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After feel-good start to series, Stars must build on big win

Despite an early gut punch, Dallas emerged as the faster, more aggressive and simply better team in its Game 1 triumph

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In a lot of ways, the Stars had a perfect Game 1 on Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena.

No, it wasn't always pretty, and yes, it had its warts -- but that's what made it so perfect.

In a game where the Nashville Predators started strong and put early pressure on the Stars, Dallas relied on several players participating in their first playoff game, and then fell back on the identity they have established over the past two months to take a 3-2 victory.

Now, they not only have a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, they have a lot of things to help them get even better.

Miro Heiskanen, 19, tallied a goal, an assist and logged 23:24. Roope Hintz, 22, had six shots on goal. Esa Lindell, 24, logged a game-high 27:27, including more than seven minutes shorthanded. Each was playing in his first ever playoff game. Also in their first playoff games were Jason Dickinson, Justin Dowling, Taylor Fedun, and Tyler Pitlick.

Video: 'First-time players were our best players'

"It's amazing, because the first-time players were our best players," Stars coach Jim Montgomery said. "I thought they led everybody else, and it's great to have young players like Hintz and Dickinson and Miro, and I'll probably forget some."

Likewise, none of the Stars core players like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin or John Klingberg had been to the playoffs in the previous two seasons. Seguin last saw any extensive postseason play in 2014.

So when the Stars looked sluggish and overwhelmed at first, it wasn't shocking. Nashville won the Central Division, is starting at home, and has designs on winning the Stanley Cup. They went to the Final two seasons ago, and this is their fifth straight year in the playoffs, so they were on top of their game and had a 10-5 advantage in shots on goal when they took a 1-0 lead in the first period.

It was a gut punch the Stars probably needed.

"You have to expect that there are going to come out hard. They're the favorites and they want to show that they're into it," said defenseman John Klingberg. "And then I think we settled pretty good, and then we took over the game."

Video: DAL@NSH, Gm1: Heiskanen's shot deflects in for PPG

They kind of did.

Dallas was faster, more aggressive and simply better at possessing the puck. They took over the shots-on-goal and shot-attempt metrics, and they forced the Predators to skate. Nashville had come out with a physical attack that included Brian Boyle knocking Dickinson from the game with a big hit. But the Stars pushed back, Dickinson eventually returned, and Dallas started looking like the playoff veterans.

"They were quicker," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. "We didn't get it out of our end, they kept their forecheck going, and they kept us in our end. We weren't able to get it out, we weren't able to get it to the neutral zone. I don't know if it's a simple game or if it's a game where we needed more determination."

Either way, it was clear the Predators were the frustrated one.

Heiskanen tied the game in the second period as he led the second power-play unit to success. Dowling and Lindell made big plays on what would become an unassisted goal (because it deflected in off a Predators player), but it was clear the depth players were succeeding while the top power-play unit was struggling.

Video: "Maybe it's something in the Finnish water"

Then, Heiskanen scored again in the third period, assisted by Klingberg, and Benn had a dominating shift that led to the eventual game-winning goal. Benn jumped behind the net and willed possession of the puck to the Stars. He kicked the puck out to the point for a Ben Lovejoy slap shot and then Mats Zuccarello cleaned up the rebound in front for a 3-1 lead.

That was huge, as P.K. Subban would score with 6:36 remaining. But the Stars, who have been playing tight-checking games for more than a month, found a way to squeeze out the win.

"I think ever since the All-Star Break, we've been coming together pretty good and it showed tonight," said Klingberg, who added that the Stars adapted pretty well to the noisy arena.

"It's still hockey," he said. "It's intense out there and the crowd is loud, but it's still hockey."

And maybe that's the biggest lesson the Stars needed to learn: After a two-year absence from the playoffs, it's still just hockey.

Video: DAL@NSH, Gm1: Zuccarello sweeps home rebound

For Heiskanen, it's the same kind of hockey he played in the Finnish Elite League and the Olympics last season. For Dickinson, it's the same kind of hockey he played in helping the Texas Stars to the AHL's Calder Cup Finals last season. For Zuccarello, it's the same kind of hockey he has played for the past nine seasons with the New York Rangers.

The Stars answered a lot of questions on Tuesday in the affirmative, and that's a great feeling for a team that was a bit of a wild card going into this. Now, they have to build on it.

Nashville will be ready to come back hard in Game 2 Saturday, and the Stars have to try to reset from a fantastic night.

"We feel good right now. But come tomorrow, we'll look forward to Saturday," said Benn. "These guys are a great team. I'm sure they're not too worried. They've been around for a while."

After Game 1, the Stars just look like they've been around for a while -- but that's not a bad feeling at all.

For complete postseason coverage, visit Stars Playoff Central.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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