The Dallas Stars lost Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, and now trail the Tampa Bay Lightning two games to one. The Stars were without Blake Comeau, and the Lightning saw their captain suit up for the first time since Feb. 25.
With Steven Stamkos back on the ice, it seemed like the Lightning had the momentum before the puck even dropped. When it did, they got out to a quick 2-0 lead, with Stamkos collecting the team’s second goal. The Stars had a better second half of the first period, but could only cut the deficit to 2-1. The second period saw the Lighting stretch the lead to 5-1, and the game was all but over at that point. The Stars put on a bit of a push in the third, but could only score one goal despite two power plays.
The Stars now face very unfavorable odds, as teams that lead 2-1 in the Stanley Cup playoffs win 70 percent of the time. Game 4 is an obvious must-win, as teams that are up 3-1 are series winners 91 percent of the time. Here are some storylines that have developed during this playoff run, and especially in Game 3.
It has been a great coming-out party for Miro Heiskanen. If the Stars come back in this series, I have no doubt in my mind it will be in large part due to him. I have argued why he’d be my Conn Smythe vote if the Stars win. On the other hand, he is still a young player on a team with far less firepower than the Lightning and he tried to do a little too much in this game.
The first goal of the game came after a terrible giveaway by Heiskanen, and he chose the absolute wrong guy to give it to. His blind spin-around pass found the stick of 2019 Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, who deposited the puck behind fellow Russian Anton Khudobin. The error came at the absolute worst time, as the Lightning were already pushing and the Stars were trying to withstand the pressure.
Sure, he is allowed mistakes. Every player makes them. Unfortunately for Heiskanen, the margin of error for the Stars is so thin against the stacked Lightning that he needs to be nearly perfect. In all fairness, he did lose his footing, and that likely affected his pass. On the other hand, Heiskanen has only made a few mistakes this entire playoff run. It’s too bad that it happened in this critical Game 3.
Heiskanen still had plenty of brilliant moments and continued his streak of zero penalties taken for the playoffs, despite being matched up against the best the Lightning could offer. He also continued this torrid point pace, scoring his 24th point in his 24th game, tying Brent Burns’s mark from the 2015-16 postseason. The two are now tied for the sixth-most points in a playoff run by a defenseman, behind Ray Bourque, Denis Potvin, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, and Paul Coffey. That is an exclusive list. How long until Heiskanen wins his Norris Trophy?
Lightning Big Guns Came out Blazing
The Lightning were the best in the league at scoring during the regular season, with 3.47 goals per game. Their four leading scorers, Kucherov, Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Victor Hedman, all had points in Game 3. Stamkos got the second goal after unlikely Game 1 hero Joel Hanley missed badly on a hip check that gave the Tampa captain an open look, and he didn’t disappoint.
Stamkos only played 2:47 in the game, but he made his ice-time count with that snipe. The rest of the top scorers all had multi-point games, with Kucherov and Point both netting a goal and an assist and Hedman notching three assists. If the Lightning’s top players are going to play this well offensively, I think the Stars’ hopes for the Cup are over.
No Comeau, No Bueno
The Stars were built on a strong defensive foundation. They might be outshot, but they are generally not giving up many high-danger chances against. This is partially due to the excellent play-driving of Blake Comeau, Radek Faksa, and Andrew Cogliano. The line still ranks 11th in the playoffs in expected goals percent out of all lines that have played at least 103 minutes together.
All three members of this so-called “FCC line” have missed time in the playoffs, but the Stars have been able to endure. Most recently, it was Faksa, who last played in Game 3 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Cogliano only played two games against the Golden Knights but has been able to suit up for all three games against the Lightning.
Cogliano missed Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche, which gave way for the hat-trick hero Joel Kiviranta. It’s great story, but Kiviranta does not bring the same two-way game to the Stars that Cogliano does. To this point in the playoffs, Comeau has been able to stay in the lineup, but was unfit to play in Game 3 and his absence was sorely missed. If the Stars want to come back in this series, they are going to need their FCC line to be reunited, or at least most of it.
Game 4 Prediction
I expect we will see the best game the Stars have played yet in Game 4. We have seen it for stretches, but not for an entire 60 minutes since Game 1, which still had its warts. The big difference – Dallas played with the lead in most of Game 1. In each of the subsequent games, the Stars trailed by three or more goals at one point.
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Multi-goal deficits are hard for an offensively adept team to come back from but can seem impossible for a team that likes to play defensively sound hockey like the Stars do. I expect them to fight hard for the lead and grind out another 2-1 or 3-2 victory. I seriously doubt we see this team fold up and go home.
Victor Nuño is a physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and an associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in California. He is an avid hockey fan ever since the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991. He plays, watches, and consumes everything related to hockey, but especially the Sharks and AHL affiliate Barracuda. In addition, he is a father to two beautiful young girls and husband to a wonderful wife. Follow me @VictorNuno12