NHL playoffs: St. Louis Blues vs. Dallas Stars Game 1 preview
The Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues kick off their second-round playoff series on Friday night at the American Airlines Center (8 PM ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS). Here's a look at three factors that could influence the outcome:
• The Stars emphasize skill and mobility on the back end, but there's a trade-off: No team dresses a smaller top four than Dallas. Between them, Alex Goligoski, John Klingberg, Johnny Oduya and Kris Russell average just 6' and 182 pounds. That makes them vulnerable to the kind of sustained physical pressure that the Blues intender to deliver.
St. Louis pasted the Hawks in the first round, averaging just over 40 hits per game as the Blues successfully targeted Chicago's blueliners. And that's going by the NHL's somewhat limiting official definition. The actual incidents of contact were much higher as the Blues finished every hit and used their size advantage up front to lean on Chicago's defensemen down low. That heavy approach can wear on a smaller defender quickly. And that leads to errors.
For all the skill Dallas employs, this is a group that will cough up the puck under pressure. Again, going by the league's official numbers, Dallas' top four committed 15 turnovers in the opening round, or 2.5 per game. There were many more instances of rushed decisions that led to dumps rather than controlled outs. And that's against a Wild team that struggled to generate much of a forecheck.
All four lines will be committed to the plan, but watch for the Blues' fourth line of Steve Ott, Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak to be used early and often to set the tone in Game 1.
• For all the intensity of their series against the Hawks, the Blues were shorthanded just 19 times over seven games, only one more than Chicago. That's a massive swing in discipline from the regular season when St. Louis ranked as the league's fifth-most penalized team and was –39 in opportunities for/against. The Stars, by comparison, were +14 in opportunities, largely because their speed through the neutral zone and possession time (52.6% Corsi, according to War On Ice) forced opposing teams to foul them.
That's a trap the Blues want to continue avoiding. Five-on-five play will be tough enough. Dallas generated a league-high 56.1% of shot attempts at even-strength against the Wild in the first round compared to 47.2% for the Blues against Chicago. The split won't be as pronounced in this round, but the Stars, who scored a league-high 167 goals at five-on-five during the regular season and 16 in the playoffs, almost certainly will have an edge.
Getting into penalty trouble then will only deepen the hole. Even without Tyler Seguin, Dallas's power play could swing the series if given a chance. The Blues can't let it.
• No matter how you couch it, the Stars are at a disadvantage between the pipes. Brian Elliott of the Blues was one of the most miserly netminders during the regular season, and while he had his moments in the first round, he held off the defending champs in a pressure-packed Game 7. He might wobble, but there's a reliability factor in his game that suggests he won't beat himself.
If only the Stars could say the same about one of their two netminders. Dallas got excellent mileage out of the Kari Lehtonen—Antti Niemi combo during the regular season but neither seized control of the starting job against a weak-hitting Minnesota lineup. One of them has to do it with this series.
Lehtonen was the first goalie off the ice in practice this morning, so he's likely to get the call in Game 1. He's had success against the Blues in his career, going 13-6-3 with a 2.09 GAA and .924 save percentage. That's the second-best GAA and fourth-best save percentage he's posted against any opponent in the regular season. Now he has to translate those numbers directly to the postseason.
He doesn't have to steal games for the Stars to win the series, but he has to keep pace with Elliott. He'll need to reach that level to do it.