- A rookie coach and better defense have the Stars two wins from the Western Conference Finals.
DALLAS—Earlier on Tuesday afternoon, captain Jamie Benn was sitting in a windowless room at American Airlines Center, wearing a backward baseball cap with a towel slung over his shoulder, stroking his playoff beard and contemplating the evolution of the Dallas Stars. “You want to play the up-and-down, high-scoring games because they’re fun,” Benn said. “But that doesn’t help your team win. We’ve been there, done that, and haven’t gone anywhere.”
Indeed, these are not your older sibling’s Stars, those heart-attack outfits of the mid-aughts for whom defensive zone structure was shrugged aside like an optional homework assignment. But look at them now. Under rookie coach Jim Montgomery, lifted from the NCAA ranks last summer to put the D back in Big D, the Stars finished the regular season ranked 29th league-wide in scoring output but third overall in goals against. “It was different to adapt early on,” Benn said. “But in the end, defense is going to win games. We’ve finally bought in and believed in that.”
Several hours later, the results were readily apparent. Trailing 1-0 after an early power play snipe from Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko, the Stars clamped down on St. Louis and rolled to a 4-2 victory, knotting their second-round series at two games apiece. It was a timely response from Dallas, which had let Game 3 slip away in its final two minutes. “Desperation’s a good word,” said goalie Ben Bishop, who finished with 27 saves, “but [we] just played the way we’re supposed to play.” Translation: Been there, done that, going somewhere.
Of course, Game 4 wasn’t exactly a snoozefest either. A few fireworks popped off as the horn sounded on the second period, when Blues goalie Jordan Binnington took a gloved swing at Benn and then chopped counterpart Ben Bishop’s stick while leaving the ice. Both incidents were shrugged aside as typical playoff tussles, though Binnington did become the first netminder to receive a double minor in the playoffs since May ‘03. “Nothing really to comment about,” Benn said later. “Just a bunch of grown men being donkeys out there.”
Maybe they become Sancho Panza’s steeds after the whistle, but there is nothing quixotic about the Stars’ style these days. “We’re a team that works incredibly hard,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said after the team’s morning skate on Tuesday. “We are big and we are fast. And when we are dialed in and playing the right way, we’re a really hard team to beat.”
Take, for instance, the winning goal: Backchecking through the neutral zone in the second period, winger Jason Dickinson coaxed a turnover at the red line with a nifty stick lift on defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. Help soon arrived from linemate Mats Zuccarello, who shrugged aside pressure from two Blues players and shoveled the puck ahead to center Tyler Seguin, charging down the left wall with speed.
Pulling up at the faceoff circle, Seguin hit defenseman John Klingberg on the weak side for a snap shot that sizzled past Binnington, just under the bar blocker-side. “Worked smart tonight,” Dickinson said. “We wanted to go dictate the play and take control.”
It was a similar effort to the Stars’ last Game 4, when they bludgeoned Nashville at home with a quartet of first-period goals and never lost again, ultimately eliminating the Central Division champs in six. “We were on our toes,” Montgomery said. “We were competing, we were fighting.” Rest assured, though, the Blues won’t bow out quietly. After becoming the first expansion-era team to reach the playoffs after sitting in last place after New Years’ Day, riding Binnington’s hot hand and the deft touch of interim coach Craig Berube, a 2-2 series qualifies as adversity about as much as a mosquito bite.
“This is exactly where we’re supposed to be at this point, right?” Dickinson said. “It’s now a three-game series. We’ve got to go take care of business there. That’s it.”