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In the biggest game this postseason, the Stars' best were outshined by Lightning’s big guns

All the mistakes were magnified for the Stars during their 5-2 loss in Game 3.

Even six months removed from the most recent Stars home game, with the team playing 2,000 miles north in Edmonton, the lightposts outside American Airlines Center are adorned with the faces of the team’s most recognizable figures.

The pictures represent players on whom the franchise pinned its hopes for another championship, an idea that was diminished by a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night, giving the Lightning a 2-1 series lead.

The portraits have hung since the beginning of the season a year ago, and during Wednesday’s blowout loss, many of their subjects were at fault as the Lightning’s poster boys ripped through the Stars.

Tampa Bay received goals from Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. Among that group is the entire Lightning top line, their captain, a Hart Trophy winner and a Norris Trophy winner.

The Stars received their first goal from Jason Dickinson, the fourth-line penalty killer who scored nine goals this season. Their solid second-year defenseman, Miro Heiskanen, added Dallas' second goal in the third period.

“We lost our team play,” Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said. “We lost our intensity, and we lost our focus. When you do that, a team like that is going to make you look real bad, which they did. It’s self-inflicted. We gave them the first four goals.”

In the biggest game of the postseason — thus far — the Stars' best players were swallowed by the Lightning’s. And all the mistakes were magnified given the scale of the game.

“If you’re going to win, your best players have to be your best players,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s the bottom line. You can get contributions from everybody in different ways, but if you’re going to go the distance, the big boys have to be there for you, and in every aspect, they were.”

Heiskanen was guilty of an egregious turnover in the first period, falling to the ice and whirling an ill-advised cross-ice pass directly onto Kucherov’s stick. Rid of obstacles, Kucherov made easy work of Anton Khudobin.

Esa Lindell was burned by Stamkos racing up the right wing, attempting a hit but instead missing entirely. Stamkos picked the far corner on Khudobin to make sure that Lindell’s error counted on the scoreboard. In the game’s opening seven minutes, both of the Stars' best defensive defensemen were torched.

“They made two good shots early,” captain Jamie Benn said. “I thought our first period was good after that. They capitalized on their chances, and we didn’t.”

Tyler Seguin whiffed on a rebound chance in the first period, extending his goal drought to 12 games, a career high in the postseason. Tampa Bay received a goal from its electric No. 91, Stamkos, in just one period of action. Dallas is still waiting for its No. 91 to snap out of a slump at the worst time of the playoffs.

Benn missed a golden opportunity in the second period, with the game still in reach, by nailing Point with a shot as Andrei Vasilevskiy scrambled to recover from his own turnover. Benn was a force for the Stars in the Western Conference Final but is pointless through three games in the Cup Final and spent most of the third period in the penalty box after a tussle with Jan Rutta resulted in a 10-minute misconduct.

Alexander Radulov was called for two hooking penalties, one ironclad and one questionable. The Lightning scored on one of them, as Hedman’s goal gave Tampa Bay a three-goal lead early in the second period.

“Giving them the ice time, we’re getting them out there as much as we can,” Bowness said of the top line. “They’ve got to figure it out, it’s as simple as that. They’re our top-end guys. You’ve got to give them the ice time to get going. They’re getting that. They’re got to figure it out.”

John Klingberg was caught up ice on Point’s goal in the second period, as the rest of his teammates behind him changed. That left Lindell to fend off a 3 on 1. He couldn’t.

Other poster boys? Roope Hintz was scoreless for the 11th straight game. Ben Bishop was hurt for the 10th game in a row, as Anton Khudobin made 24 saves on 29 shots in two periods of work.

In the regular season, these errors would not be terribly worrisome. The odds that all those players would play as poorly again? They would be low. The Stars could move past Wednesday night.

But not now.

The Stars' season could be over Saturday night. Games 4 and 5 of the Cup Final will arrive quickly, first Friday and again Saturday. Dallas is two games away from spending two months in an Edmonton bubble — sans family and friends, filled with concrete and boredom — and coming up empty.

Game 3 is a low point, for now. But the Stars can make it forgettable with a win Friday night. If the series is evened at 2 entering the final weekend of the NHL season, Dallas' performance Wednesday night will be overlooked.

“We’ve got a lot veteran guys that have been through a lot,” Dickinson said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that haven’t. Those experiences go a long way in maturing as a player and as a group. If we can draw from those experiences and those situations and reflect on it and say ‘Hey, we can respond. We’ve got the guys in here that can do it,’ we’ll be fine.”

Dallas has experience flipping a 2-1 deficit. The Stars did so last year in the first round against Nashville. They did so this year in the first round against Calgary.

The top line of Benn, Seguin and Radulov led the Stars past the Predators. It was Heiskanen and Joe Pavelski who shined brightest against the Flames. To come back against the Lightning, the Stars need their best players to check back in.

“Tonight we made some errors,” Klingberg said. “That’s hockey. That’s sports. It’s 2-1, they’re up one. We’re going to even the series on Friday.”

Find more Stars stories from The Dallas Morning News here.

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  • Interim Head Coach: Rick Bowness

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Matthew DeFranks. Matt covers the Stars for SportsDay, and previously covered the Florida Panthers for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He's also covered college football, the Miami Marlins, the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Angels for a variety of outlets. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame.

matthew.defranks@dallasnews.com /mdefranks @MDeFranks
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