On Monday night, in front of 20,000 raucous towel-waving puckheads, with less than two minutes left in the third period, St. Louis Blues winger Patrick Maroon lifted a wrister over the splayed pads of Stars goalie Ben Bishop. The corner-painter capped an exciting four-goal back-and-forth in the frame, gut-punching the assembled Stars faithful and extinguishing the then-simmering hope for a comeback. The Stars had a chance to pull even with a two-man advantage in the waning seconds, due to a powerplay and an empty net, but St. Louis put the backchecking clamps down, and the good guys didn’t even manage a shot on goal.
As a result, the boys in victory green™ find themselves in a 1-2 series hole in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against their Central Division bunkmates. The 4-3 victory gives St. Louis its fourth road win of the playoffs, keeping them perfect away from their home turf of Enterprise Center. The Stars will look to snap that streak and pull even in the series with Game 4 Wednesday night inside the AAC.
Finding themselves on the wrong side of the all-important third game, Dallas is staring at a potential re-enactment of the 2016 playoffs in which they were bounced in the second round by these same Blues. It’s fitting these two should have met in the postseason. In addition to a growing bitter division rivalry, these two teams were the league’s hottest at regular season’s close. As of January 3, the Lazarus-like Blues were dead last in the entire NHL. They managed just 34 points through their first 37 games. Newly energized after calling up rookie goaltending phenom Jordan Binnington to replace then No. 1 Jake Allen, the azure-winged quarter notes rattled off 11 straight wins after the new year to completely turn their season around. In Round 1 of the playoffs, even as underdogs, they fairly easily dispatched the Winnipeg Jets, one of the more complete teams in the league. They have shifty forwards, big, bruising defensemen, and a young netminder who’s proving (despite the Winnipeg hometown crowd’s taunting chant of “Yoooooou loooook neeeeervous!”) that the postseason isn’t too big for him.
The Stars’ season mirrors that of St. Louis a bit, too. After their own up-and-down start to the year, Dallas capitalized on a gutsy 10-5 record throughout March, riding it to clinch the top wild card slot, with six of those wins coming on the road. Steady offensive production from the top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Séguin, and Alexander Radulov, coupled with their own suffocating defensive play and a goaltending performance by “Big Ben” that has earned him a nod as a Vezina Trophy finalist, have the Stars peaking at the right time, too.
Bishop was stellar at times as he outduelled an inconsistent Pekka Rinne (himself a former Vezina winner) in Round 1 against the Nashville Predators. So far, he has been a difference-maker against St. Louis as well but not in the way that Dallas intended. It’s not that Bishop has been bad — he still boasts a save percentage above .900 — but in the two losses, he’s allowed a couple of questionable shots early in games, which have put the Stars playing from behind pretty much out of the gate. Dallas doesn’t really have the offense to overcome those situations consistently. As he was the key to their regular season success, how deep the Stars go will depend on how far Bishop can take them. Allowing uncharacteristic softies isn’t helping in that regard.
I admit it, the Blues scare me. I have nightmares about forward Vladimir Tarasenko’s gap-toothed grin during his goal-scoring celebrations. I hear the thunderous boom of defenseman Alex Pietrangelo’s glass-shattering slapshot echoing in my ears. And I’m prone to obsessively fixating on the petty, brutish shenanigans of Robert Bortuzzo, sending me into hair-pulling fits. Perhaps the sting of 2016’s disappointment is still just too fresh.
The series is far from over. If Dallas can manage to even it up here at home, it’s a brand-new three-game series starting in St. Louis on Friday, but I’ve been Pavlovian-ly conditioned to sweat at the sight of those garish navy-and-gold unis with the silly forward-leaning note. Let’s hope the Stars don’t have the same conditioning and can somehow manage to beat the Blues, or for my next column, I might unwillingly be forced to open with some shamefully cheesy headline about the Stars singing them.