the Stars crossed a line with their physicality. For all of the steam that narrative garnered, it is interesting to note that the two clubs have had almost identical penalty statistics throughout the season and this series. In the 82-game regular season, the Ducks had two more overall penalties called than the Stars (359-357), but Dallas finished with six more penalty minutes than Anaheim (900-894). Neither team was anywhere near the top of the NHL in team penalties or minutes. The Stars and Ducks finished 13th and 14th, respectively in PIM this season.
In the postseason, however, it has been a different story. The Ducks lead the NHL with both 29 infractions and 101 penalty minutes. The Stars are second with 25 penalties for 77 minutes. The combined 178 penalty minutes is far and away the most in any opening round series thus far. The closest competition is the St. Louis-Chicago matchup, which has featured 113 penalty minutes through the first four games. Despite all of the penalties, neither team has been very effective on the power play. The Stars are just 2-for-17 in the series, with the Ducks marginally better at 2-for-16. The Stars have killed off 13 straight Anaheim power plays after the Ducks converted two of their first three chances in the series. With the bad blood reaching a fever pitch in Game 4, there is no reason to expect the temperament of this series to change with a return visit to Southern California on Friday.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.