Stars fuse top trio’s two-way play with depth support to seal Game 1 win

Dallas Stars celebrate the win over the Colorado Avalanche during NHL Western Conference Stanley Cup playoff action in Edmonton on Saturday, August 22, 2020. (Jason Franson/CP)

If there’s one thing we expect from the second round series between the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche it’s that it will run long, at least six games, and that both teams will at times carry the play in the way they desire.

For Colorado, they’d prefer this to be a more wide-open series, with room for Nathan MacKinnon to generate offence and for Nazem Kadri to continue his early hot start. For Dallas, the 27th-best offence in the regular season (the worst of any returning Western Conference team), their goal is to play tight defence that closes off the middle of the ice.

And we did see both teams get what they wanted at times in Game 1. MacKinnon was his usual stupendous self, impossible to check and using his speed and elusiveness to seemingly always be in dangerous ice. Though the Oilers are out, there are flashes of Connor McDavid still darting around Rogers Place. The Avalanche superstar had two goals and an assist in 24:02 of ice time, including playing over half of the third period. He did all he could, but didn’t have enough support.

Dallas was smothering as well. They carried the play through most of the first period, and in the third they limited Colorado to just eight shots, one of which qualified as “high danger.” But the difference in the Stars’ 5-3 win to open the series was that, as unstoppable as MacKinnon was, the trio of Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn was better at both ends — and they had the support of the rest of the lineup.

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It’s expected that Dallas will hold the advantage on defence, but if their offensive stars are going to match MacKinnon at the other end as well, that only spells trouble. It’s not that the Stars’ trio of marquee talents are incapable of scoring — after all they each have a career points per game average of .76 or better and Benn has an Art Ross. It’s just that they haven’t needed to be star-level offensive contributors to make Dallas a Stanley Cup contender. None of them reached 20 goals this season and all of them were well off their career pace in points.

Seguin and Radulov each scored in the first period off primary assists from Benn, and Radulov potted the eventual game-winner in the second off assists from Seguin and Benn. They were difference-makers on the score sheet early on, but just as valued by the Stars, they became a shutdown unit in a third period — and that’s what separates this team from most others.

“It’s nice to see them score goals, but going into the third with a one-goal lead you need everyone to buy in and play Dallas Stars hockey and play good defence,” Stars head coach Rick Bowness said after the win. “They bought in. And give (Radulov) credit, he had two goals, you know he’s going to try and get a hat trick, but he passed up some opportunities.

“For me, do we need them to score? Absolutely. We need them to buy in and help lead the way defensively, which they certainly did in the third period. That was impressive as well.”

These Stars take pride in being a four-line team and you can see in the ice time how different they can be compared to the Avalanche. While Colorado’s top trio of MacKinnon between Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen each logged over 20 minutes in Game 1 as five other Avs forwards played less than 11 minutes, the Stars were much more spread out. In fact, Dallas’ top three in ice time among their forwards weren’t even those who starred on the score sheet, but rather were Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau and Joe Pavelski.

“To me the biggest thing was we had half our team not show up to play,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “I could pick apart a lot of that game that I didn’t like, but when it comes down to it they were as a team engaged, ready to go.

“We had a little bit of a slow start and weren’t ready to engage and compete the way we needed to…I thought we were starting to come for a while, but we weren’t. That was just our big guys playing. Obviously our big guys had a good night. They were here to play to win the hockey game and we had a lot of guys that weren’t. And when I say a lot, I’m talking half our team.”

MacKinnon will get his, but if everyone else on the Avalanche is neutralized they don’t really have a second way of scratching out wins. Even if Dallas’ top line is slowed, they can always fall back on their system, team defence, and the fact that each player can contribute to it equally.

“It’s just playing the right way, paying attention to the details,” Benn said. “We want to look kind of like Blake’s (Comeau) line, like (Joe Pavelski’s) line like Roope’s (Hintz) line.

“We all want to play the same and when we get in their end do what we do. Be creative and move the puck around.”

Colorado now has to make some adjustments to try and figure how anyone other than MacKinnon can get through this stifling defence. The top unit accounted for 15 of the Avalanche’s 31 shots. That’s not a great start, but they’re facing an uphill battle for other reasons, too.

Goalie Philipp Grubauer, who’s been consistent for two years whenever healthy, left this game in obvious pain after trying to move from one side of his crease to the other.

“He’s in a position where he tweaked something and he’s unable to continue, so that’s already bad news,” Bednar said. “Time will tell how long he’s going to be out…I’m not expecting him to be hitting the ice (at practice) tomorrow.”

So now the duty falls to Pavel Francouz, a 30-year-old with one season of NHL hockey under his belt. Francouz was 21-7-4 with a .923 save percentage in 34 games for Colorado this season, but it’s not automatic to transition a small sample performance like that into the playoff spotlight. He did face 20 shots after coming in relief, saving 18 of them.

On top of that, Erik Johnson left the game and returned a couple of times after falling awkwardly, and though he sat on the bench in the third period as vocal support, he did not play a single shift.

If Colorado now has to worry about a suddenly hot scoring line in Dallas, losing a 6-foot-4 penalty-killing blueliner for any period does not help the situation.

This was a discouraging start for an Avalanche team that looked unstoppable last round against Arizona. Game 1 of Round 2 was an early reality check against a much more polished team. But this is far from over, and perhaps the Avs can actually take solace in something the opposing coach said before this series started about the back-and-forth battle that was anticipated.

“There’s going to be times where we’re really good defensively and slowing them up. There’s going to be times, bouncing pucks or whatever, and they’re coming at us in waves. There’s going to be times where we can shut them down in the defensive zone, there’s going to be times when they have control of the puck and they’re bringing three high, four high and dominating us on the outside,” Bowness acknowledged. “So there’s going to be a lot of ebbs and flows to this.

“Bend, but don’t break,” he continued. “That’s going to be our same mental approach. When they’re coming and they’re on top of their game we’re going to bend a little. Just don’t break.”

There’s a lot of series to come here and while Colorado’s outlook certainly bent Saturday night, it’s far from broken yet.

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