Nearly three years ago, as we were all still trying to reconcile with a new, unrecognizable world due to an unprecedented international health crisis, with society eager for some sense of normality, the NHL playoffs managed to take place in a player-isolated “bubble” in Toronto. Once play resumed after the shutdown that paused the regular season, the Dallas Stars went on one heck of a run, ultimately beating the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Finals to advance to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup appearance in 20 years.
Fast forward to this week, and Vegas has returned the favor, eliminating the Stars in this year’s conference championship in six games. The handshakes took place on Memorial Day as Dallas faltered in phenomenally lackadaisical fashion, a drumming with a 6-0 final score. It was the Stars’ third straight potential elimination game after beginning the round down in a 0-3 hole to the Knights. It was a decidedly anticlimactic conclusion to what had previously been an exciting year for the boys in Victory Green™. Not only did Dallas’ normally high-flying offense offer a depressing goose egg on the scoreboard, with their season in jeopardy, and at home, they managed only 23 shots on goal in the effort and were outdrawn in the faceoff circle and outhit.
The team that showed so much life in the previous game while facing elimination in Vegas apparently missed the plane back to Big D. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas indeed. In contrast to the previous tilt, here in front of their home crowd, they looked gassed, lifeless, and resigned to their fate. And just when they should have gotten a boost with the return of their captain.
Too much has likely already been said about the controversial cross-check to the jaw that Jamie Benn administered on Vegas’ Mark Stone in Game 3. I have my own thoughts, but like any thoughts at all these days, sharing them will only piss off some people. Suffice to summarize that on what was Benn’s first shift of the game, the questionable blow drew a five-minute major penalty, a game misconduct, and a two-game suspension for the team leader. With Vegas scoring on the resulting power play to go up 2-0 in the game, which went a long way toward the win and securing their 3-0 series lead, many would point to that moment as the one that ultimately sank the Stars’ season.
I would argue that the true moment the Stars’ ship hit the proverbial iceberg actually occurred with 2:22 remaining in Game 2. That is when Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault scored off an unbelievable pass by center Jack Eichel, coming off a turnover, to tie a game the Stars had otherwise dominated from puck drop to that moment. The game would go to overtime, and as had been the trend with the Stars in this year’s playoffs, they would lose. The loss was devastating, and the team never fully recovered from it.
The play serves as a microcosm of Dallas’ season in general: great play through 95% of a game only to have self-inflicted mistakes lead to eventual downfall. It also highlights a massive vulnerability on the team’s roster as it is currently constructed. They are severely compromised on the point. They have one of the league’s absolute best defensemen in Miro Heiskanen, but there is very little behind him. Even with the Finnish superstar’s 12 points, the D core collectively finished the playoffs -24. Once stalwart blueline presence Esa Lindell was a staggering -10 alone, and Ryan Suter is quickly approaching “totally washed” status. The lack of shutdown D-men had a drastic effect on the team’s most important figure in keeping the puck out of their own net, who is, of course, goalie Jake Oettinger. The 24-year-old had an uncharacteristically forgetful playoff run, watching his goals against average balloon from a respectable 2.35 in the regular season to 3.06 in the postseason. He was pulled three separate times over the course of the Stars’ three playoff series. While you can’t legitimately lay much of the blame for Dallas coming up short at Otter’s skates, he certainly wasn’t the hero we hoped for or expected him to be after last season’s staggering 67-save performance in the gut punch Game 7 OT loss to Calgary a year ago. He made his name in the league that night. We might have been premature in crowning him the next Ed Belfour.
Despite the disappointing conclusion, Head Coach Pete DeBoer did an excellent job in his first year behind the Stars’ bench. He certainly opened up a lights-out offensive scheme, but the Vegas series proves that GM Jim Nill has a lot of work to do in the offseason to find some balance and help on the other side of the puck. Vegas’ calling card is boasting a big, bruising, lockdown D core, and it certainly was the difference in the series. Dallas must try to close the gap in that regard if they want to compete in a deep playoff run next year.