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Agnew: Stars ride strong start against Blues

Former NHL coach says goaltending can be key for Dallas in Game 7

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

For additional insight into the Western Conference Second Round series between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Gary Agnew to break down the action. Agnew will be checking in throughout the series.

Agnew, 55, was an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets. He also served as interim coach of the Blue Jackets for five games during the 2006-07 season, and he has been coach of Syracuse of the American Hockey League and London and Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League.

DALLAS -- The game had started out the way the Dallas Stars needed it to, considering they were facing elimination and, though it didn't exactly stay that way, it was enough. That was how the Stars won Game 6 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, taking away a chance for the St. Louis Blues to clinch a spot in the Western Conference Final for the first time in 15 years and setting up Game 7 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS, SN).

"It seemed like Dallas was a more ready group, which they should have been. They're down," Agnew said. "It's an elimination game, so they seemed more desperate, they seemed more focused, at the start anyway."

Of course, that wasn't exactly how it ended, with the Blues coming back to get a goal in both the second and third periods and come within a nifty Kari Lehtonen save of tying the game with less than a minute left. But at the start, the breaks went the way of the Stars.

"I thought in the first period Dallas had better composure on their breakouts," Agnew said. "They had better puck support. They were making shorter passes, they were coming out of the zone.

"And in the second period, it felt to me like when St. Louis sort of ratcheted up the forecheck it didn't give Dallas much of a problem early because they were rimming the puck, they were chipping it out, they were throwing aerials, like they'd get it and they'd just flip it into the air out of the neutral zone.

"When St. Louis started to take away the boards and really pinch, they didn't have an answer. They struggled to get the puck out of the zone, so finally St. Louis scored that first goal."

That was the result of a lot of work, a lot of time spent in the Blues' offensive zone, a lot of built-up momentum that they had garnered. Agnew praised the job that the Blues had done of pinching on the boards and keeping plays alive, all while maintaining pressure on the Stars.

"It's hard keeping a lead," Agnew said. "The other team plays a little bit more exuberant, they can open it up. The other team [Dallas], subconsciously you go into a sort of protect mode. You don't want to make a mistake to give them the goal. The other team [St. Louis] is going, 'Well, let's just throw everything we have, including the kitchen sink, and see if we can get a goal.' So it becomes a little bit of a momentum shift."

The Blues had started turning the tide after the Stars scored their third goal, a power-play strike by Jason Spezza at 16:49 of the first period. That was when Blues coach Ken Hitchcock opted to pull his goaltender, something that Stars coach Lindy Ruff had also done earlier in the series, both with Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.

"A lot of times you need your goalie to make a big save. I understand that. We all do," Agnew said. "But I think when your team doesn't look like it's responding you need to do something to get its attention. So pulling the goaltender is one of the ways to do that, obviously.

"I think that in Brian's case, I'm sure Hitch in the back of his mind is thinking, 'Look, I need to get my team refocused, I also need to make sure my goaltender doesn't lose his confidence here as we move along in this game. I'm better just to get him out and we'll live to fight another day.'"

That, ultimately, was what the Stars did. They got enough scoring at the start of the game and held off the Blues just enough to win Game 6 and force that Game 7, which Agnew said will come down to goaltending, special teams and composure.

And the win that got them there can be traced to one player.

"Obviously Lehtonen, he was the star of the game," Agnew said, before referencing a pad save that Lehtonen made with 22 seconds left in the game. "The save on [Jaden] Schwartz with the goalie out and the empty net, with everything else that he was doing, he was rock solid again."

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