In case there was any doubt, these are the Dallas Stars: a team that will score four goals and dare you to try and keep up.
Dallas’s league-leading offense lumbered out of the gate before tallying even-strength goals from Radek Faksa, Jason Spezza, a power play marker from Patrick Eaves and an empty netter from Jamie Benn to knock off the Minnesota Wild, 4–0, in the series opener on Thursday night (boxscore | recap | highlights). Kari Lehtonen made 22 saves to earn the shutout for the Stars.
The Wild, who were playing without top goal scorers Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek, spent most of the night playing without the puck as well, as the Stars controlled both pace and possession. Even taking a strong performance from Devan Dubnyk (27 saves) into consideration, this was a thoroughly lopsided affair, and one that hinted at what could be a very short series.
Here are three quick thoughts on Dallas’s Game 1 victory:
Faksa’s coming out party
Radek Faksa might never become the player the Stars hoped they were using the 13th pick in the 2012 NHL draft. But even in a supporting role, the 22-year-old rookie has the tools to be an impact player on any given night.
This was definitely one of those nights. Skating with Ales Hemsky and Antoine Roussel on what was the best line for either team, he scored the game’s opening goal (and eventual winner) on a wicked wrister that beat Dubnyk high glove midway through the second frame. But he was even more of a difference maker on the penalty kill, using his size, speed and smarts to thwart Minnesota's two bids to counter.
Faksa ended up being credited, conservatively, with three hits and one block, though it seemed like he made a much greater impact in his own zone with his relentless pursuit and mature positioning. He also won 59% of his draws, helping Dallas establish a clear edge in possession.
In all, it was a terrific playoff debut, and one that sets Faksa up as a player to watch as Dallas advances through the tournament.
The Big D stands for defense
No one’s going to mistake these Stars for the trappist wonks that won the Stanley Cup under Ken Hitchcock back in 1999, but this team can find its own end without a road map just fine, thank you very much. Dallas spent the final month of the season tightening up in its own zone, and this game put those efforts on display. "We're committed to play defense in here," Benn said. "I know there are people who doubt us, but we don't doubt ourselves." On Thursday, they managed to contain Minnesota’s attack without breaking a sweat, limiting them to a franchise-low two shots in the first and out-attempting them by a wide margin before score effects came into play later in the contest.
The key was positioning and a relentless commitment to support. Dallas’s defenders stayed up on the blue line, derailing the Wild before they could enter the zone. They got a lot of help from their forwards as well, who delivered an aggressive back check and ensured the Stars always had numbers in their own zone.
It all made for an easy evening for Lehtonen, who earned his second career playoff shutout with a thoroughly pedestrian performance. But it was an important result for the veteran, who now has something to build on as he looks to prove he can carry the load for a Cup-contending team.
Maybe this was rock bottom for the Wild?
That five-game losing streak that ended Minnesota's regular season? Not a problem, the Wild insisted. They’d shift out of reverse and start moving forward once the playoffs started.
Only it didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, outside of Dubnyk’s sturdy performance (his bold Johnny Bower-esque pokecheck on Hemsky's breakaway bid was a highlight) and some early commitment to shot-blocking, there was nothing about their efforts on Thursday night that suggested the Wild are up to the challenge presented by the Stars.
Minnesota/Dallas legend Mike Modano tweeted that the Wild were undone by injuries, but even a fully healthy squad would have been hard-pressed to keep pace in this game. The difference here wasn’t just talent. The soft and sloppy Wild never came close to matching the effort and execution delivered by a hungrier, more disciplined Stars team.
Minnesota could just file this away as a rough night at the office, but what does it come back with in Game 2? Who kick-starts an attack that was never a factor? And how will the Wild slow down a Stars offense that will be bolstered by the return of Tyler Seguin?
If there’s one bright spot for Minnesota, it’s that its defense held the Stars to just 15 shots at five-on-five. Of course, Dallas still outscored them 3–0 at evens, which makes it not much of a bright spot at all.