The Morning After: Game 1 – Ducks 4, Stars 3

There were plenty of people who went to bed in Texas last night thinking that the Stars were exposed badly by the competition last night and outclassed on their way to a humbling defeat.

And those people did get the part right about being defeated.

Otherwise, the later the Stars wandered into the California night, the more capable they appeared and the more confident they played.  In the end, they fell just short in their bid to come all the way back against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1, but I think one can report with relative belief that the Stars are most optimistic about their ability to steal Game 2 and then get back in front of their own fans as this series takes shape.

It is vital to remember a detail or two about this Dallas Stars team which is absolutely an underdog in this Best-of-7 series against a team that finished at the very top of the Western Conference;  and perhaps the most vital is that 9 of the 18 skaters from last night were playing in their very first NHL playoff game.

Jamie Benn, Alex Chiasson, Antoine Roussel, Ryan Garbutt, Cody Eakin, Valeri Nichushkin, Colton Sceviour, Patrick Nemeth, and Jordie Benn all made their playoff debuts on Wednesday night, and frankly, when you are playing 9 guys who have never been there before along with several veterans who have played sparingly in the last month – Ray Whitney, Aaron Rome, in particular, you are a team that is going to look a little out of sorts while you try to get your bearings.

Unfortunately, during that time, your prime scoring opportunities do not make an impact and the Ducks are cashing in on every chance in the other direction.  The game is getting faster and louder, and while you are beginning to see it is just a hockey game – but much faster, you are falling behind badly.

Kyle Palmieri settles a beautiful saucer pass from Nick Bonino on transition over the body of Aaron Rome less than 2 minutes into the contest, and it is 1-0.

Ryan Getzlaf tips home a close proximity shot after another blocked Dallas shot leads to Ducks flying back in the other direction when Matt Beleskey fires from the left wing and while Kari Lehtonen’s helmet is rattled off his head, the big captain for Anaheim sends it home.  2-0.

Then, late in a shell-shocked first period, Sergei Gonchar takes a penalty and the Ducks are put on the job where they have a number of chances before Patrick Maroon finds Mathieu Perreault across the goal mouth and now it is getting out of hand at 3-0.

The first period ended and most of the people watching seemed to think that the chances of the Stars competing in this game ended as well.  It is the familiar theme of figuring that this was all too big for the youth in Dallas and that the gulf was just too big to figure out at this point in time.

And make no mistake, this situation is far from ideal right now without top physical defensemen Brenden Dillon – who also would have made his playoff debut last night – who was unable to go in at least Game 1 because of an undisclosed injury in the clinching game against St Louis.  To be very frank, much of the Stars fortunes are going to be tied to Dillon’s return because last night the Stars did match or exceed the Ducks.  But the department where they didn’t – the ability to deal with the Ducks on the offensive cycle – is a matchup deficiency where the Stars’ defensemen have no answer for the physicality as presently constituted.  Gonchar took 2 penalties and Nemeth another, and the cycle puts them on the job, and the power play ends up making it worse.  Will Dillon be good to go in Game 2?  I don’t know, but Aaron Rome and Sergei Gonchar played less and less as the game went along and mysteriously, the Stars play improved.

Think about what that leaves – Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski playing tons of ice time, both approaching half of the game, Patrick Nemeth and Jordie Benn playing about 20 each, and Rome and Gonchar down near 10.  If they have Dillon back, this has a chance.  But, it is clear that the defense corps is just not filled with options and they need those they can to play well and without penalties.

The Stars also need their trouble-makers to use their brains, and down 3-0 after a Cody Eakin opportunity, Ryan Garbutt thought he would stir things up by giving Frederik Andersen a snow shower.  This, of course, angered the Ducks and Stephane Robidas the most.  Before long, Garbutt’s running buddy Antoine Roussel is jumping in and the Stars are sending Garbutt to the penalty box.

And, as the fortune has been going, take a ill-advised penalty down 3-0 in your first playoff game in years, and the Ducks make you pay and send even more Stars’ fans to their beds with a sad posture.  This time a point shot from Francois Beauchemin ticks off the skate of Beleskey and the score is suddenly 4-0.

Shell-shocked.  And this has become ugly.

And yet, the whole time, the puck possession and the course of play was still not something where the Stars looked out of their element.  They were still generating their chances and their speed was still showing.  Yes, the defense looked up against that, but we know that will be a work in progress for the next few years.  It needs a full rebuild, but you go with what you got.  And what you have seem to be several players who have promise or are decent in the present tense.  Say what you want about Daley and Goligoski, but those guys have shouldered the burden with Dillon and Benn all year.  If this is a playoff team, then it is partly because of what positive things those guys have done.  You simply cannot survive 82 games if they are all liabilities.

Up 4-0, Robidas takes a penalty and then the Ducks while killing the penalty take a too many men minor to make it even worse.  If they wanted to let the Stars back in the game, putting them on an extended 5-3 power play is likely the best way.

Benn scores in his playoff debut to put the Stars on the board and the Sceviour gets some fortune on a seeing-eye puck and it is quickly 4-2 at the end of 2.  The only bothersome part of the sequence is a Corey Perry stick to the skates of Sceviour which sends the winger into the boards hard and awkwardly.  It seemed cheap (as Perry will be) but also unnoticed by our officials and with his arm hanging, they head to the room.

The Stars played confidently for the final 20 minutes, but could not find their 3rd goal until after they were done killing another Gonchar minor.  That was particularly impressive since he hardly played in the 3rd, but managed to take a penalty in short work.  But, after the kill and late, Tyler Seguin scored nearly 14 minutes into the final period on a gorgeous re-direct of a Daley point shot off a face-off win.  The pump of the fist said it all and they had nearly come all the way back and still had 6:07 to find the equalizer.  4-3.

Dallas pushed for their 4th with mixed results.  Eakin had a golden chance, but Nichushkin made a poor decision before a change and nearly handed Perry and Getzlaf a goal to seal the doom.  Kari Lehtonen bailed them out and honestly looked better and better as the game went along, but aside from the goal where he had the mask knocked over his eyes, there wasn’t much he could have done to stop the goals.

Goligoski and Lehtonen had a moment of confusion in the 3rd that almost resulted in a free Anaheim goal, but Goligoski’s diving stick saved that embarrassment.

Dallas pulled Kari late to get the extra attacker and again had lots of possession.  But, aside from Tyler Seguin ripping a shot off of Getzlaf’s face, very little that could be described as a chance occurred.  Anaheim did a nice job of defending the perimeter late and the Stars left the ice feeling much better about themselves, but still a 4-3 loss.

This is the portion of the review where we remind you that a 7-0 loss and a 4-3 loss count the same.  So, in the department of morale, we must concede that the Stars lost the game and that is the only detail that truly counts.

However, most of us thought Game 1 might be uneasy with so many players making their first playoff shifts and with no Dillon.  I wish I knew he would be back soon, but this time of year – if we have all forgotten – trying to get injury information is a laughable exercise.  He is back when he is back and that will be as soon as any of us find out.

But, if the question is now whether or not the Stars are concluding that they can play with the Ducks and make them sweat and work hard to stand their ground, I think Lindy Ruff and his squad can go into Game 2 with a bit of confidence about their resumes.  Their own fans may be a bit pessimistic, but the Stars have played high-stakes hockey for a few months now and have never been outclassed for more than a moment.  Once they collect themselves, they are able to punch back and take the game to the opponent.

Whether we are ready to admit it or not, the addition of Seguin to Benn is an absolute item of fear that is now felt by opponents.  They are nervous playing the Stars and Dallas now has a legitimate answer to Perry and Getzlaf or whatever other strike forces that have put the Stars out of the mix so many times in the past.  Now, Dallas has to continue to build their organization to match the other portions of the team, but the Stars have game-breakers.  And Nichushkin showed signs last night that he is going to attempt to break out in this series, too.  He looked very optimistic in the offensive end at times.

The Stars will have issues.  They are not deep enough in several spots and we have detailed the defense deficiencies and why Lehtonen is asked to do so much on his own.  But, let’s not lose sight of what they have put together.  Of those 9 making their debuts last night, almost none of them looked out of place.  In fact, it is unfortunate that some of the most veteran (and most well compensated) of the Stars are the ones that need to raise their games for this to happen this spring.

But, they took quite a punch from the Ducks and decided to stay and fight.  That is all you can ask of a #8 seed and they just about had a chance to steal Game #1.

However, "just about" is not good enough this time of year.  Back to the drawing board for Game 2.

The Stars have to learn how to deal with the playoffs, but so do we as observers.  The amount of give-up in my email box 20 minutes into a 2-week series reminds us that we need to learn how to watch this marathon.  There will be ebbs and flows that require a little resolve in a fan base.  Both sides are going to land punches in these heavyweight fights, but it won’t end in 20 minutes.  They are figuring it out as they go and while there are no guarantees, keep in mind that the Stars made the playoffs for a reason – they are pretty good.  Good enough to win a series against a high seed?  That might be a question only they can answer.

Now, it appears that they have plenty of confidence to work with.  Settle in, for what I believe is going to be a long series.  And it will get longer if the Stars accomplish their mission of splitting in Orange County on Friday.