2016 NHL playoffs: Stars vs. Wild series preview
Regular season recaps
Nov. 14: Stars 3, Wild 2 (OT)
Nov. 28: Stars 4, Wild 3 (OT)
Dec. 21: Stars 6, Wild 3
Jan. 9: Wild 2, Stars 1
Feb. 9: Stars 4, Wild 3 (OT)
Stars: F Tyler Seguin (Achilles' tendon, day-to-day), F Mattias Janmark (upper body, day-to-day)
Wild: LW Zach Parise (undisclosed, day-to-day), LW Thomas Vanek (upper body, day-to-day), C Erik Haula (undisclosed, day-to-day)
Keys to a Stars victory
There's no secret to what makes the Stars tick. Dallas led the league with 265 goals this season, 17 more than the second-place Capitals, and that ability to score nearly at will makes them a heavy favorite in this series. Depth is the key to their attack: The Stars had three players with at least 30 goals—becoming the first team to do so since the 2011-12 Devils—and an even dozen who tallied at least 10 times. Jamie Benn might be the league's most complete player, and his career-high 41 goals make him the player to watch. He's excelled against the Wild this season, scoring nine points (three goals, six assists) in their five meetings. Tyler Seguin, who is skating and could return in time for Game 1, lit up Minnesota for two goals and seven points in just four games. Add in Jason Spezza (33 goals), Patrick Sharp (20) and Cody Eakin (16) and the Stars bring the kind of firepower that can overwhelm an inconsistent club like the Wild.
While they're tops in five-on-five goals (167), Dallas will rely heavily on special teams in this series. The Stars' third-ranked power play (22.1%) should feast on Minnesota's 27th-rated penalty kill (77.9%), and Dallas's 10th-ranked penalty kill (82.3%) has been brilliant down the stretch. The Stars take some heat for theri goaltending, but Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen played their best hockey of the season down the stretch, allowing just 19 goals during the team's final 10 games. Coach Lindy Ruff hasn't tipped his hand yet, but it might be Niemi who gets the nod for this series. The team's 1B goalie has put up better numbers against the Wild this season, (2-1-0 with a 2.08 GAA and .927 save percentage) than his partner, Lehtonen (2-0-0, 3.13 GAA, .897 save percentage).
Keys to a Wild victory
Every team needs good goaltending this time of year, but no group will rely on it as heavily as the Wild will in the first round. It's no stretch to suggest that Devan Dubnyk will have to be the First Star each and every night if they're going to keep pace with the Stars. He's shown that ability, going 10-2 with an excellent .927 save percentage in March, but his 0-3 record with an .886 save percentage in four April appearances doesn't exactly generate confidence. He's going to face a lot of traffic and even more rubber (Dallas tied for second with an average of 32 shots per game). If he's anything less than sensational, it'll be a short series.
At the other end of the ice, the Wild will have to level the special teams playing field by taking advantage of Dallas's recklessness on the power play. The Stars allowed a league-worst 15 shorthanded goals this season (more than twice the league average), so the ability of forwards like Erik Haula and Jason Zucker to anticipate passes and use their speed on the counterattack could tilt the scales. At even strength, they'll simply have to be more aggressive. That means getting pucks to the net (they rank a miserable 23rd, at 29 per game) and sending bodies crashing in afterwards. Coach John Torchetti has called his team's net-front presence his "number one" concern. That puts the onus on forwards like Charlie Coyle, Ryan Carter and Nino Niederreiter to plant themselves in the paint against big bodies like Dallas's Stephen Johns and Patrik Nemeth and make life miserable for the Stars' keeper. And when Parise returns to action, he'll have to up his game in a hurry. Minnesota's offensive catalyst failed to light the lamp in 19 of his final 23 games, and was a complete dud against the Stars (zero points in four games, and –6). His running buddy Ryan Suter hasn't been much better (0-1-1 and –2). For the Wild to have any chance, their best players have to be their best players.
There's not a bigger mismatch in the first round than this one. The Stars won four of five meetings this season, and while three came in OT, they showed they could both set the tone and come from behind to beat their emotionally fragile foes. Add in Dallas's dominance down the stretch, and Minnesota dropping its final five, and this could be a very short set. Dallas in five.