CALGARY, Alta. — Hockey, for all its quirks and quirks, can be a simple game.
You can adjust lines and pairings, change forechecks and breakouts, remove players from the lineup, and mix up the power play. But all of those things can be rendered moot by the goalie position, especially in the slugfest that is the Stars-Flames first-round series.
Wednesday night, in the Stars’ 3-1 loss to Calgary in Game 5, goaltender Jacob Markstrom was the easiest solution to the Flames’ Jake Oettinger problem.
Markstrom made 20 saves, leading the Flames to a win that gave them a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6 Friday night in Dallas. Andrew Mangiapane scored the game-winning goal for Calgary with 9:22 left in the third period when Calgary snatched the game from the Stars.
Oettinger made 29 saves, giving the Stars a chance to take the lead in the best of 7 first-round series. Dallas can be eliminated with a Game 6 loss.
Jason Robertson scored his first playoff goal in the second period, ending a four-game scoreless streak. Mikael Backlund tied the game for Calgary 6:49 into the third period, and Trevor Lewis added an empty net in the last minute.
Oettinger – the towering 23-year-old goaltender playing in his first playoff series – was the Stars’ best player of all series. As the offense dried up and the defense gave up on the Stars, Oettinger was steady.
He refused Johnny Gaudreau in the big spots. It left Tyler Toffoli wondering which hockey god he angered to deserve his scoreless fate. He kept 42-goal scorer Matthew Tkachuk off the board. Elias Lindholm was the only Flame to solve Oettinger consistently, as Oettinger repeatedly parried Calgary’s attempts.
His status grew so high in Calgary that Flames fans sang Oettinger singing “Oettinger!” Oettinger! chants within minutes of the puck being put into play. He stopped Tkachuk on an early breakaway, then denied Toffoli on a sharp angled shot that then went through the crease.
Wednesday night, the Stars were also much better in front of him — in the first two periods.
Dallas has returned to its defensive identity, the one it intended to lead through an eventual playoff run, and the one it has carved over the past four seasons. Instead of allowing 19 shots in the first period and 20 shots in the second period as they did in Game 4, the Stars gave up only 16 in the first 40 minutes combined.
Then the Flames lit it. Calgary shot 14 times in the first 14 minutes of the third period, beating Oettinger twice to erase a one-goal deficit and take a 2-1 lead.
After leading the Stars with 41 goals in the regular season, Robertson was goalless in the first four games against Calgary. His only point was an assist in Game 2 on Joe Pavelski’s goal. Bowness shuffled around the lines to try and revive Robertson, and he looked much better on Wednesday night.
He was shooting the pucks from the battles. He had them in the offensive zone. He was finding space around the net where real estate is expensive in the playoffs.
On his goal, Robertson received a pass along the wall from Jamie Benn and bounced a puck off Jacob Markstrom and then Noah Hanifin. His first career playoff goal wasn’t pretty. But it was necessary – both by Robertson and by the Stars.
Backlund tied the game on a pass from Mangiapane, pitching in front of the net between Vladislav Namestnikov and Radek Faksa to bring the Scotiabank Saddledome back to life.
Before the game, the Stars talked about what they needed to do better defensively. Coach Rick Bowness said he challenged Calgary’s rushes better, pushed more aggressively and defended the Flames better with the puck behind the net.
Defenders John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen each said they needed to finish plays faster in the defensive zone.
“We know they’re a good team there, we know they’ll get the puck a lot,” Klingberg said. “But if we can close plays quicker and hold the puck a bit more, we’re going to play with more possession and be able to spend more time in the o-zone.”
Heiskanen: “I think we spent too much time in our own zone, so try to finish games faster and get out of the zone.”
It was the Stars group that left Calgary last week after frustrating the top Flames and silencing a thundering Scotiabank Saddledome. That group disappeared in Dallas as Calgary racked up the chances and the Stars called on Oettinger to be near perfect to win.
It was there for 40 minutes. Then it was gone, like the Stars’ 2-1 series lead.
Now Dallas will have to win the next two games or watch its end of the season – despite Oettinger’s best efforts.
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