For five minutes, it looked like the Dallas Stars were going to blow the Minnesota Wild out of their own barn.
And then, out of nowhere, the Wild rediscovered their legs, their forecheck and their scoring touch, ending a seven-game losing streak with a 5–3 win in Game 3.
Patrick Sharp scored twice in a span of four minutes to stake the visitors to an early lead, but Minnesota changed its fortunes with a pair of last-minute goals. Chris Porter clicked on a pretty re-direct with 49.5 seconds left in the first period to cut the deficit to 2–1. Then, with 46.3 ticks remaining in the second, Jason Pominville buried a Nino Niederreiter rebound to give the Wild a 3–2 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
For a team that had scored just three goals in its previous five games, the offensive outburst was unexpected but well earned. The Wild’s season hung on this contest, and after that slow start they played like it. They out-worked and out-executed the Stars in virtually every facet of the game.
The victory cuts Dallas’ series lead to 2–1. Game 4 is on Wednesday night in Minnesota.
Here are three thoughts on Monday’s game:
Biggest guns firing
Prior to Game 3, Minnesota coach John Torchetti challenged his best players to actually be his best players. They delivered.
Captain Mikko Koivu was a constant threat, using his size and determination to make his presence felt down low. He showed incredible patience on the game-winner, stickhandling a rebound in tight and waiting just long enough for Kari Lehtonen to commit before burying the shot. Pominville chipped in two goals, three points and a team-high five shots. Erik Haula and Niederreiter kept Dallas’s defenders on their heels with their blistering speed and combined for a goal and four points.
Torchetti was quick to praise Haula's contributions in his postgame remarks. "He just gives us so much confidence on the penalty kill, down low, exit, speed. That line [of Haula, Pominville and Niederreiter] really works well. They complement each other well. They talk on the bench, they make adjustments, they play for each other. That's why they're a very successful line."
Although the offense earned much of the attention, it was the Wild’s commitment to defense that powered the comeback. The forecheck kept Dallas pinned in its own zone, won the ground war in the middle and limited the Stars to just 17 shots in the contest, 11 less than they fired in Game 2. As the Wild began taking over the game with their forecheck late in the first, the Stars went 13:47 without a shot on goal. The Wild generated 10 during that span, scoring twice.
Torchetti said that his team has gotten better as the series has worn on, but hasn't peaked yet. “We have to keep upping our game as the games go on,” he said. “We just can’t stay at the same level. You can’t have a ceiling to your game. That’s what it’s all about.”
Do the Wild have another gear? Hard to believe ... but then again, so was their comeback after they went down 2-0.
It was one of those plays you file away just in case it ends up being important. As it turned out, it might just have saved Minnesota’s season.
With about six minutes remaining in the first period and the Stars holding on to that 2–0 lead, Dallas forward Ales Hemsky blew past Minnesota’s Matt Dumba on the forecheck. He gained control of the loose puck in the corner and immediately threaded a pass to Radek Faksa, who had cruised to within 10 feet of the Wild's net. Faksa unleashed a blistering one-timer, but goaltender Devan Dubnyk read the play perfectly, preventing the Stars from stretching their lead to three.
He wasn't Minnesota’s best player in this one like he was in Games 1 and 2, but Dubnyk managed to author that pivotal moment. Without it, the Wild don’t win the game.
It was right there for the Stars. Two quick goals left the Wild reeling and silenced the Xcel Energy Center ... and then they took their foot off the gas.
"We didn't play near as well as we needed to play," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "That's probably as bad as I've seen us play in maybe five weeks.
Outside of Sharp, who accounted for seven of Dallas’ 17 shots and was their only forward to record more than one, there wasn’t much to like about the Stars’ attack.
"A lot of it was execution, playmaking, our transition game from defense to forwards" Ruff said. "We turned over plenty of pucks. We were just slow, we were slow making plays."
With the D pinned down and unable to move the puck, Dallas' forwards couldn't control the neutral zone as they had in Games 1 and 2. That meant fewer zone entries, less net drive and less possession time.
Jamie Benn, virtually unstoppable in Dallas, really struggled in this one. A constant target for Minnesota's checkers, he spent more time peeling himself off the boards than he did menacing Dubnyk. That’s not entirely unexpected—Benn scored just 12 goals on the road this season compared to 29 at home—but this was one of those games that cried out for the captain to shake the Stars out of their doldrums with a strong individual performance. He couldn’t deliver ... and no one else was ready to pick up the mantle.