There are plenty of things to be written about the 2021-22 Dallas Stars. Right at the top of the list is their willingness to compete. Most pundits didn’t expect the duration of their first-round series against the Calgary Flames to be much different than the one played in Colorado. The Avalanche dispatched the Predators in a four-game sweep.
The Stars are taking the Flames the distance.
Game 6 on Friday night was one of the most thrilling hockey games played at American Airlines Center this season, and it was capped off by one the Stars’ best third periods of the season. There were plenty of nuanced reasons the Stars were able to extend the series, which we’ll get to below, but the sheer ability to put up a fight, literally and figuratively, is at the core. The face of that fight has been a relatively unlikely hero in Michael Raffl.
“I don’t know, it’s just playoff intensity. I enjoy every moment out there,” Raffl said. “I love my teammates. I would — as they would do the same, they would do anything for me – I would do everything for them. It’s just that brotherhood. I enjoy it, doing whatever it takes.”
Strong third period
We have to begin at the end. The first period was decent and the second period was fantastic, but the third period was why the Stars were able to win. All season, Dallas has squandered third-period leads. The latest disappointment came just two nights prior in Game 5 on Wednesday in Calgary. When the Stars entered the final frame with a 3-2 lead, there was justifiable reason to be nervous.
Instead, the Stars did a great job of controlling the pace. They were not sitting back, hoping the final buzzer would rescue them. Instead, they aggressively played to the buzzer, as if they were trailing 3-2.
“The message was we’ve got to go have a good third,” Joe Pavelski said. “We haven’t always had good thirds with the lead. We wanted to change that in our game. We were going to need one.”
So, in Game 88 of the season, what finally happened that had avoided the Stars?
“We stayed aggressive,” Pavelski said. “We still forechecked, we still wanted to get two guys in on the puck. At the end of the day, the compete level was there. That’s what was better, the compete and the urgency and those types of things.”
What was also impressive in the third period was the Stars’ ability to not get demoralized. Six minutes into the frame, the Stars got a power play when Nikita Zadorov tripped Raffl. The power play, which has been a major issue since the second half of the season and especially in this playoff series, actually looked good. It was moving the puck well along the left side and applying pressure to get the Flames on their heels. That sequence of a minute looked like the power play when it was one of the best in the NHL during the first half of the season.
One of Jason Robertson’s greatest strengths down low on the power play is finding that perfect passing lane across the crease to set up Pavelski, who is one of the best in the NHL at hovering around the net. Robertson did his job and Pavelski did his job. Unfortunately for the Stars, Jacob Markstrom is a Vezina Trophy finalist this season.
“You’re creeping down there, it’s an angle,” Pavelski said. “Robo makes a great play over. It’s laying there, trying to chip it back in at that angle and getting it up. Just doesn’t elevate enough. … You’d like to see it go in because it would be a good buffer, but you keep going. Tonight, I don’t think there was ever one thing that fazed us, and there shouldn’t be.”
The later the Stars got into the third period, the more it felt like the crash was coming. There were cracks along the way on both sides, whether it be missed opportunities offensively or Jake Oettinger not swallowing a puck like he usually does. But when the game was at its deepest, the Stars were on. The Flames were unable to get Markstrom off the ice and bring on the extra attacker until there was less than a minute left because the Stars maintained puck possession and threatened the offensive zone.
“We went after them,” Raffl said. “Instead of sitting back, we were closer to scoring another goal than getting one (scored on). That’s how it felt, at least. Offense is the best defense in that scenario. I thought that was one of our better third periods of the year, and it was a timely one.”
By no means did the Stars pour it on offensively, but they finally had some diversity. The basis of their scoring all season has been the top line of Robertson, Pavelski and Roope Hintz. That line was split up last game, with Raffl replacing Robertson, but once head coach Rick Bowness saw Robertson skating well early in Game 6, he quickly reassembled the top group. They instantly created three great scoring chances.
Later in the first period, Pavelski dropped the puck for a trailing Hintz, who sniped it past Markstrom. The scoring line read as a goal by Hintz, assisted by Pavelski and Robertson. Just like old times.
“That chemistry is there, there’s something special there, let it go,” Bowness said. “(That line) gives us momentum, gives us confidence that we can score, we can create offense, we can create chances.”
After the top line, the question has consistently been about depth scoring behind them. In the second period, the Stars found that in Raffl, who has been one of their top forwards in this series. The play, though, was created by an aggressive Joel Kiviranta. Kiviranta took a loose, bouncing puck from the neutral zone and worked his way through a couple of Flames players to escort the puck to the doorstep. Raffl followed and finished the job.
After depth scoring, the conversation has revolved around the defensemen activating offensively and providing scoring. John Klingberg is usually the focal point of that given his reputation, but the Stars have practically been begging for Miro Heiskanen to shoot the puck more.
Late in the second period, Heiskanen obliged in true highlight-reel fashion.
How many players could make that play?
“Not very many, and he made it a couple of times, that quick right-left move,” Bowness said. “It’s tough to defend. When you’re out there defending, you’re going, you’re biting on the first one. You have to because if you don’t bite, he’s going anyways, so you bite. Now he’s got quick hands to come back. … Miro was dynamic tonight without the puck and with the puck.
“When he’s on, man, you love watching him play hockey, the way he plays the game. He’s so smart, so calm, so poised, it’s just so smooth. That was a great performance by Miro.”
Could the Stars use more scoring? Of course, but to get it from so many different areas was encouraging, especially with how close the power play was to contributing, as well. To get three past Markstrom, who was phenomenal again Friday night, as he’s been all series, was a big plus to pair with Oettinger’s usual brilliance.
If you’ve followed my work long enough, you know you’ll rarely find gripes about the officiating. This game is an exception. The referees have a hard job, but some of the calls and missed calls Friday were atrocious.
Early in the second period, Christopher Tanev went for two minutes for high-sticking Pavelski. Pavelski came out from the bench to literally spit blood on the ice in front of the referee, but the Stars did not get the extra two minutes.
Midway through the second period, this play by Blake Coleman on Klingberg was not deemed interference.
The most egregious and unacceptable error was to not call a penalty on this high hit by Zadorov on Luke Glendening.
Earlier in the series, the Stars were called a couple of times for illegal checks to the head.
Here are a couple of illegal checks to the head called against the Stars this series.
Vlad Namestnikov on Johnny Gaudreau (Game 4) and Jani Hakanpaa on Blake Coleman (Game 1) pic.twitter.com/PG9Dem4Hjg
— Saad Yousuf (@SaadYousuf126) May 14, 2022
Glendening was visibly shaken after the obvious high hit and took awhile to get up off the ice. He went straight down the tunnel and into concussion protocol, which Bowness said he cleared. Glendening joined the Stars on the bench in the third period, though he didn’t enter the game due to an unrelated lower-body injury. His status for Game 7 is unclear.
The Zadorov hit will likely be looked at by the NHL’s safety department. Given the handling of such hits around the NHL, Zadorov’s status and the magnitude of Sunday’s game, there’s no telling which way the league decides to go in terms of discipline.
My grievance with the officiating isn’t based on results, although Calgary’s first goal came just after a Flames power play expired on the soft interference call on Suter. There just needs to be more consistency and – more than anything – a league that claims to care about player safety needs to start backing up words with actions, especially with head injuries.
(Photo of Ryan Suter, Jake Oettinger and Luke Glendening: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)