It was this close.
The Minnesota Wild came within millimeters of staging one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history Sunday afternoon when NHL ruled that Nino Niederreiter's shot with 33.9 seconds remaining fell just short of completely crossing the goal line, allowing the Dallas Stars to escape with a thrilling 5–4 victory.
The Wild scored four times in the third period to erase a 4–0 Stars lead, but an Alex Goligoski point shot deflected off a player in front of the Wild net, where it was kicked off the goal line by Minnesota netminder Devan Dubnyk for the eventual game winner.
With the win, the Stars take the series 4–2 and move on to the second round for the first time since 2008. They’ll await the winner of Game 7 in the St. Louis–Chicago series.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
Let’s go crazy
Word to the wise: Never leave a Stars game early.
The league’s most potent offense roared out to a 4–0 lead over the surprisingly disinterested Wild and Dallas appeared to be on its way to an easy series clincher. The Stars needed their best players to shine after a disappointing Game 5 loss and they delivered. John Klingberg, Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp staked Dallas to a 3–0 margin in the first before Jamie Benn stretched the lead to 4–0 with a late second-period tally. The Stars captain added two assists in the contest to take over the playoff scoring lead with 10 points.
Through the first 40 minutes, it was total domination. Dallas took advantage of a listless start by the Wild to establish control of the neutral zone, which allowed them to gain the zone with speed. This was nearly perfect execution by a team that seemed to be getting away from its strengths in the past couple games.
Then, as it has so often this season, the Stars’ defense made things interesting. When the Wild finally ramped up the intensity in the third period, they caught the Stars on their heels. They took a pair of undisciplined penalties, leading to two power-play goals by Jared Spurgeon, and if not for a bad case of the yips by Jason Zucker, who failed to bury a net-front giveaway by Lehtonen, they might have been heading back to Dallas for Game 7.
The Stars allowed six or more goals a league-leading nine times this season. They almost made it 10 against an opponent which didn’t show up until the game was 40 minutes old. Safe to say the Blues and Blackhawks were challenged to reach a higher level in their series than Dallas found in this one. The Stars need to ramp up their game, and quickly, if they hope to survive the next round.
Who’s in net?
Lehtonen got the job done Sunday afternoon, but he may have cost himself a Game 1 start in the process.
Outside of two premium chances by Nino Niederreiter late in the second, the big keeper was rarely tested through the first 40 minutes. And while he was hardly the only guilty party in that third period meltdown, there was a shakiness to his game that made a Minnesota comeback seem inevitable. That nearly fatal giveaway to Zucker in the crease with Dallas clinging to a 4–3 lead spoke to his resilience under pressure...and it wasn’t flattering.
After back-to-back sketchy performances, Stars coach Lindy Ruff has a tough call to make between Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. At least he’s making it for Game 1 of the second round and not Game 7 of the first.
Big questions for the Wild
You have to hand it to the Wild for making it interesting in the third period. This was easily their best stretch of the series. If the clock had run another few minutes, they likely would have taken this series back to Dallas.
So where was that intensity early?
The Wild cheated themselves out of a Game 6 win by coming out of the gates with all the drive and passion you’d expect from an intra-squad scrimmage. Clearly this series could have been more competitive if the Wild had Zach Parise (back) and Thomas Vanek (lower body) in the lineup. But this game didn’t come down to who was or wasn’t wearing forest green. This was all about heart and will and desire. The Stars brought it early. The Wild simply waited too long.
Their inconsistency in this game, and in the series, is bound to raise questions about the future of several members of the organization. The work of GM Chuck Fletcher will come under review. Interim coach John Torchetti obviously found the right words in the second intermission, but that stumble out of the gate might cost him a chance at the job on a permanent basis. And players like Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella, who were trampled repeatedly in this series, could be jettisoned in favor of younger and hopefully smarter prospects.
The final score might make it look good, but this has to go down as one of the most disappointing playoff performances in franchise history.