Stars lose defensive identity in Game 3 shellacking by Lightning

EDMONTON — You find a style that works for you, and you ply that trade all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. You play the first two games against the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning and do pretty well, earning a split and giving the Bolts all they could handle in the loss.

Then Game 3 comes along, and there’s… nothing.

None of the responsible, stifling defensive play the Dallas Stars have trademarked, with their best players making some of the biggest gaffes.

After being that good for this long, where on earth does it go? Rick Bowness could only chuckle.

“That’s exactly what we were just talking about with the players,” the Dallas head coach said post-game, his Stars stinging from a 5-2 shellacking that leaves them in arrears in this Stanley Cup Final, two games to one.

Dallas’s game began with a heinous giveaway by wunderkind Miro Heiskanen, who tossed a puck across the ice at his own blue line that was intercepted by, of all people, Nikita Kucherov. The silky shooter walked in alone and predictably delivered a puck past Anton Khudobin for a game-opening goal that the Bolts simply did not have to earn.

“Self-inflicted wound,” is how Bowness described that goal and many of the other gaffes that had his Dallas Stars looking, well, like someone else.

“We lost our team play, we lost our intensity, and we lost our focus,” he said. “When you do that, a team like (Tampa) is going to make you look real bad, which they did.”

This is exactly what you fear when you line up against the Lightning, a team that got a major boost when returning captain Steven Stamkos scored a highlight-reel goal that made it 2-0 just 6:58 into the game. They have a top line of Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat that is as dangerous as any in the National Hockey League.

They have a horse in Victor Hedman who quarterbacks a power play that Dallas gave four chances Wednesday, and a goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy who isn’t going to give up six if you allow five.

Dallas opened the vault with giveaways, took needless, unforced penalties and didn’t generate nearly enough offence of their own to suggest that they can beat Tampa in any game played this way.

What happened?

“I don’t know,” said Khudobin, who watched the third period from the safety of the Dallas bench. “I don’t know what happened. We’re going to figure it out … tomorrow.”

Heiskanen has been outplayed by teammate John Klingberg in Rounds 3 and 4, but Wednesday was the first time he truly struggled.

“Listen, it’s been a grind here,” Bowness said, defending his prodigal young rearguard. “When I see some of the guys making mental mistakes that we don’t usually make, it’s just one of those nights where the grind has caught up to them a little bit.

“Mentally, some nights you think you’re ready and you’re all set to go, and some nights it just doesn’t happen.”

Speaking of not happening, while each member of the Bolts top line had a goal and an assist Wednesday, Dallas’ top unit of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov went pointless. Benn and Seguin have yet to collect a point in this Final, and Bowness was asked what he’s going to do to squeeze some offence out of his No. 1 line.

“That’s a good question,” he offered. “We’re giving them the ice time, getting them out there as much as we can. They’ve got to figure it out. It’s as simple as that.

“They’re our top-end guys. You’ve got to give ‘em the ice time to get going, and they’re getting that. They need some help from other guys, but they’ve got to figure it out.”

There will be, it seems, lots of “figuring out” going on in Dallas’ camp between the end of Game 3 and the beginning of back-to-back games set for Friday and Saturday. Figuring out, and “moving forward.”

“It’s one game, at the end of the day,” said depth forward Jason Dickinson. “We win the next one and we’re tied 2-2, it’s a new series. So, shake this one off. Get over it quickly and respond in the next one.

“We’ll be fine,” he added. “We’re not going to panic yet.”

Yet.

They’re not going to panic — yet.

Stay tuned.

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