The Dallas Stars always seem to make things interesting.
They ended the first period with a three-goal lead, (including two that came within 24 seconds of each other) and forced St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott out of the game in the process. And yet, even with that start, it still took a memorable performance from their own netminder, Kari Lehtonen, for them to hold on to a 3–2 victory in Game 6 on Monday night.
With the win, the Stars extend the series to a winner-take-all Game 7 showdown in Dallas on Wednesday night.
Here are three thoughts on this gut-wrenching thriller:
Stars were in control for 20 minutes
For 20 minutes, the Stars had their way with the Blues. Mattias Janmark scored on a partial break off a beautiful stretch pass from Val Nichushkin (another steady game of progress from him). Vernon Fiddler silenced the Scottrade crowd 20 seconds later when he went to the roof on a rebound. Then, just 35 seconds into the Stars' only power play of the game, Jason Spezza took a pass from Colton Sceviour, threw down a nasty toe drag and fired one under the bar. The goal was only the second the Stars have scored with the extra man in this series.
It was a dream start for them. And then they spent the next two periods chasing the puck.
The Blues upped their urgency and the Stars settled back into a passive defensive style that's the antithesis of what works for them. St. Louis managed to get goals from Alex Steen and Patrick Berglund but couldn't get the equalizer, despite out-attempting Dallas 75-25 (the largest difference in this round and the second-widest in the entire playoffs).
“I think when we made it 3-2, we thought we were going to win the hockey game,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “There wasn’t a guy on the bench that didn’t think we would win the hockey game.”
They deserved it.
In the end though, the Stars came away with the win that gets them to Game 7 and that's really all that matters. But they can't come back with this kind of effort on Wednesday night. The Blues proved that they can win a Game 7 when they knocked off the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. This is brand-new territory for Dallas. And if anyone thought tonight was a gut check, just wait until Wednesday.
Get ready for non-stop Tyler Seguin talk between now and game time. Best guess? He'll be in the lineup, if only as a power play specialist.
For the final 40 minutes, this game came down to a simple question: Could Lehtonen steal it for the Stars?
The Blues outshot Dallas 28–7 after the Spezza goal and for awhile there it didn't look good for Lehtonen. He was regurgitating rebounds at an alarming rate as the Blues pounded pucks from all angles. He was awkward and sloppy but while he failed the style test, he made the stops he was supposed to make, along with a few that he wasn't.
He finally centered himself in time for St. Louis's last push, and saved his best for last, robbing Jaden Schwartz from 10 feet out on a one-time ripper with 30 seconds to go.
"When you score goals early, it changes the game a lot,'' Lehtonen said. "I knew they were going to come after us. It wasn't always pretty at our end, but it was enough.''
For all the grief he's taken for his play in the postseason, much of it deserved, Lehtonen has been at his best over the past three games. If he can deliver another performance like this in Game 7, the Stars have to like their chances.
Elliott's been money throughout the playoffs, posting a .932 save percentage to establish himself as St. Louis's postseason MVP. But he just wasn't himself in this one. He fought the puck early, struggling to locate it when he did stop it, and whiffing on shots that he would have handled easily any other night.
His evening ended early when Spezza beat him for Dallas's third goal on the Stars' seventh shot. In came Jake Allen, who hadn’t seen any action since April 3. He shut the door the rest of the way, making one nice stop on Ales Hemsky off a turnover, but only faced seven shots in 41:24 of action.
So now Hitchcock has to make a decision ahead of his team's most important game of the season: Stick with Allen, who was flawless in a cameo appearance, or dance with the one that brought 'em.
After the game, Hitchcock said he'd like to sleep on it, but it's not a tough choice. Look for Elliott to get the call.