The Dallas Stars’ problem on Saturday was not their goalie but the disturbing reality that when the game grew big they got small.
The Stars are good and they are talented, but they were not ready for this type of responsibility. They were not ready for Game 5 of the NHL’s Western Conference semifinals, not in their mindset and not in the way they are built.
With this second-round Stanley Cup playoff series tied at two, the Stars returned home with the chance to take the series lead. Instead they played the part of willing spectator during a decisive second period when they had the game shoved down their throat.
They have never been here before and Saturday it showed. The Blues won 4-1 and go back to St. Louis with the chance to close out this series Monday night.
“Puck luck,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said after the game.
That’s an adorable little slogan, but it’s also a cop-out to explain the difference in this series.
The NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs are hard, and his team is not hardened. Ruff knows it, but he can’t coach experience.
The Stars simply are not physically big enough to man up in a game against the Blues. They have to outskate the Blues, and bury the chances when they are on the doorstep; neither of the above happened Saturday.
Do not be surprised if the Stars win in St. Louis to force a Game 7. Be shocked if they actually win the decisive game.
The Stars need to win the next two games against a Blues team that has demonstrated to be the wretched matchup so many predicted the series to be. This series is basically going according to plan.
It’s the oldest truism in sports — good defenses stop good offenses. There was no better offense in the regular season than the Dallas Stars, and they had one of the league’s most powerful power plays. The Blues had one of the best defenses and penalty kill units.
We are in the playoffs, so scoring is down and officials are no longer liberal with the whistle. Or when they do use the whistle, there is no rhyme or reason. Saturday, there were no penalties in the first two periods combined. In the third, the same officials decided to call five.
If the Stars are going to remain a finesse, puck-possession team that wins by scoring then it must score when it has the chance. The Stars had no less than six pretty opportunities to score Saturday afternoon, other than the first goal scored by Alex Goligoski, that narrowly missed.
“We had some Grade A scoring chances,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said.
Stars forwards Ales Hemsky, Valeri Nichushkin, Patrick Sharp and Cody Eakin all had perfect, “Grade A” opportunities to score. So did Radek Faksa. They each finished with an “F” in Finishing.
On the same day Stars captain Jamie Benn was named one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s regular-season MVP, he was invisible. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock purposely sold his soul for his team to stop Benn, who thus far has been the most dominant skater in the entire NHL playoffs.
On Saturday, Benn did very little, as he finished with one shot. With Benn so quiet, so were the Stars. He finishes chances, whereas his teammates did not.
The game changed after the first period, when the Blues came out to start the second period as if they might never play the sport again.
“They were much better than we were in the first period,” Hitchcock said. “The best period of hockey we’ve played all year was in the second period.”
That’s fairly typical Hitch hyperbole, but he might not be wrong. In a roughly seven-minute stretch the Blues scored twice against a besieged Kari Lehtonen to take a two-goal lead. Lehtonen was not bad in this period, but he had absolutely no chance.
The Blues were physically dominant in that stretch and outshot the Stars 11-6 during the second period.
“They had a really good five or six minutes in the second when they were able to get those goals,” Lehtonen said. “Other than that it was evenly matched.”
That has been the problem in this series — it only takes a few minutes to separate the two. When the Blues have been better, they have been so by a wide, physical margin. The Stars are not physical enough to clear out the mess in front of their Finnish goalie du jour.
Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are big and punishing, whereas the Stars’ D-men, such as Goligoski, Klingberg and Jason Demers, are finesse guys.
The Blues have been outshot 158-144 in the series, but are winning by the combined score of 17-10. That speaks to quality.
When the Stars win, they do so by the finest of threads. When the Blues win, they do so with the harshest of hammers.
The Stars are capable of forcing a Game 7, but unless they can start wielding a hammer of their own, they are not meant to get by the Blues.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.