The Dallas Stars left no opponent unchecked and no cliche unsaid, persuasive proof they have a firm grasp on the key tenets of playoff success:
Control the game or be controlled, and never give the other team a brazen quote to post on its locker-room bulletin board.
From the opening faceoff until the last stitch was applied to the last wounded Mighty Duck, the Stars dictated the pace, character and outcome of what turned out to be a 4-1 rout Saturday at American Airlines Center. Their veterans outplayed the Ducks’ veterans, their grinders had the extra push the Ducks’ grinders lacked, and their hits left no doubts they meant to leave their signatures behind in black and blue.
“They brought out their ‘A’ game today,” Duck winger Steve Thomas said.
The Stars’ backs are still against that proverbial wall of playoff elimination, and the Ducks, with a 3-2 series lead, can still advance to the Western Conference finals if they recapture the relentlessness and zest that propelled them this far. They have two chances, Monday at the Pond of Anaheim and, if necessary, Wednesday in Dallas, but as Thomas noted, “I don’t think any one of us want to come back here for a Game 7.”
By introducing the specter of a seventh game, the Stars may have gained a psychological victory. Now, they can prey on the Ducks’ fears, not merely their shoulders and knees.
“We had to come out scratching and clawing,” said forward Jason Arnott, penalized for an unnecessary takedown of Paul Kariya but let off the hook when Niko Kapanen scored a short-handed goal at 18:10 of the second period.
“We have to keep this same mentality, just go at them and shoot the puck.”
Nonetheless, they had ample reason to rejoice after inflicting the Ducks’ worst defeat of the playoffs and prolonging their season at least through Monday.
“We played solid defense and didn’t stop forechecking, and we kept rolling our lines. We kept going in there and creating things,” said Pierre Turgeon, who channeled his anger from his Game 4 benching into an assertive, gritty performance.
“This was a crucial game, obviously, and we had to win this one. Guys played like we had to win it.
“But it’s only one game. We’ve got to make sure we remember that. We know it’s going to be as hard as it’s been since the beginning.... There’s no tomorrow. We’ve got to play the next game like it’s our last game and put everything on the table. We did that tonight.”
The Stars evidently cleared their table.
“They were more hungry,” said Duck goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, yanked after two periods after yielding three goals on 19 shots.
“They were really intense. We just didn’t match their intensity.”
The Ducks didn’t match the gritty work of Rob DiMaio, who was in position in front of the net for a pass by Mike Modano to deflect off his skate and into the net for the Stars’ first goal. They didn’t match the work Turgeon, long considered a soft player, did along the boards and in the corner to get the puck to Stu Barnes for the Stars’ second goal, at 14:20, the Ducks’ first two-goal deficit in two playoff rounds.
“The finesse guys played physical, and the physical guys played well offensively,” said DiMaio, the prototypical journeyman, playing for his seventh team in 15 NHL seasons. “But we’re in no position to relax. This is one of three [victories] that we need. It’s a good start, and we just have to continue it.”
The Ducks were too easily moved off the puck, too easily overtaken, too easily confused on defensive coverage to think after the first few minutes that they might finish this in five games and get a breather before the Western Conference finals. They offered excuses for their flat, meek effort, but none was valid.
They couldn’t have been complacent, if they believe their own mantra that they haven’t achieved anything yet. Yet, they got none of the leadership that ignited the Stars Saturday, none of Claude Lemieux’s meanness, none of Barnes’ perseverance or Turgeon’s willingness to sacrifice his gripes and his scoring chances for the good of the team.
Their surprising first-round sweep of Detroit and their victories at Dallas in Games 1 and 2 of this series gave the Ducks little practice at facing adversity. Their first experience was a 2-1 loss last Monday in Game 3, and they quickly reversed course with a fine defensive effort that supported Giguere’s 1-0 shutout Wednesday in Game 4. Rebounding from Saturday’s loss, however, could be more difficult. They’re more tired, more bruised. And the Stars have more reason for optimism, having turned their theories on how to beat Giguere into reality.
Asked how the Ducks could have lacked the urgency to finish their task Saturday, Thomas had no answers. But he has hope.
“Ever since I’ve been here, the biggest thing that sticks out in my mind is the competitive level we have and the character we’ve been able to show, coming back,” he said. “It’s going to be helpful having that.”
They may need all the help they can get.