The Stanley Cup Playoffs are an emotional powder keg in which even the smallest spark on either side can set off a huge explosion.

So it was before Game 4 at Ball Arena on Monday when the Colorado Avalanche learned they would be without leading goal-scorer Valeri Nichushkin, as well as top-notch defenseman Devon Toews. There was some real nervousness about how everyone would react. The Avalanche players could rally behind the adversity and make a statement in a crucial game, and the Stars had to be ready for that.

They were.

Playing their best first period of the playoffs, Dallas imposed its will en route to a 5-1 win. That gives the Stars a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a chance to close out the series in Game 5 on Wednesday at American Airlines Center.

“It was really important that we kept our focus and stuck to the business at hand,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “We’ve been the best team on the road all year because, regardless of the building, or the lineup for the other team, we approach the game the same way and take care of business. I thought that showed in the first period, our guys were dialed in all night.”

Pete DeBoer on being dialed in, Johnston's performance

Nichushkin, the former Stars draft pick, was placed in Stage 3 of the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program. Nichushkin was placed in Stage 2 during the season but still posted 54 points (28 goals, 25 assists) in 53 games. He currently leads the entire playoffs in goal scoring with nine in eight games. Toews, meanwhile, is second on the Avalanche in time on ice in the playoffs at 23:46 and has six points (1 goal, 5 assists) in eight games. That said, Colorado did see the return of forward Jonathan Drouin, and they had a charged up building hoping to even the series.

The Stars knew that and reacted with surgical intensity.

“Certain things happen with the lineup, there was a little commotion early on,” said veteran forward Joe Pavelski. “For us, one of the reasons we talked about why we’re good is we don’t let that bother us. There’s a certain way we want to play and guys came out and established that early.”

Joe Pavelski speaks to the media after Game 4

Dallas had a 14-2 advantage in shots on goal and a monstrous 25-9 edge in shot attempts early on in the game. They peppered Colorado goalie Alexandar Georgiev, yet still only came out with a 1-0 advantage. However, that one goal was huge. Looking for a lifeline late in the first period, Colorado earned a chance for a power play that has been among the top of the NHL all year. With players like Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, the man advantage could have easily given the Avalanche its first lead of the series.

Instead, Wyatt Johnston was a beast.

The young center (who is celebrating his 21st birthday on Tuesday) stripped the puck away from Makar, a Norris Trophy finalist, and worked with teammate Sam Steel to get a couple of shots on net. Johnston finished off the play for the shorthanded goal, and Dallas scored the first goal for the fourth time this series.

“It was a big momentum swing to get the shorty there,” said Pavelski.

Still, the Stars had just a 1-0 lead and Colorado had roared back in Games 1 and 2, so there was a real possibility that one goal wasn’t going to be enough. No problem for the Stars, as they continued to push hard in the second period, getting another goal from Johnston on the power play and one from defenseman Miro Heiskanen from the point. Winger Jason Robertson made impressive passes to set up both goals, as he whipped the puck cross-ice to Johnston on the power play, and then took a hard hit in the corner but still kept possession of the puck on the Heiskanen goal.

It was a great sign of just how plugged in the team was. Top center Roope Hintz suffered an upper-body injury and left the game early in the second period. He did not return and will be evaluated Tuesday. Veteran winger Craig Smith also left with an injury in the second after crashing into the boards awkwardly, so the Stars had to juggle lines and use everyone.

“We had a short bench for a lot of the night,” DeBoer said. “I thought we were running on fumes a little bit in the third, but I liked our structure and I liked our mindset. We had some huge blocks, which really covers up a lot of mistakes if you have that commitment.”

Defenseman Thomas Harley led the way with five blocked shots, but forwards Robertson and Matt Duchene had four each, and that sent a message throughout the team.

“Everybody is blocking shots,” said Heiskanen. “I think Robo had at least three tonight. Everybody is buying in and blocking shots and that’s a huge thing against that team. They’re a great offensive team.”

Miro Heiskanen speaks to the media after Game 4

The Stars as a team have done a great job of shutting down Colorado in the past two games. The Avalanche averaged five goals a game in the first round and had seven in Games 1 and 2 at American Airlines Center. But the regular season’s leading goal-scoring team scored just twice in two games on home ice and never caught up when the Stars took a lead.

“Everyone in our dressing room knows how to play the right way, and that’s all the little details,” Robertson said. “I think it’s just contagious on our bench. If one guy sees it, then another guy sees it and we just get rolling. If we do everything the right way, good things happen.”

Wyatt Johnston and Jason Robertson recap Dallas' Game 4 victory

That continued into the third after Colorado cut the lead to 3-1. Dallas held strong, goalie Jake Oettinger finished with 24 saves and both Evgenii Dadonov and Steel added late goals to complete the rout. It was truly the cherry on top of the team sundae. Now, the team can close out the series at home Wednesday and book their ticket to the Western Conference Final for the second year in a row.

But as they found out shortly before Monday’s game, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are an emotional powder keg.

“They’re not going to go down quietly,” DeBoer said. “We’re going to anticipate that the next game is going to be the toughest to win.’’

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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