TORONTO – As his production fell off a cliff and a monkey hopped aboard his back, Tyler Seguin kept buying back into a philosophy that was destroying his stat line.
Since arriving in Dallas, the most familiar face on the Stars has ripped off six consecutive seasons in which he’s tallied between 72 and 84 points.
And yet, it’s this seventh season in green, when he’ll be hard pressed to hit 20 goals and 60 points (and still be a safe bet to lead the club in scoring), that his Stars have all the attributes and attitude of a group primed to make a deep run.
The once run-and-gun Stars — just four years removed from wielding the most potent offence in the NHL — have invested the better part of two years now renovating and refining their identity.
They have emerged as the stingiest team in the West, allowing a mere 2.49 goals per game. And they are more than happy to fly up north, trudge through the snow, and bully and bore their way to a 3-2 regulation victory in Toronto against one of the sport’s most action-packed rosters.
“We played our identity. It can be boring, especially for some of our forwards. It can be boring to the camera. But it works. It produces wins, and we obviously love winning,” Seguin said.
So, is this suffocating, structured, life-sucking style more conducive to playoff success?
“One hundred per cent,” Seguin answered, smiling.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 14, 2020
Make no mistake, Seguin was more than a little relieved to finally snuff out his epic 17-game, 71-shot, career-worst goal slump Thursday night in his hometown. So when he pounced on a power-play to strike in the third period, Seguin asked pal Jamie Benn to reach around and chuck the invisible primate off his back.
“Even the last time we played against the Leafs [on Jan. 29], I was thinking about goals a lot. And as of late, I’ve just not became discouraged,” Seguin admitted during the drought.
“I honestly had more people trying to reach out to me… just wondering if I’m OK or whatnot, and I tell them all I’m fine. I’m grinding through it. Our team has been playing well, I know I’m contributing to that, and we have a heck of a hockey team. We are winning games, so it’s definitely still exciting times.”
Stars coach Rick Bowness has a line for individual narratives: “Listen. The most important points are the two points the team gets — that’s what we’re selling.”
To a man, the Stars are buying in wholesale.
And if there’s a lesson Toronto can glean from the guys in green, so be it.
In a near-perfect first road period, the Stars’ Denis Gurianov beat Frederik Andersen five-hole on the game’s first shot, then Dallas restricted the Leafs to a measly three shots on net.
Purveyors of the game’s gruntier arts, the Stars won the shot-block battle 18-4 and the hit parade 27-12, escaping with a victory despite getting outshot 31-19 by clamping things down and not giving up a single even-strength goal.
“They just play a really structured game. They don’t really give you much. They’re a patient team, they wait on their chances, and they just kind of all fall inside,” Auston Matthews said. “They got a good neutral zone, and they give up the least amount of chances in the NHL.”
Matthews had been flanked by dynamic wingers Mitch Marner and William Nylander to start the contest, but Keefe quickly abandoned the MNM Line when it failed to navigate the Stars’ land mines.
“They’re the kind of line,” Seguin said, “when they’re in the offensive zone, they maybe wait around an extra second to see if the puck gets turned over, so you can sometimes use that to your advantage. Just play them hard, defend hard, and you should get some odd-man rushes.
“If you’re a points guy, offensive guy, it can obviously suck sometimes if you’re looking for that, but we’ve all bought in and we understand the system and our identity and what works, and we go play all these teams that can score a lot of goals and just frustrate them.”
Once these Stars grab a lead, they hold it like a grudge. They don’t wander around cheating for cookies.
“Them getting a lead is huge for their style of play,” Andersen said. “They just try to shut ’er down and make the best of their opportunities.”
Maybe the contrast between the Stars and Leafs is more pronounced because Toronto is coming off a wild, flu-stricken week in which they found ways to squander a series of third-period leads.
Maybe age and experience could be a bigger factor here than some are ready to believe. (The Stars’ game-day dressing room playlist features classics from David Bowie and John Cougar, while the Leafs lean more toward the future classics of Young Thug.)
But there is a sense that the brand of space-limiting, 3-2, lockdown hockey we witnessed in Scotiabank Arena Thursday night is foreshadowing for the post-season aesthetic.
“It will depend on who we play. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you flip a switch and do overnight. That team has been committed to it all season — they’re doing that as good or better than anybody in the league,” Keefe said. “That’s a real tough team to play against when you’re chasing a game.”
Thing is, they weren’t always this way. Since Seguin arrived, Dallas has a history of whiffing on the playoffs or going one-and-done. A more structured, stifling approach brought the Stars within an overtime goal of upsetting the eventual Cup champions in Round 2 last year.
Now, they believe they’ve stumbled upon a blueprint, and they’re aiming higher.
“We should be proud of how we played tonight. I think that’s the recipe,” said Andrew Cogliano, earning the right to spread wisdom after his 1,000th game. “It doesn’t look pretty sometimes, but there’s a reason why we’re third [in the West], and I think good defence and checking well goes a long way.
“Everyone likes to score. We know that. But we saw with St. Louis last year how you win in this league and how good teams win.
“So that’s our identity, and if we want any chance of having success, we need to play like that.”