WASHINGTON — The night before the Super Bowl in 2005, legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick met with his team. At one point in the meeting, Belichick detailed the plans for the opponent’s victory parade that was already planned by the city. He outlined the parade route, told them what time it would take place and all of what would be involved. The Patriots beat the Eagles the next day. That parade never happened.
Before the Stars played the Washington Capitals on Thursday night, Stars head coach Pete DeBoer told the team what was in front of them. Alex Ovechkin, arguably the greatest goal scorer in NHL history, had scored seven goals in his last four games to become the third player in league history to reach the 800-goal mark. Coming into the matchup against Dallas, Ovechkin was one goal away from tying Gordie Howe for second on the all-time list and two away from passing him for sole possession.
“Pete said before that these next two goals that (Ovechkin) is going to score, the whole team is going to come off the bench,” Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger said. “Obviously, I don’t want that to happen, not against us. He can do that stuff another night. Just always fun playing against one of the best to ever do it. It was a fun challenge and we stepped up.”
Asked after the game if providing the visual to his team, and particularly his goaltender, the last line of defense, was a motivational tactic, DeBoer answered with a laugh.
“Nobody wants to be part of history that way,” DeBoer said. “For sure, Jake doesn’t want to be that guy on the highlight reel 50 years from now, being scored on in that situation. I think it was a little bit of motivation for us, for sure, to try and shut him down. (Ovechkin) is an unbelievable player. I’ve got tremendous respect for him.”
The Stars respected Ovechkin but they didn’t play with fear. The team somewhat stepped up to the challenge, but that’s not quite the story of the game. It was Oettinger, in particular, who rose to the challenge to the tune of stopping 45 of 46 shots he was blitzed with and holding Ovechkin off the goal-scoring column in the Stars’ 2-1 win.
“Unreal,” Jamie Benn said. “Obviously, we gave up a lot of shots, but he played an incredible game. Gave us a chance to win. Probably should be all three stars tonight.”
That Oettinger performed the way he did, on the road in a hostile environment against a legendary player on the cusp of history, is impressive but hardly surprising. Oettinger is a talented goaltender with all of the tangible tools. During the second intermission, an individual walked past one Stars executive and asked, in astonishment, about Oettinger’s height and proceeded to compliment how he fills out the net. Oettinger has the size and compounds that with a technically sound game in the crease.
But it’s what’s between Oettinger’s ears that proves to be his biggest asset. When he was 15 years old, he had transferred from a school he was previously at in Farmington to another in Lakeville North. When the two teams met in the regional finals, his old friends — including his own brother — chanted “traitor!” and booed him. Oettinger played one of his best high school games, a 25-save shutout performance to advance his team.
“He’s unflappable,” DeBoer said. “He’s a special, special goalie, a special person. He’s got great leadership, he’s got great respect in our room. Guys play hard for him. Those are all characteristics of an elite goalie that you need.”
For the bulk of his recent display, Oettinger has proven to be elite. His .954 save percentage in the spring playoff series against Calgary was the best of any goaltender in the playoffs with at least five starts. His .952 save percentage in the first month of this season was the best of any goaltender in the NHL with a least five starts. Oettinger faced a bit of a dip in the first half of November coming back from an injury; by later in the month, he was back to playing well, even if some shoddy defensive play in front of him caused the numbers to suffer.
After morning skate Thursday, DeBoer was asked, between strong defensive structure or strong goaltending play, which was more important in trying to neutralize Ovechkin.
“He’s going to get his looks,” DeBoer said. “I always think defending — he doesn’t need many, so if you’re going to have breakdowns, he’s going to beat every goaltender in the world, no matter how good your guy is. I think defending him with our group is the most important thing.”
After 60 minutes of hockey in which Ovechkin was contained, DeBoer was clear about where the credit went.
“I think you probably call that a goalie win for us,” DeBoer said. “I thought (Oettinger) was our best player. That game really got tilted against us in the second period. I thought that’s where he won us the game.”
Washington thoroughly dominated the Stars in the second period. Dallas rarely had possession in the offensive zone and was knocked on its heels the entire period. According to Natural Stat Trick, the expected goals tally was 1.08-0.34 in favor of the Capitals.
Oettinger was brilliant in the frame. It took a lot to go wrong for the Capitals to score their lone goal of the game. As John Carlson raced through the neutral zone with the puck, Miro Heiskanen waved his stick like a wand and made the scoring threat disappear. Ty Dellandrea got the puck and tossed it back off the wall, where Dylan Strome was the only player in the area. Strome immediately saw Ovechkin standing in the circle on the opposite end, ready to unleash a one-timer. Strome passed it to him, and Ovechkin, instead of shooting it himself, passed it to Conor Sheary, who was crashing the net.
“Can’t really learn much on (Ovechkin),” Oettinger said. “His shot is one of a kind. He’s special, but they’ve got a lot of other good guys over there too. Even on the goal they scored, I got a little too focused on him. I’d like to take that back.”
Benn’s goal came at a crucial time for the Stars. After Dallas got dominated in the second period, DeBoer made some line changes, which is notable considering how much DeBoer has valued consistency in his lines, game to game and even within the game.
“I didn’t like our second period,” DeBoer said. “I thought we were on our heels the entire period. Just to kind of shake the group up a little bit, energize everybody. … That’s one of the things you have in your bag as a coach to try and flip the momentum a little bit.”
Before the new line combinations took form, the Stars had a chance to get things going on the power play to begin the third period. Heiskanen, who has increasingly become comfortable in his new quarterback role on the top unit, got a shot through traffic on the net, where the Stars had a three-on-two advantage, without counting the goalie. After the puck bounced between Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz, it got over to Benn, who slammed it home and followed it with an emphatic celebration
“We needed to score on that power play,” Benn said. “Found a way to get one.”
The Stars’ game-winning goal was a stroke of good fortune. The Stars had a chance off the rush, but Mason Marchment did a good job of getting the puck down low and passing it up top to Ryan Suter, who then tossed it over to Colin Miller.
From there, as Miller said, “had my head down, just shot it.”
Robertson — 1A (Hintz) — 1A (Pavelski)
1A (Marchment) — Seguin) — Dellandrea
1G (Benn) — Johnston — Gurianov
Kiviranta — Faksa — Glendening
Heiskanen) — Lundkvist
Lindell) — Hakanpaa
1A (Suter) — 1G (Miller)
.978 save percentage (Oettinger)
These are three non-scoring plays that stood out.
In one first-period sequence, the Stars had multiple opportunities to draw first blood. Jason Robertson won a puck battle and one of the elite goal-scorers in the NHL had a clean look at the goaltender. Right after that, Capitals goaltender Charlie Lindgren misplayed the puck and Luke Glendening had a wide-open cage but couldn’t deposit the puck.
Benn’s goal was important, and his resurgence remains a headlining topic this season for the Stars. In one second-period sequence, Benn showed off some skill that made some fans in the arena “ooooh and ahhhh.” The first came off the wall:
And the second was through the neutral zone:
Wyatt Johnston’s pass
Despite how seamlessly Wyatt Johnston has fit into the NHL, I admittedly still watch him on a bit of a scale, given that he is a 19-year-old rookie. It’s impressive how regularly he combines his hockey vision with his skill to make the right play, whether it’s for himself or for a teammate. On a first-period power play, he got the puck, saw Tyler Seguin in the slot and promptly delivered an accurate pass between two defenders for a quality look.
(Photo of Jake Oettinger making a save in front of Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals during the second period Thursday night: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)