By Allan Muir, SI.com.
The Dallas Stars wish they all could be California games.
After stunning the overly hospitable San Jose Sharks with a four-goal third period en route to a 5-2 win Sunday night, the Stars are now 4-1 in the Golden State during these playoffs.
For the second time this spring they've swept the first two games on the West Coast, and now hold a 2-0 lead over the Sharks in a series that, for all intents and purposes, is over.
Yep, over. As in, time to start planning the post-mortem on another season of expectations unmet in San Jose.
The Sharks aren't officially belly-up yet, of course, but they find themselves heading to Dallas for Games 3 and 4 having to win four of the next five games against a club whose stifling defense and desire to win the one-on-one battles has them completely flustered.
The team's supporters will be quick to point out that the Sharks were the NHL's best road team during the regular season, and took three of its last four games in Dallas. Hope, if not rationality, springs eternal. But here's the thing: This isn't the regular season. And these aren't the same Stars.
Through two games, the differences between the teams are telling.
* The key for Dallas? Their best players have been their best players, especially at center where the Sharks simply can't match their depth. So far, the Stars have two goals each from Brenden Morrow, Mike Modano, and Niklas Hagman, with singles going to Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro. The latter two have been virtually unstoppable, with Richards chipping in four points tonight, and Ribeiro displaying the intensity, drive and creativity Sharks fans only dream they could get out of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Milan Michalek netted his second in as many games, but he and Joe Pavelski are the only San Jose forwards showing any jump.
* The Sharks are losing the battle between the pipes. Badly. Marty Turco turned in another impressive performance, turning aside 29 of 31 San Jose shots. The only two that got by him were Pavelski's unstoppable deflection in the first, and Milan Michalek's partial breakway in the second. Otherwise, he was flawless, relying more on positioning than the athleticism that defined his Game 1 victory. That meant a near absence of the second and third opportunities that a big, physical team like San Jose preys on.
And that doesn't even consider the way he prevented San Jose from mounting any kind of forecheck by deftly transitioning the puck up ice any time they tried to dump it in. With Sergei Zubov out of the lineup, he easily was Dallas' premier defensive zone playmaker. Shoot, even with Zubov returning at three-quarter speed in Game 2, he was still the best.
At the other end, Nabokov has strayed from the form that made him a Vezina finalist. His positioning allowed Ribeiro to score Dallas' first goal from almost directly behind the net, and he failed to intercept Richards' pass-again, from beside/behind the net-before it got to Hagman for the insurance marker. Those are two goals he could have addressed that changed the course of the game, and likely, the series. He's simply not making the plays his team needs him to make.
Want to see how it's done? Turco enters the third down 2-1 and shuts the door, making seven stops. Nabokov? He coughs up four goals on nine shots. He's now given up three-or-more in six of nine playoff games. Maybe that 77 game regular season workload is catching up to him.
* San Jose has played more like Guppies than Sharks, with no trace of a killer instinct. Twice, they held a one-goal lead in this game, and both times the Stars answered within six minutes, including erasing a 2-1 margin just 32 seconds into the third. Same story on Friday-they allowed Modano's equalizer just 76 seconds after Michalek gave San Jose the lead. And instead of turning on the afterburners after Jonathan Cheechoo scored late in the third to send the game to OT, they sat back as the Stars quickly ended an extra frame that they dominated.
Dallas has built on momentum. The Sharks have squandered it.
* Leadership: Much has been made of Patrick Marleau's double flamingo in Game 1 that led to Modano's turning point goal. In the grand scheme, it was just one of many poor decisions by the Sharks that night. But there's something, quite a bit actually, to be said for the willingness to sacrifice oneself at this time of year...especially if you're wearing the C. It had to be painful for Marleau to watch Morrow's third period block of a Brian Campbell slap shot...with his hand. Might not have been the smartest decision of his life as it could easily have been broken, but that's a play that sends a message to his teammates. You want to win? Pay the price.
Little wonder the Stars are in the catbird seat. Granted, they have to go back to the American Airlines Center, the home rink that's been far less friendly than the road. But this is a team playing with a whole new mindset. They believe they can finish the job anywhere.
But it might not hurt to pump up the Beach Boys in the locker room, just in case.