The Dallas Stars' top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov was dominant in the first-round series win over Nashville. But in the first two games of round two against St. Louis the big three have been quiet.
Now, as the series shifts to Dallas for Games 3 and 4, Stars coach Jim Montgomery is looking for more from his big guns.
"For our top line, they need to be better," Montgomery said. "I've told them that, they know it and they have a lot of pride and I expect them to be. In the last series, they just kept getting better and I expect them to do the same."
Through the first two games, Benn, Seguin, and Radulov have yet to score as a line at 5-on-5. Benn does have a power-play goal in the series. The line is a plus-2 in shot attempts, plus-3 in shots on goal, and a plus-2 in high-danger chances during 5-on-5 play.
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In Saturday's game, though, they didn't have a shot attempt through the first 40 minutes before picking up the pace in the third.
"It's effort and execution," Montgomery said. "I don't think they're skating and I don't think they are competing at the level, that when they are dominant, they usually do."
It's been a different story with the team's second line of Jason Dickinson, Roope Hintz, and Mats Zuccarello. Asked what's made those three so effective, Montgomery referred to his answer above.
"The opposite of what I just said," Montgomery responded. "It's true. Their effort and execution has been excellent. When they are out there it's like, 'Oh my god, they look fast.' Well, A, they are fast. But B, they are working. They are working off the puck and they are working with the puck at both ends of the ice.
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"People notice the goals, but they were good at breaking the pucks out and they were really good at defending."
The trio has delivered goals and some big ones since being put together as a line heading into Game 4 of the round one series against Nashville. The Stars won Game 4 on the power play and both Hintz and Zuccarello scored with the man-advantage in the 5-1 win as the Stars tied the series 2-2. Hintz did score at even-strength in the game to extend Dallas' lead to 5-0.
In Game 5, the second line contributed two goals at 5-on-5 -- both by Dickinson -- in a 5-3 win that gave the Stars a 3-2 series lead.
And then Saturday afternoon, the trio's hands were all over the offense in the 4-2 win that tied the series with St. Louis at one game apiece.
Zuccarello set up Hintz for a 5-on-5 goal to give Dallas a 1-0 lead. Then, with the two sides playing 4-on-4, Zuccarello made a slick pass to send the Stars on the rush where Hintz made a highlight-reel pass to set up a Miro Heiskanen goal. Dickinson set up a Mattias Janmark goal 4-on-4. And then Hintz sealed the Dallas win with a late empty-net goal.
Overall, Dickinson, Hintz, and Zuccarello have combined for 12 even-strength points (five goals, seven assists) over the past five games.
"Those guys are great players to play with and they make it a lot easier for me. I don't have to do too much with them," said Dickinson. "If you give [Zuccarello] enough space, he is going to make great plays. You saw that on Roope's goal and Miro's goal. He made unbelievable plays on both of those. And Roope is playing at a very high level right now, and we need to try to get as much out of that as possible."
Hintz, who is in his first NHL season, was leading all rookies in playoff scoring with seven points (four goals, three assists) in eight games through Saturday.
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"He's been playing good the whole playoffs," Zuccarello said of HIntz. "He's calm and it's like he's played 100 playoff games. Nothing seems to bother him and that's really good to see."
Montgomery has mentioned on a couple of occasions how Hintz and Dickinson benefitted from last season's long run in the Calder Cup playoffs with the Texas Stars, who made it to the championship series before losing to Toronto in seven games.
"We grow so much quicker in playoffs," Dickinson said. "You learn so much quicker in playoffs because there is no room for error. You learn in the moment or you don't and you leave the playoffs early. We were fortunate that we learned quickly last year and we ended up taking it all the way but I think there was a lot more we learned in that Game 7 loss.
"All those games leading up were great lessons, but that Game 7 loss builds up that resiliency and that fire to get back to playing in the playoffs."
The 31-year-old Zuccarello, whom the Stars acquired from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline in February, has been a big influence on his younger linemates, the 22-year-old Hintz and 23-year-old Dickinson.
"He's good," said Hintz. "Obviously he's a great playmaker, I think we just trying to find open ice and he's great passer. So it's easy to play with him."
"You can't get enough out of him," Dickinson added. "We talk between every period, between almost every shift, the little things we see out there. It's mostly his experience and his vision that is guiding us; we'll chip in a little but Zucs has so much to offer that if we can take anything from him we will."
And the Stars will take anything they can get from that second line, which has added some much-needed offensive punch to a Dallas team that's relied heavily on the big three of Benn, Seguin, and Radulov at times the past two seasons.
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The Stars held an optional practice at Comerica Center in Frisco on Sunday morning.
Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who has been out with a lower-body injury, did not take part in the optional skate. Montgomery said Oleksiak remains day-to-day.
Seguin said he was impressed with the images he saw of fans watching the Stars-Blues gam on the big screen in Victory Plaza Saturday afternoon. "I said, 'Excuse me? Dallas?' " Seguin said. "It looked like the Maple Leaf Square in Toronto, my hometown. That was incredible to see."
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.
Mark Stepneski has covered the Stars for DallasStars.com since 2012. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.