How the Lightning have short-circuited the Stars’ top line


In Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s scoresheet had enough star power to unofficially qualify as its own galaxy.

Among the goal scorers were winger Nikita Kucherov, last season’s MVP; center Brayden Point, second to Kucherov in playoff scoring; and defenseman Victor Hedman, who had his fourth straight Norris Trophy nomination this season. Even Steven Stamkos, the center playing in his first game since February, scored a goal in less than three minutes of ice time.

The wattage was much different for the Dallas Stars in the 5-2 loss, which dropped them into a 2-1 series hole. No points for captain Jamie Benn for the third straight game. No points for Tyler Seguin, who has just one assist since Game 5 of the Stars’ conference semifinal win over the Colorado Avalanche, a span of 12 games. No points and two costly penalties for Alexander Radulov, snapping a five-game points streak.

That trio comprises the Stars’ top offensive line, one that has generated 12 goals in 23 games at 5-on-5 and has earned 52.7% of the scoring chances vs. opponents this postseason. For three rounds, when united, they were quite good. But as the Lightning’s top players are carrying Tampa Bay to within reach of the Stanley Cup, the Stars’ top line has been absent this series.

“They have to figure this out. It’s as simple as that,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said after Game 3.

He liked some of what he saw in that game. The line showed signs of life early in the first period. “Most of it’s based on, ‘are they creating offense?’ They did a pretty good job of doing that last night. Pucks just didn’t go in,” Bowness said. “But do we need more from our top guys? Every team does.”

The Benn, Seguin and Radulov line hasn’t been on the plus side of the possession game for four straight games, tracking back to the Western Conference finals against Vegas. They’re a minus-7 in shots on goal against Tampa. After a strong first game of the series, a 4-1 Dallas victory, their expected goals percentage in Game 2 (23.4%) and Game 3 (27.8%) were among the worst on the Stars at even strength.

The Lightning have gotten the better of the 5-on-5 play since coming alive in the third period of Game 1. Defensively, Tampa has been in quite a groove, having given up two or fewer goals in 10 of their past 12 postseason games. Their formula is simple: Great goaltending, puck possession with a crushing forecheck, and working quickly to rid their own zone of danger.

“They’ve broken the puck out of the zone against us at times to stop some of our momentum,” Dallas forward Joe Pavelski said.

The Stars haven’t found room to operate on the power play, either. That unit is 1-for-11 in the series, while Tampa’s is 3-for-11.

“Special teams are always important. They’ve been huge for us on this run that we’ve been on,” said Pavelski, who said the frequency of the Stars’ penalties is what is fueling the Lightning’s offensive buoyancy. “It’s when you give them three on a row, back-to-back-to-back, and they start feeling it and figuring it out a little bit. They’ve gotten some confidence from it.”

The Stars’ top line hasn’t had a chance to build on power-play momentum, or really build on anything thanks to a very good checking unit for the Lightning. The line of center Yanni Gourde, flanked by wingers Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, has been one of the most frustrating defensive lines in the playoffs, and has been matched against the Stars’ top trio much of this series. With the last change in Game 3, Bowness tried hard to get them away from the Gourde line; one imagines he’ll attempt the same in Game 4.

“I think our line, no matter which line we’re playing against, we like to play the same way,” Goodrow said. “We generate from the forecheck. We like to get pucks in deep. We’re a pretty physical line that likes to take away the other team’s time and space by getting on the body. It doesn’t matter what line we’re playing against, we’re going to play the same way. If it happens to be against the other team’s top line, that means we take even more pride in shutting them down.”

Factor in frequent appearances by Hedman against the trio and the stellar play of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and the Stars’ top players have been erased.

Coach Jon Cooper said the Lightning aren’t just laser-focused on stopping one line. “We’re not sitting here saying ‘just focus on this line.’ It’s not the way it works. We’re focused on their team. If some guys aren’t scoring, hopefully it’s because we have a team effort,” he said. “Every game, as you move forward, you look at your opponent and you try to make sure they’re not going to have success. To be honest, we really focus on ourselves and how we need to play, and hopefully the opponent is the one making adjustments.”

It also helps that the Lightning are confident that their lines can get the defensive job done.

“We have a deep team. Everybody can check,” Cooper said.

How can the Stars’ top line break through and be a series-turning factor? Avoiding the penalty box is paramount, so they can maintain a rhythm at 5-on-5.

“[Radulov] takes those two penalties last night, that disrupts the lines for a while, too,” Bowness said.

Spending less time in their defensive zone also would help. They generated just seven unblocked shot attempts in Games 2 and 3 while allowing 16 to the Lightning. They were outshot 13-5.

But the real question is what shape they’re in, and that’s where the focus turns to Seguin. The Stars’ leading scorer in the regular season with 50 points in 69 games (0.72 points per game) is now at eight points in 23 games (0.35).

Some have argued that moving Benn and Radulov away from Seguin could be the best move for Dallas. Breaking up the “top guys” is something Bowness has considered, having done so in the regular season.

“It depends on how the game is going and how they’re going,” he said. “They’ve been together a lot for the last couple of years. They weren’t having a lot of success early in the year, so we split them up. It just gives us flexibility to move those guys around.”

The Lightning’s stars are shining. The Stars’ top line has gone cold. With back-to-back Games 4 and 5 on Friday and Saturday, it could be the last stand for Dallas. Whether it’s Seguin, Benn and Radulov or someone else, Pavelski said a difference-maker needs to step up.

“There’s another level for us,” he said. “Bottom line, it’s gotta come from someone.”

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