The Dallas Stars enter Monday night’s Game 6 in their Stanley Cup playoff series with the St. Louis Blues with the season on the line. While the stakes couldn’t be higher, their focus is crystal clear: win, and fight on; lose, and the season is over. It’s very simple, really.
Answering the question, “How can the Stars defeat the Blues?” is more complicated. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, however. For Dallas, playoff survival boils down to three key factors:
Break the Blues’ Forecheck
Against Dallas, St. Louis has employed a two-man forecheck. In doing so, they’ve been successful at pressuring the Stars’ defensemen and forcing turnovers or making them simply clear the puck out of the defensive zone, as opposed to executing a controlled breakout. The Dallas attack begins below their own blue line, and the Blues have done a great job of keeping the cork in the Stars’ bottle, with a few notable exceptions.
When the Stars exit their zone with control, they can fly through the neutral zone and generate scoring chances off the rush; this is “Stars hockey” as seen in Game 1, the first period of Game 5, and for brief, shining moments throughout the series. In order for Dallas to execute controlled breakouts with consistency, they must “break” the Blues’ forecheck. Simply put, Dallas defensemen must read the play and make that critical first pass faster. Forwards must provide more support, primarily by skating faster into a position to receive the pass. Speed of both mind and foot is key.
Special Teams Must be Special
The absence of both Tyler Seguin and Patrick Eaves is most noticeable on the Stars’ power play, which has dropped from 22.1 percent during the regular season to a disappointing 14.3 percent in the playoffs and a shocking 6.25 percent through five games against St. Louis. While Seguin is still rehabbing an injury unrelated to his surgically-repaired Achilles tendon, Stars fans were offered a glimmer of hope Sunday:
Patrick Eaves and his giant beard will be on the plane to St Louis.
— Mike Heika (@MikeHeika) May 8, 2016
Eaves has a straightforward role on the power play: Go to the net, screen the goalie and look for rebounds. He’s scored two of Dallas’ five postseason power play goals. Even if he’s not yet ready to skate a full shift, Stars coach Lindy Ruff must give serious thought to using Eaves as a power play specialist in Game 6.
The Stars’ penalty kill must also get the job done. Against the Blues, they’ve allowed five power play goals on 18 opportunities, a dangerously-low kill rate of 72.2 percent. Four of those markers were scored from just outside the crease. Dallas has to find a way to out-muscle St. Louis in front of the net. So far, they’re losing that battle: St. Louis scored the deciding goal in Games 2 and 3 with the man-advantage.
(Puck) Luck be a Lady
Finally, the Stars just need some “puck luck.” In Game 3, a Jason Demers shot which would’ve tied the contest at two went off the crossbar, dropped into the crease and was swept away by a St. Louis defenseman. In Game 5, a Valeri Nichushkin shot which would’ve given the Stars a 2-1 lead went off the crossbar and over the net. In the same game, an Ales Hemsky shot went through St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott’s legs and out the other side of the crease.
Adding insult to injury, Games 3 and 5 saw two pucks go off Stars players and into their own net. In a series between teams as evenly matched as Dallas and St. Louis, the line between victory and defeat is razor-thin. Luck is a real factor. The Stars desperately need the “Hockey Gods” to smile upon them in Game 6, or there won’t be a Game 7.