Lehtonen, Stars edge past Elliott, Blues in Game 1
Radek Faksa's crease-crashing goal with 4:44 left in the third gave the Dallas Stars a 2-1 win in their series opener against the St. Louis Blues Friday night.
While the score was close, the game wasn't. This was total domination by the Stars, who lit up St. Louis’s vaunted defense for 42 shots only to be kept at bay by a sensational performance from Blues netminder Brian Elliott.
Antoine Roussel opened the scoring for Dallas at 9:36 of the second. Kevin Shattenkirk notched the equalizer for St. Louis at 11:32 of the third.
The win gives the Stars a 1-0 series lead. Game 2 is Sunday afternoon in Dallas.
Here are three thoughts on a very entertaining opener:
Speed vs. physicality
This series set up as a duel of contrasting styles: Dallas' run ‘n’ gun offense against the punishing play of St. Louis. Tonight anyway, it wasn't much of a battle. For 50 minutes, the Stars pretty much had their way, crafting a blazing attack that left the Blues in their dust.
Full marks to Dallas' defense for setting the tone, especially the top pair of Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg. Both faced criticism for inconsistent play in the Minnesota series, but they were at their best in this one. They moved pucks quickly and efficiently to set up Dallas’s transition game, attacked the net with purpose and were strong in their own end. They combined for a +24 in shot attempt differential, an accurate reflection of their two-way excellence.
It wasn't just speed that won the game for the Stars, though. They set the tone physically as well. “I think they were winning a lot more battles," said Blues captain David Backes. "Whether that was them being more engaged, or us not being engaged, they were more engaged than we were. As a result of that, they were creating more offense and had the ice tilted towards our net."
Were the Blues suffering a bit of an emotional hangover after their seven-game win over the Blackhawks in the first round? "Well, I think what you are hoping for is that it is," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "We can’t have that excuse in Game 2. We are going to have to find a different energy. We complicated things way too much today and it fed their transition. We are not going to beat anybody giving up 40 shots on goal, and we are not going to beat anybody giving up the scoring chances we did today."
While the Stars had their way on the attack, the Blues couldn't get anything happening down low.There wasn't a lot of desire in their game, and even less intelligence. When they did direct pucks toward the net, Dallas forced them into shooting from distance with their tenacious puck pursuit, and some dedicated work clogging up the middle of the ice. By the end of the game, the Stars had blocked 22 shots, 11 each from their forwards and defense, illustrating a total team buy-in. That's exactly what they wanted in the opener, and exactly what the Blues will need in Game 2.
Kari Lehtonen was full value for the win in this one, making 31 saves in his best performance of the postseason. He was sharp from the start, robbing Paul Stastny three times in close in the first, and frustrating St. Louis’s attack with his rebound control and quick lateral movement.
“He was huge," Stars captain Jamie Benn said. "We’re going to need big saves at key times and I think we got that out of him tonight. It’s not surprise for us. We know when he’s on top of his game. It was good to see him make a lot of great saves in there.” It was exactly the effort the Stars needed from Lehtonen, and a harbinger of good things to come.
Good thing he was sharp too, because Elliott gave him no margin for error. That was a prime piece of playoff goaltending from the veteran. This was a game the Blues had no business winning, but he kept them in it right to the end with a superb individual performance. He struggled with his own rebound control early in the game, and seemed a bit scrambly with his positioning, but he made the stops he had to make. His best moment: After making a save on a Patrick Eaves attempt, he was spun around and was facing the net. Stars defenseman Jason Demers tried to poke in the rebound, but he made the no-look stop to keep the game scoreless.
Regrets, they'll have a few
This never should have been a one-goal game. The Stars had so many glorious opportunities in tight (13 high-danger chances, according to War On Ice), but couldn't finish. Mattias Janmark was gifted a couple of glorious chances by Jason Spezza and couldn't connect. Worse though were the chances they couldn't put on the net. Both Jason Demers and Patrick Sharp sent pucks sailing over the cage on deflections down low. If Dallas is going to put this team away, they'll need to be more efficient with their opportunities.
Vladimir Tarasenko was handed a larger role in this one than he was in any of the seven games against Chicago in Round One, but he was a total non-factor. The Tank registered three shots on goal in just over 20 minutes of ice time, but never looked dangerous. The Stars targeted him right from the opening face-off, hitting him seven times and disrupting him repeatedly with their sticks and shoulders. A tight game like this was crying out for him to author that one spectacular shift but he didn't have it in him. He's one of several Blues who'll have to elevate their performance in Game 2.