Stars’ Jake Oettinger shows off ‘mentality that great goaltenders’ have vs. Golden Knights

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DALLAS — In the final minutes of Wednesday night’s Game 5 against Vegas, Stars goalie Jake Oettinger was staring down Golden Knights forward Chandler Stephenson as he raced down the ice for a breakaway.

Stephenson pulled off an excellent move, deking hard to his backhand before pulling the puck back to his forehand for a shot from in tight. Oettinger dug his left skate blade into the ice and stretched his right pad out for a sensational stop.

The full-extension splits save capped off a third straight win for the Stars to pull ahead 3-2 in their first-round series and was an encapsulation of Oettinger’s postseason to this point.

“He’s got that mentality that great goaltenders do,” Dallas coach Pete DeBoer said after the game. “They can go to that next level at the most important part of the game.”

It hasn’t been a smooth ride for Oettinger in these playoffs. He struggled through the first two games of the series, giving up six goals on 40 shots. Dallas has been the better team at even strength for the vast majority of the five games but fell behind 2-0 early, largely due to the Golden Knights’ scoring on an incredibly high percentage of their scoring chances.

Oettinger struggled mightily against Vegas in last year’s conference finals series with a .877 save percentage, and through two games of this series, it looked like the Golden Knights may have had his number.

That’s when the young netminder showed off his mental strength.

Following a Game 3 overtime win Saturday night in Las Vegas, Oettinger was happy to win but clearly disappointed in his play. His Stars outshot Vegas 33-17 over the first 40 minutes of that game, but the score was tied 2-2 thanks to Golden Knights goalie Logan Thompson’s heroics.

“He was like Dominik Hasek down there,” Oettinger said after the game. “It was incredible. Those are hard mentally when the other guy is playing that well. … It’s hard. You’re not playing against him, but you feel like you are, kind of. It’s hard mentally. You want to obviously do what you can, but you can’t make things happen. You have to wait for things to happen.”

More than any other position in hockey, goaltending is a mental battle. It requires exceptional focus and a short memory. As Oettinger alluded to, it’s not a good feeling when your team has been superior but the goalie on the other side of the ice is outplaying you. He shook it off to stop all 17 shots he faced in the third period and overtime of that game and has looked like a different goalie since.

“I think (he’s building his game) exactly like our team,” DeBoer said of Oettinger following a Game 4 win Monday. “We needed him to, and he has. I thought tonight was his best night. In the third period, he locked it down and made some huge saves.”

Oettinger has improved dramatically as the series has gone on. Within that, he’s improved as each game has gone on.

In periods one and two of these playoffs, he has stopped only 68 of 80 shots for a subpar .850 save percentage and minus-4.44 goals saved above expected. He has let a few goals by him that he should save, like William Carrier’s wraparound attempt in the first period of Wednesday’s Game 5.

He hasn’t let that bother him, though. He’s shown maturity beyond his years and played to perfection late in games. In five playoff games, he’s stopped all 55 shots he’s faced in the third period and overtime, with an impressive 4.14 goals saved above expected.

“When he gets into the zone, he’s a really tough guy to beat,” DeBoer said. “I like how our group is playing and defending around him. … He’s got to be one of our best players, but I feel like he’s in that zone now.”

Oettinger is one of the most technically proficient goalies in the NHL. When he’s at his best, his footwork and positioning are immaculate. He makes saves look easy and gives up very few second-chance opportunities with excellent rebound control. Over the last three games, he’s found that rhythm and the Stars haven’t lost since.

Protecting a one-goal lead in Game 4, Dallas sat back into a defensive shell. Vegas fired shot after shot in the third period — 38 attempts in that frame — but Oettinger handled the barrage with remarkable calmness. He confidently challenged shots with his heels at the top of his crease as his teammates held the shots to the outside of the zone. His balance and timing were visible as he snatched shots to his glove side and punched pucks harmlessly into the corner on his blocker side.

In an identical situation two days later — protecting a one-goal lead late in Game 5 on Wednesday — Dallas took a slightly different approach. Rather than sit back, the Stars pushed for a little more offense. The result was less defending in their end, but when the Golden Knights did break through, the chances were more dangerous.

Still, Oettinger had all the answers.

“I was the guy deep there, and that was an unbelievable save,” Matt Duchene said of Oettinger’s breakaway stop on Stephenson. “You need those in the playoffs, and he has been really solid the last few games. He’s getting better and better as the series is going, and we needed it. If you look at Game 3, Thompson made some huge saves to keep them in it, and they come back and send it to overtime. In this series, every game has been a one-goal game, so you need your goalies to come up big, and he sure did that.”

DeBoer called Wednesday night’s third period the “best 20 minutes of the playoffs for Jake,” and they couldn’t have come at a better time for the Stars. His bounce back has propelled the Western Conference’s top seed to three straight wins, one victory away from eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champs.

“I trust in Jake,” Stars forward Tyler Seguin said. “He makes those big saves and timely saves. You need a guy like that this time of year. We have so much confidence in him.”

Oettinger has played so much hockey, at such a high level, it’s easy to forget he’s only 25 years old. He’s still learning, and his mental fortitude to fight through a brief slump — against a championship team that ended his season a year ago — is just another step in his development as one of the NHL’s best.

Great goaltending requires many traits. Athleticism and flexibility are the easiest to spot, and Oettinger has plenty of both (just ask Stephenson). The mental aspects are the most important, and the hardest to identify. It’s what makes the position so frustratingly difficult to project. In this playoff series, Oettinger is proving to be just as strong in that aspect.

“He really has the ability to go to another level at the most important time of a game, regardless of what’s happened earlier in the game,” DeBoer said. “That was the third period tonight. That was the third period the other night.”

(Photo: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

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