After the Seattle Kraken played Games 1 and 2 of their second-round series against the Stars in Dallas, the NHL playoff schedule granted them a rare two-day break before Game 3 in Seattle. This feels like a perfect time to reflect on what transpired in those first two contests in another installment of the Kraken Roundtable.
Our contributors, John Barr, Darren Brown, Josh Horton, and Curtis Isacke, put their heads together to discuss what they’ve learned and how the Kraken can win this series against the Stars.
Who is your unsung hero of the playoffs for the Kraken?
Darren Brown: Well the “sung” hero is obviously Philipp Grubauer, who has been dazzling through nine playoff games and has given his team a chance to win every game. But since the question is “unsung” hero, I’m going to go with Jaden Schwartz.
Schwartz is so fun to watch on the forecheck and in the offensive zone, and he has seemed to find another gear to his game in the postseason. He so far has three goals and three assists, but it’s not just the points he has contributed that has earned him the “unsung hero” award in my eyes; it’s the way he pursues pucks in the offensive zone, blocks shots, and does everything he can to create opportunities for his linemates.
Remember, Schwartz had 20 points in the playoffs the year the Blues won the Stanley Cup, and that is no coincidence. He is a playoff performer, and he is showing it for the Kraken.
Josh Horton: For the entirety of the season, but especially in the playoffs, Adam Larsson stands out. He eats a ton of minutes and does a lot of little things that can turn narrow losses into narrow wins.
John Barr: Morgan Geekie. After playing center all season, Geekie was slotted as a wing with Schwartz and Wennberg a couple weeks before the end of the season. His stats do not jump off the screen, but he has scored a couple big goals in key victories for the Kraken this playoff run and is generating scoring opportunities in his elevated role. Since Jared McCann went out, coach Dave Hakstol has also started to deploy Geekie on the power play, and I would not be surprised if he finds the net again in the next two games.
Curtis Isacke: Good answers, gang. I’ll go a bit off the board and say Justin Schultz. He has two goals and two assists through nine games. During his five-on-five minutes, he is top-five on the team in expected goals for percentage and leads the team with a +7 goal differential. The Kraken are +2 in goal differential with Schultz on the ice on the power play, and he leads the team in expected goal percentage with the man advantage among players with at least six minutes of power play time. Overall, he is first among Kraken blueliners in individual expected goals created per sixty minutes.
Of course, Yanni Gourde deserves as much praise as can be heaped on him for the job he did shadowing Nathan MacKinnon versus the Avalanche. But since his praises have rightfully been sung, I went with Schultz. Schultz is on the opposite extreme from Gourde in terms of on-ice exposure and degree of difficulty. He has seen much easier matchups, and he is fifth of six in total ice time for Kraken blueliners. But “easy” matchups are favorable only if the team actually converts those chances, and Schultz has delivered. In doing so, he has been a (somewhat surprising) positive for the team during this run.
What did we learn in Games 1 and 2?
JH: We learned the Kraken’s forecheck is for real and that Dave Hakstol deserves his flowers.
Some were uninspired by Hakstol’s hiring before last season, and he received heat from fans early on as the team found its footing. But what he’s done implementing an ultra-disruptive defensive system that not only causes absolute chaos for the opponent, but complements the personnel perfectly, has been the difference in the Kraken emerging as contenders for the Stanley Cup Final and avoiding a token first-round exit in their second season.
The forecheck is helping to produce offense at five-on-five, and Seattle is jumping out in front of teams because of it. What’s more, the Kraken aren’t sitting on their heels and trying to nurse those leads. It’s another testament to Hakstol, not only installing an effective system, but instilling a general attitude of staying on the gas instead of running out the clock.
JB: We learned that the Kraken’s depth in the regular season can translate to playoff success.
All season long the strength of the Kraken has been their depth, but without a comparable team in recent history, it was never clear if it was going to translate to playoff success. The Kraken had 15 unique goal scorers in Round 1 and five different players scored in Game 1 against the Stars. It has to be challenging for opposing coaches to figure out how to match lines when you never know what line will get going next.
CI: The Kraken do not have the skill to keep pace in a back-and-forth, wide-open game against Dallas. To survive, the Kraken need to play their forechecking scheme fast and clean to keep Dallas hemmed into its own zone. When well executed, this “best defense is a good offense” approach limits the volume of rush chances going the other way and reduces the five-on-five possession time in the Kraken zone.
Equally important, Seattle needs to keep its discipline and avoid confounding, needless penalties. If Dallas gets three-plus power play chances a game, it will be very difficult for Seattle to keep pace because the Stars are lethal on the man advantage.
It will take all eighteen skaters playing connected, structured hockey to win three more against this talented Dallas squad.
DB: I think the Kraken got tired. Their system is aggressive and requires them to play fast and on their toes to be successful. After riding adrenaline and the emotional high of their Game 7 win in Denver to get them through Game 1, they didn’t have the same jump in Game 2. They weren’t on the Dallas defenders instantaneously in Game 2 like they were in Game 1, and once they took a couple penalties, they were cooked.
Two days off couldn’t have come at a better time.
What is the biggest surprise of Round 2 so far?
CI: Tye Kartye’s strong performance in this series continues to surprise. He has been on the ice for two Kraken goals for and zero goals against. (Overall in the playoffs it is four goals for and zero against.) This success is supported by a strong shot quality disparity while he is out there; he leads the team with 75.69 percent expected goals for percentage during his 26:07 time on ice in the series.
The eye test (as measured by these eyes) has been equally complimentary. He is playing at full speed, using his body to protect the puck or separate others from it, and his wrist shot looks NHL-caliber. He has made a few questionable decisions with the puck in the defensive zone, and the team has sheltered his minutes late in games and in clear defensive situations, but it is hard not to be impressed with the 22-year-old rookie.
JH: Kartye stood out to me, too, Curtis.
In the interest of originality, Jason Robertson’s quiet series has really caught me off guard. The Stars don’t profile as the splashiest team, but the young talents like Robertson, Wyatt Johnston, and Roope Hintz have lured me into watching a few Stars games this year. Those other guys have been noticeable, but Robertson really hasn’t. I think Dallas needs to get him going as the series pivots to Seattle.
DB: This may sound a bit cocky, but I don’t think this is as tough a matchup for the Kraken as Colorado was. That’s the opposite of what I thought coming in, because Dallas has more balance than the Avs, so I expected Dallas to scare me more than the Avalanche’s two-line team. The high-end skill of the Stars isn’t nearly as terrifying as that of the Avalanche, though, and the Kraken showed in Game 1 that their style of play–when they have their legs under them–can keep them in games with Dallas and even give them a good chance to win the series.
JB: I am not sure if it is really a surprise, but Matty Beniers has been very quiet over the last few games. He has been playing fine but not having those breakout moments that we were accustomed to seeing during the regular season. Part of that might be the elevated physicality of the playoffs, and part of it might be Dallas keying in on Matty to limit his chances.
What will be the key to the Kraken advancing past Round 2?
CI: As mentioned above, limiting Dallas’s power-play opportunities is of paramount importance. So far, Grubauer has been the team’s best answer during manpower disadvantages. He has saved almost four goals above expected on the penalty kill during this playoff run, per Natural Stat Trick. But the team cannot necessarily rely on that to continue. The skaters in front of Grubauer need to do a better job avoiding penalties and suppressing shot quality when penalties do occur.
In this matchup, Seattle needs to find a way to disrupt Dallas’s high-to-low passes, which get the puck down near the goal line in a threatening position to either directly create a scoring chance or pull the second layer of Kraken defenders out of position for a return pass to the slot.
I am tempted to say the Kraken should try to get more width in their defensive structure to dissuade these attempts, but this would open the slot player for more tips and shots. Instead, Seattle’s top layer defender may need to get more aggressive pressuring the strong-side puck carrier and, in tandem, the strong-side defender in the second layer of the diamond must be ready to get back down toward the goal earlier to anticipate and disrupt these plays.
JB: Parlaying on Curtis’s comments above, the Kraken will need to minimize the power play opportunities for Dallas. The penalty kill has been outstanding during the playoffs, but being shorthanded seems to really disrupt the flow and momentum for the Kraken and makes the impact of penalties greater than the two minutes they are at a disadvantage. During the playoffs, when the Kraken have had to kill three or more penalties in a game, their win-loss record is just 1-3. Meanwhile the Stars are 4-1 when getting three or more power play opportunities.
DB: Agreed, penalties are a big deal, but beyond that, the Kraken need to stay on their toes. They had a good first period going in Thursday’s Game 2 but eased off the pedal once they got into penalty trouble. When they play on their heels and allow their opposition to gain momentum, it seems to be tough for the Kraken to slow things down, especially as the fatigue of the postseason continues to take its toll.
The Kraken are at their best when the opposition has no time and space to make breakout passes or to rush through the neutral zone. Once they ease off even a little, things go sideways.
JH: Philipp Grubauer has been fantastic and has silenced a lot of haters this postseason. With the Kraken’s lack of top-end firepower and their aggressive style of play, it will be imperative Grubauer continues to make key saves to keep the Kraken in games.