A few days ago I wrote another article here at The Hockey Writers about how the Dallas Stars couldn’t afford to get comfortable in their opening round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild.
Looks like they didn’t get the memo.
The Stars jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in Game 3, stunning the nervous Minnesota home crowd, and seemed primed to take the game, and with it a nigh-insurmountable 3-0 stranglehold on the series. The Wild, right up to that point, had been thoroughly unable to produce any answers to counter Dallas’ high-flying puck control.
Instead, the Stars got a little too confident in themselves and took their foot off the gas, with disastrous consequences. Minnesota forward Chris Porter scored off of a slick redirection in the final minute of the first period, their first even-strength goal of the series, and the Xcel Energy Center came alive. With their home fans now engaged and roaring the Wild rode that tidal wave of momentum to three more unanswered goals and, eventually, a 5-3 victory.
Suddenly a series that was seemingly on the verge of life support is now brimming with renewed energy.
Aside from a strong four minutes and ten seconds to start the game, the Stars put forth one of their worst overall efforts of the season. The team was completely discombobulated out on the ice, unable to make routine passes, smoothly handle the puck or put any kind of meaningful pressure on the Wild.
The Stars 17 shots on goal matched the fewest they had in any game during the regular season. That came March 26 in a win at San Jose.
— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) April 19, 2016
Stars head coach Lindy Ruff, understandably, wasn’t thrilled.
“We didn’t play near as well as we needed to play,” he said after the game. “That’s probably as bad as I’ve seen us play in maybe five weeks.”
Pretty bad timing to play one of your worst games of the year.
However, the one key bright side for the team is that they now have the ability to take some valuable lessons out of such a disappointing defeat.
Games 1 and 2 of the series hardly felt like playoff hockey. The Wild entered the postseason on a string of five straight losses, as well as without important forwards Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and Erik Haula. Lacking confidence and momentum, the team was run over in both matches by a Stars club that was incredibly fired up to be back in the playoffs for just the second time since 2008.
With such an unexpectedly cozy start to the series, it’s understandable how the Stars got so complacent. Mike Heika, the longtime Stars beat writer for the Dallas Morning News, explained the mindset with astute eloquence:
The Stars exhaled in Game 3. It was clear from the press box that when they scored twice in the first four minutes of the game, their brains made a decision _ possibly at a level below their inner dialogue, but a decision nonetheless. They decided that they were in control and didn’t need to exert maximum effort.
It’s human nature. It might even be a defense mechanism ingrained through years of sports. You get a lead and you don’t want to take too many risks. You get a lead and you don’t want to pour it on. You get a lead and you think the job is done.
Pick your poison, but there is a real reaction that you go through as an individual, and it spreads throughout your team. Then, when the opposition changes its brain pattern and goes into desperation mode, a lot of times your brain can’t react…and you lose 5-3.
As touched on earlier, the Stars have only been in the playoffs once since 2008, and that ended in an opening round defeat at the hands of a dangerous Anaheim Ducks team in 2014. This Dallas group, as a whole, still lacks the job experience of knowing just how hard it is to win in the playoffs, how much consistency is required to play through not just one playoff series, but ideally four.
Patrick Sharp knows how hard it is. The decorated veteran and three-time Stanley Cup champion had two of the Stars’ goals on Monday night and a team-high seven shots on net. Nobody else had more than two. Sharp knows, from plenty of first-hand experience, what the playoffs are like and what it takes to win in them.
Luckily for Dallas, the team has shown an excellent tendency this season to learn from their mistakes. As once again outlined recently by Heika, the Stars have improved their game significantly in many of the areas that were glaring problems last season.
Game 3 felt a lot like the Stars’ second game of the 2015-16 regular season, a sloppy 6-3 drubbing at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche that was a black-and-white different effort than their inspired 3-0 shutout over the Pittsburgh Penguins on opening night. The Stars, feeling the ghosts of 2014-15 seeping in, snapped back in to focus and promptly rattled off five wins in a row after that. That quick return to focus, the lesson quickly learned, will be exactly what the team needs to do to prevent the Wild from coming back into this series and to move onward to the second round.
Monday night was a disappointing one for the Stars and their fans, but the lessons that the team learns from it could pay huge dividends for them as the wars of the playoffs continue to wage.