How the Stars took control vs. Avalanche in Game 4: 3 takeaways

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DENVER — The Colorado Avalanche probably were shell-shocked to learn of the suspension of Valeri Nichushkin just before Game 4 on Monday night. And the Avalanche got absolutely dominated by the Dallas Stars in the opening half of the game.

By the time Wyatt Johnston made it 2-0 with his second goal of the game, 5:46 into the second period, the shots were 22-4 for the Stars. It was as one-sided as this series has looked, as the Stars earned a 5-1 victory to take a 3-1 series lead. Johnston, on the eve of his 21st birthday, scored a short-handed goal and a power-play goal.

Miro Heiskanen made it 3-0 at 11:24 of the second period before Casey Mittelstad finally got the home team on the board just over a minute later. But despite pressing in the final period, the Avs — who also played without defenseman Devon Toews — couldn’t mount a comeback.

And now they face elimination Wednesday night at American Airlines Center in Dallas.

Evgenii Dadonov scored halfway through the third period, slamming home a rebound to make it 4-1. It erased any chance of an Avs comeback, as the slumped shoulders on the Colorado bench portrayed.

Sam Steel’s goal in an empty net completed the scoring.

Stars head coach Pete DeBoer called Saturday’s 4-1 win in Game 3 a near-perfect road game. The reality is that the Stars had to rely a lot more on goalie Jake Oettinger in that game than in Game 4. The Stars schooled the depleted Avalanche on this night in every facet.

The only down negative for the Stars was the loss of forward Roope Hintz to an upper-body injury in the first period.

Nichushkin news shocks

The bombshell news about Nichushkin, announced in the form of a joint statement form the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, came just over an hour before the game, and one can only imagine how that was received in the Avalanche dressing room.

Their leading playoff goal-scorer is gone, suspended for six months for violating terms of his treatment as part of the NHL-NHLPA Player Assistance Program.

Hockey-wise, it can’t be easy getting ready for a playoff game after getting that news just before puck drop.

Not to mention the huge loss in terms of Nichushkin’s impact.

Throw in the fact that Toews, their No. 2 defenseman, also missed Game 4 with an illness, and, wow, the Avs were dealt quite a hand Monday night, and it showed with how poorly they came out.

Stars close the door, dominate special teams

The Stars were not happy with themselves after blowing a three-goal lead in Game 1 and nearly blowing a four-goal lead in Game 2. What a contrast here in Denver for games 3 and 4, as the Stars absolutely shut down the Avalanche in the third period of each game with excellent, nearly flawless defensive performances.

That’s the kind of defensive discipline that we saw all year with this Stars team, and that’s why games 1 and 2 were out of character for them. They were the No. 1 road team in the NHL in the regular season for a reason.

But it’s also very much a reason to strongly believe in their Stanley Cup chances. They can close the door when it matters.

As part of that, the Stars have shut down the Avs’ dangerous power play for three straight games, with Colorado going 0-for-2 on Monday night. Overall, the Avs are 0-for-8 in the past three games.

Dallas made adjustments on its penalty kill after giving up a pair of power-play goals in Game 1, and the Avs simply have not been able to counter thus far.

The Stars also scored a power-play goal courtesy of Johnston, adding to the special-teams dominance.

Teams at this time of year talk about how difficult it is to score at five-on-five, and the importance of special teams, which very often decide a playoff series.

Through four games, it’s very much a huge storyline in the Stars’ 3-1 series lead.

Both teams stay disciplined

One of the distinguishing aspects of this series so far is that we haven’t seen any of the extracurricular stuff that’s been happening elsewhere in the second round. Both teams have been very disciplined.

“It’s common sense,’’ Avs head coach Jared Bednar said before Game 4. “You want to win, you’ve got to stay out of the box. You can’t be doing dumb stuff. You’ve got to play hard, you’ve got to play within the rules, you’ve got to play physical. This is still a physical game; it’s a competitive sport. It gets more physical in the playoffs, and I think we’ve doing a nice job of that.’’

Jamie Benn’s crushing hit on Toews in Game 2 was the noteworthy moment of the series so far, in terms of a play that perhaps could have sparked retaliation or bad blood. But we saw none of that.

“Somebody told me once: emotional intelligence,’’ said rugged Avs defenseman Josh Manson. “Knowing that keeping those emotions kind of level and being able to not take it too far one way, not take it too far the other way. Just toeing that line. I mean, it’s a delicate balance for sure. Because, at the end of the day, the goal is to win the game, win the series, not get even in a specific moment.

“You’ve looked across a lot of these games in the playoffs and people are like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to go out and do something. You’ve got to go and do something. You’ve got to send a message’ — or whatever it may be. I think the biggest message you can send is if you win the series. You might play against him again one day in the regular season, but in the playoffs, you’ve got to find ways to win games at any cost. And I’ve learned in the past from my own mistakes — taking penalties can cost you games.”

Benn said the same, that discipline is huge in this series. The last thing Dallas wants to do is give that lethal Avs power play extra swings for no reason.

Which is the message that DeBoer is preaching as well.

“You know, I think our first series with Vegas was the same,” DeBoer said Monday morning. “I think there’s a real awareness here with how closely the teams are matched, how good the special teams are on all the teams involved that are left. If you’re going to step over that line or get near that line, even, you’re risking potentially the result of the game to do it.’’

(Photo of Wyatt Johnson: Michael Martin / NHLI via Getty Images)

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