Hockey Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman once said that the most important game of a seven-game playoff series (save a deciding game seven – duh) is game four.
He’s right. More times than not, one team enters the contest up, 2-1, in the series. The winner of game four has either taken a commanding 3-1 lead or has pulled even at 2-2 and has momentum.
Tonight’s game between the Stars and Ducks is just that – a pivotal game four and everything is on the line. The recipe for Dallas is simple – win your home games and take your chances in a game seven, where anything can happen. Anaheim wants to win tonight so they can possibly close this puppy out in five and not have to travel back to Texas.
Game four also means that both teams have gotten a little tired of each other and the chippiness (is that a word?) is reaching a new level. And how.
Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau lobbied through the media that perhaps Dallas has crossed the line and has targeted captain Ryan Getzlaf’s injured jaw. It’s funny that the Ducks have had no problem pointing out the extra-curricular activities towards Getzlaf while forgetting the fact that Corey Perry speared Stars captain Jamie Benn in game one in an attempt to make him sing soprano.
Stars coach Lindy Ruff brushed off any notion that either team has crossed the line, saying, “This is simply playoff hockey, in my mind.”
There’s a reason why hockey uses the terms “lower or upper body injury,” and it’s not paranoia. If a team knows a certain player has a tender ankle, guess what gets coincidently whacked at a few times in battles along the boards? And when Getzlaf wears an extended facemask that makes him look like he should be in a three-point stance ready to rush the quarterback, it’s a constant reminder that the puck he took in the face in game one smarted a bit.
All’s fair in love and war. And playoff hockey. You do whatever it takes to win.
The Stars are clearly focused on letting the Ducks know that they will not go quietly, nor will they be pushed around. They’re fighting back. Perry and Getzlaf have always mixed in their share of rough stuff, combined with outstanding skill that makes them one of the most feared offensive tandems in the league.
But Dallas is also focused on playing another solid game tonight and letting things take care of themselves. That preparation includes having faith in Kari Lehtonen and belief that he will be a difference maker again, like he was in game three.
Make no mistake about it – Dallas won game three because of Lehtonen’s superb play. And they won’t win game four unless he does it again. Does he need to shut out the Ducks again? No. But he needs to make the big save when needed.
I firmly believe that had Lehtonen stopped just one of the three goals scored in game two, Dallas wins that game. Were the goals his fault? Nope, not by a long shot. Each of them came off turnovers in their own end. But Lehtonen has to clean up at least one of those mistakes. He cleaned up in game three. Can he do it again?
Besides Lehtonen, Dallas needs to take advantage of home ice again tonight, specifically the last change. Ruff’s moves in game three made life miserable for Perry and Getzlaf with Ryan Garbutt, Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel hounding them most of the night. Expect more of that tonight.
Combine that with the natural distaste continuing to build between the two teams and the result will be more chippiness (there’s that word again). The key to tonight’s game will be will be which team plays it smarter and doesn’t let the other club bait them into dumb penalties. There will be a power play late tonight that leads to a big goal – bank it.
Which team will play with more discipline? Which goalie will make the big save? Embrace it, Dallas, because no other playoff carries this much emotion.
This is fantastic theater. Grab your popcorn. And trust Scotty Bowman. Tonight is the biggest game of the series.
Until game five.