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Grind-it-out play might be what it takes for Stars to win series

Dallas received a good lesson in skill versus work during its OT loss to Nashville - now how will it respond back home?

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Generally speaking, we want hockey to be this beautiful, skilled ballet -- a blending of speed and acrobatic puck handling, mixed with some hard hits and big saves.

And we want it like that more than ever in the playoffs.

At the most exciting, intense time of year, we want the ultimate.

But it often doesn't happen that way. The problem with playoff hockey, sometimes, is it can be cautious and grinding and methodical. It can be boring even, and certainly frustrating.

That's sort of what the Stars went through Saturday at Bridgestone Arena. After winning Game 1 in a best-of-seven series against the Nashville Predators, Dallas was facing a hungry opponent and also facing their own reality that they didn't want to mess up.

So they waded in, they tried to get up to speed, and they nursed the game along to overtime. In losing 2-1 on Craig Smith's goal at five minutes of the extra period, the Stars didn't really do anything wrong.

They just didn't do enough right.

Video: Montgomery says Stars must win more battles to puck

"That's the playoffs," said goalie Ben Bishop, who made 40 saves. "That's playoff hockey. It's not obviously open like the regular season. Everybody finishes checks, everybody's going 110 percent. It's not going to be that up-and-down style that you're used to."

Especially in this series.

The Stars finished the regular season with the second best goals against average in the league. The Predators ranked third. They are good defensive teams, so when each side fell back into a careful brand of hockey, we shouldn't have been surprised.

"Both teams want to make strong plays and are not afraid to ice it. Both teams have good centers who can win faceoffs," said defenseman Esa Lindell. "We both wanted to make strong plays, trying not to make mistakes."

The Stars iced the puck seven times in the third period, and also drew the benefit of having the referee wave off a couple of more. They weren't great on faceoffs, winning 41 percent, and they didn't generate a ton of shots on goal at even strength, so they were sort of holding on at times.

Dallas had just 14 shots on goal at even strength and finished with 23 for the game. Nashville had 33 shots on goal at even strength and finished with 43 overall.

That was a big deal. The Predators controlled Game 2, whereas the Stars were more in control in Game 1.

Video: Bishop reacts to Stars' gritty OT loss in Game 2

"Today, I felt that we tilted the ice," said Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban. "For us, we're going to have to continue to play that way if we're going to have success in this series. Guys like (Jamie) Benn and (Tyler) Seguin, they're world-class players -- and (Alexander) Radulov. We have to play those guys hard, and I thought we did a pretty good job of getting in on the forecheck and making it tough for them to come out of their zone.

"When those guys have to go back and skate 200 feet with the puck to create offense, it's a tougher game to play for them."

And a tougher game to watch for the fans.

Bottom line, the Stars also want to take Nashville's best players out of the game -- and have done that through two games. That's what this might all evolve into before it's over. While Nashville had the shot attempts, they weren't always great shot attempts, and a lot came from depth players like Rocco Grimaldi and Craig Smith.

That's one reason it was 1-1 through three periods. Well, that and Bishop. The big goalie was great again, turning away a few breakaways and smothering shots without leaving too many rebounds.

"They were the better team tonight, and if probably not for Bishop, we're not in overtime," Stars coach Jim Montgomery said.

The irony of Dallas' attack is when they are on, they are pretty. The lone goal was a fantastic play, where Radulov forced a turnover, Seguin turned it into a counter-attack and hit Benn flying to the net.

Video: DAL@NSH, Gm2: Seguin, Benn connect for opening tally

It was gorgeous.

Dallas also had a great play from Jason Dickinson, where he hit the post; a beautiful play at the net from Radulov to Seguin where Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne made a spectacular save; and a spinning shot from Radulov in overtime that Rinne stopped.

There have been moments of hockey brilliance, ice ballet, in this series. You just wonder if those are going to make a difference.

No, the play that won the game came when Smith, Grimaldi and Calle Jarnkrok buzzed like a swarm of bees and caused chaos. The puck went high in the air, and then landed right at the feet of Smith, who had a perfect screen in front of Bishop.

"I never saw it," Bishop said.

That is too often how this stuff works. It's tough to explain, but it makes all the sense in the world. Work hard, work for your breaks, do it enough to win four games, and you get to move on in the playoffs.

It's one of the reasons the hockey playoffs are so balanced.

Video: Seguin, Stars turning page on tough Game 2 loss

It's one of the reasons they always say, "Just find a way to get in."

The Stars got a good lesson in skill versus work Saturday. They got a good lesson in squandered chances in the form of an 0-for-6 night on the power play. They got a good lesson in not finishing the golden shots on goal you have created.

"Obviously, that was a playoff hockey game there," said Seguin. "We kind of expected it with these two defensive teams. It was a grind game, it was a hard, compete game. We've done a pretty good job at keeping them to the perimeter. We're expecting, maybe, a little different game now that we're going home. We're going to have the juices going for sure."

Maybe they'll find more skill at home. Maybe they'll finish their chances. Maybe they'll thrill the fans.

But the guess here is we'll see more games like Game 2. That just seems to be the way of the playoffs for the Stars and Predators.

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 and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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