The Dallas Stars have plenty to worry about heading into a must-win Game 4 with the Blues in St. Louis Thursday night (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS). Trailing two games to one after being drummed, 6–1, on Tuesday, they have to address their limited attack, their defensive coverage and their AHL-caliber goaltending.
And yet, a kiss blown to their bench by Blues winger Ryan Reaves after he ragdolled Dallas's Curtis McKenzie has been the hot topic for two days.
"I think the players took note of that, yeah, I think they do," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said on Wednesday. "Our guys were embarrassed, and that's stuff you take to heart. That's stuff you use. We're a proud team."
Being proud is fine. In this case, though, discretion is the better part of valor. The last thing the Stars can afford tonight is to spend an ounce of energy on Reaves, a rambunctious fourth liner who earns his living through disruption. Ignoring that slight and maintaining their discipline is the critical first step toward getting this series back to even footing.
Here are a few other considerations ahead of tonight's contest:
• It's easy to see why Ruff pairs Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg on his top pair. They're smart, quick on their feet and deadly in transition. Dallas's offense works the way it does because they feed the beast.
Don't trust the eye test? The fancy stats back this up. Goligoski leads the NHL in shot-attempt differential at +66, which means he's been on the ice for an average of eight more shot attempts by the Stars per game than against. Klingberg ranks third at +59. That means they're spending a larger portion of their time in the offensive zone than in their own. That's just good hockey.
But there's an element of risk to their game as well. They may not make many mistakes, but when they do make one it tends to be egregious. And it tends to end up in the back of their net.
Both can be guilty of trying to force a pass from deep in their own zone, and that leads to turnovers. And both are smaller defenders, so they struggle to match up against heavier forwards down low. That's why the Blues were always going to be a tough draw for them.
No surprise that St. Louis has gone after them physically in this series. That's a standard tactic. What is surprising is how quickly the Blues have gotten into their kitchens. And Goligoski and Klingberg have become their own worst enemies as their confidence has waned.
That's why Ruff has to split them up and try to find a safer balance. That might mean pairing Klingberg with steady veteran Johnny Oduya and Goligoski with heavy, stay-at-home rookie Stephen Johns. That's a more traditional approach, and one that might end up slowing Dallas's attack. But after allowing too many high-danger chances over the past two games, regaining control over their own zone has to be the priority.
• This is how ugly Dallas's goaltending situation has become: Heading into Game 4, the Stars rank 13th in playoff goals-against average at 3.11 and 13th in save percentage at .889. With numbers like that, it's hard to believe they have a chance to tie up their series with a win tonight in St. Louis.
Forget everything else that has to improve for the Stars in this one. They need their goaltender to steal one. Not just "not lose," as the generous run support allowed them to do so many times during the regular season. Actually step up and be the best player on the ice.
Neither Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi has looked capable of bending a game to their will in this series, but one of them, likely Lehtonen, will have to do exactly that. If Ruff has to make a change for the third consecutive game, this series is done.
• The Blues are killing it on special teams. They've blanked the Stars on 11 opportunities with the extra man, while scoring four power-play goals of their own on 14 chances. Clearly the Stars miss Tyler Seguin's Ovechkin-lite shot from the right circle and Patrick Eaves' net-front presence. But St. Louis is killing it on the kill by taking away time and space from Dallas's point men, forcing them to settle for getting pucks deep rather than setting up Jason Spezza on the half-wall to orchestrate an opportunity with precision passing.
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It's been the exact opposite at the other end of the ice. While a couple of those goals have come off the rush, the Blues have excelled at distributing the puck from the point. The key: the poise of Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko under pressure. Both have consistently been able to make good decisions with the puck, allowing the Blues to maintain possession for longer stretches and tire Dallas's penalty killers more quickly. Watch for this to become a greater factor as this series moves toward its conclusion.
• If the Stars happen to get the lead in this one, keep a close eye on the following shift. In each of the past two games, the Blues have responded to Dallas's game-opening goal with one of their own less than a minute later. That speaks partially to Ruff's poor defensive choices, but more to the confidence of a St. Louis attack that's really coming into its own as the playoffs progress. Now that Vladimir Tarasenko (goal and three points in Game 3) is off the schneid, the Blues go three lines deep. That creates a matchup dilemma for the Stars, especially on the road where St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock has the advantage of last change.
• Dallas's Antoine Roussel is a terrific player when he's on his game, but he's been in the box for three of St. Louis's four power play goals in this series. That tells you where his head's been. His ability to play on the right side of the line could be a game-changer tonight.