When the NHL’s first-round series between the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars was finalized, many fans and analysts rightfully assumed the Flames would overpower the Stars en route to a probable showdown with their interprovincial arch-rivals in Edmonton. That may still come to pass, but the underdog Stars have taken a 2-1 series lead over Calgary using their best quality – their defense.
Indeed, when you consider that Dallas has scored only six goals in the first three games of the series, it becomes clear how much the Stars rely on their deep and talented blueline. It’s something we’ve repeated numerous times this year, but Dallas’ defense corps is arguably the best in the league, and their defensemen have showed their value by locking down Calgary’s fast, skilled offense for the grand majority of the games.
Yes, some of that is also because Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger has been terrific. Oettinger’s 1.01 goals-against average and .969 save percentage illustrate how dominant he’s been in his second go-around as a playoff performer. The 23-year-old has, time and again, thwarted Flames players in his zone. And while goaltending in hockey is similar to pitching in baseball – specifically, insofar as a rookie goalie/pitcher at the major league level can go on a hot streak in their initial exposure to an opponent, before that opponent fully scouts them out and picks up on their strengths and weaknesses – Oettinger is getting plenty of assistance from his D-men.
And Dallas not only is frustrating Calgary with their defense, but the Stars’ offense also is getting a boost from the defensemen. The Stars’ top six defensemen have combined to generate six points – only three fewer than all of Dallas’ four forward lines. Veteran Stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have a combined one point in the three games. This offensive output really shouldn’t be sufficient to keep Dallas on the winning side of the win/loss register, but it’s held up for the past two games because the Stars haven’t given any oxygen to Calgary’s key skaters.
The Flames’ top line of Elias Linholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk have a combined two goals and six points. After that, there’s virtually nothing. From their second line through their fourth line, Calgary has a grand total of two points: one goal (from Trevor Lewis) and one assist (from Milan Lucic).
It doesn’t matter who the Flames would’ve been playing in the first round – that sag in offensive production would’ve badly hurt Calgary’s Stanley Cup aspirations. And it’s not fair to Flames starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, who shut out Dallas in Calgary’s 1-0 Game One victory. Markstrom’s individual numbers (1.36 G.A.A., .942 SP) are well above-average, but he hasn’t had nearly enough goal support at the other end of the ice. The Flames simply haven’t been able to break through Dallas’ defensive wall and drum up enough high-quality shots to make a difference for Calgary.
Stars fans should be especially pleased to see Dallas win games because of their defensive play. That’s likely what’s going to have to happen if they’re to remain in this post-season. Benn and Seguin aren’t the type of dynamic offense-producers they once were, and youngsters Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz can only do so much. If they’re going to make one final push with their aging core up front, it’ll almost assuredly be thanks to their play away from the puck.
Right now, all the Stars have to do is play disciplined and play smart, and Oettinger will take on the ultimate task of denying Calgary’s offense-minded stars from racking up points. They’ve been able to do that in two of three games thus far, and there’s no reason why they can’t continue on that path.