The next win determines progress.
As the Stars streaked past the Avalanche on Sunday night — bombarding them early and hanging on late during a 5-4 win in Game 4 — they set themselves up for a shot at evolution.
On Sunday, the Stars grabbed a sizeable 3-1 lead in the second-round series, and Dallas is now one win away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2008, which would mark the first time this core has won two playoff rounds. They did it with another episode of their dominance in spurts.
The Stars controlled the game's first period, racing to a 3-0 lead as Colorado needed more than 18 minutes to test Anton Khudobin with a shot on goal. In a series defined by runs from each team, Dallas opened Game 4 with one and gave the Stars enough cushion to withstand Colorado's comeback attempts in the second and third periods.
The Stars power play scored twice in the first period. They allowed two Colorado goals in the second period, including one late in the period during an Avs 5 on 3 power play. But Dallas answered with two goals of their own to push Colorado to the brink of elimination.
Nine different Stars recorded points, led by Radek Faksa's goal and two assists. Roope Hintz and John Klingberg each had a goal and an assist, while Jamie Benn and Denis Gurianov also scored. For the sixth time in the last nine games, the Stars scored at least five goals. They scored at least five goals in a game just five times throughout the entire regular season.
Khubodin started his eighth straight game in place of the injured Ben Bishop, and stopped 33 of 37 shots on goal.
The continued offensive explosion gives the Stars three chances to close out the Avalanche, with the first coming Monday night in Game 5 at 8:45 p.m.
"We're a confident group and tomorrow's going to be the hardest game," Klingberg said. "It always is when you can close out a series. We expect Colorado to be even better tomorrow."
The Stars have matched where they got to last season: Within one victory of the NHL's final four.
Last May, they had two chances to eliminate the Blues and couldn't, leading to a summer of what-ifs as St. Louis won the Stanley Cup. They entered this season with regret, remorse (and maybe some FOMO) thinking that last year could have been their year. One more win this week would signal that the Stars are past that stage and moving forward with a core that has needed years to percolate.
The next win would put the Stars halfway to the required 16 wins needed to lift the Stanley Cup, and would give more credence to Jim Nill's roster, one that is still missing its starting goaltender and has now won six of their last seven games.
Between the round robin and the first round, this postseason could have been viewed as a seminal moment for the Stars.
They had the big contracts of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin without the superstar results. They had aging scorers like Joe Pavelski and Alexander Radulov on the books for multiple seasons. Miro Heiskanen remained on a cheap entry-level contract for one more season. Khubodin was free to walk after this one. And then, of course, there's the situation behind the bench where Rick Bowness still wears an interim tag.
An early exit (or maybe even just matching last year's results) could have served as an inflection point for the franchise that hadn't qualified for two straight postseasons for a decade — before the last two seasons. Would the Stars want to keep this core together? Could they break it up if they tried? How would the next coach fare with the personnel?
Instead, the Stars seem poised to bounce the favored Avalanche and sign up for another two weeks in the Edmonton bubble. One more win and progress is tangible. One more win and Dallas has evolved into a true, top-shelf, real-life, not-dreaming Stanley Cup contender.
The next win determines progress.
"We're keeping our composure," Benn said. "We know how hard that Game 6 was against Calgary. Obviously, we didn't get off to a good start at all. We'll sit on this one for a couple hours and then move on and get right back at it tomorrow."
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