2014 NHL playoffs preview: Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
Regular season recaps
Oct. 20: Ducks 6, Stars 3
Nov. 26: Stars 6, Ducks 3
Feb. 1: Stars 2, Ducks 0
Ducks: RW Tim Jackman (broken right hand, out indefinitely)
Keys to a Ducks victory
Anaheim carries the reputation of a heavy team, one that wears you down and is plain miserable to play against. That's true to some extent, but what the Ducks really are is a fast team. They're quick to the puck and they can create havoc in transition. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry get most of the attention up front and, ultimately, it's up to them to drive the offense, but Anaheim has an underrated group of supporting scorers, led by Nick Bonino, Mathieu Perreault and Andrew Cogliano, each of whom had at least 40 points. The defense, led by veterans Francois Beauchemin and Stephane Robidas, and top picks Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler -- who Dallas memorably passed on in the 2010 draft in favor of goalie Jack Campbell -- is deep, smart and knows how to make plays. But there's a big question mark in net. Anaheim has three options in Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen and top prospect John Gibson, who has won all three of his NHL starts while posting a .954 save percentage ... but no clear starter. Hiller stumbled down the stretch, winning just three of his last 10 games and turning in only two quality starts. Andersen is coming off an injury. And Gibson probably can't yet find his way to the Pond without a GPS. Coach Bruce Boudreau has gone with his ample gut and ridden a rookie netminder before (Semyon Varlamov , then with the Capitals, in 2009), and it looks like he'll do it again. Are the kids up to the challenge? And keep an eye on Matt Beleskey. A depth winger much of the season, Beleskey is a man with a flair for taking advantage of an opportunity. Given a chance to fill in alongside Getzlaf and Perry on the top line, he scored three goals in his last four games. He makes himself valuable with a relentless presence in the corners and in front of the net. If he continues to chip in offensively Beleskey could play a pivotal role.
Keys to a Stars victory
How can a starting goaltender be an unknown heading into a series with a conference foe? Departed backup Dan Ellis and third stringer Jack Campbell split the three regular-season starts against Anaheim, making Kari Lehtonen something of a postseason wild card. We do know that he feasted on the Pacific Division in 2013-14, going 11-0-3 with a 1.48 goals-against average and .950 save percentage. But will that success translate against the Ducks? Given the uncertainty between the pipes in Anaheim, Lehtonen could make the difference. However, Dallas' first postseason appearance since 2008 would be a pipe dream if not for the alchemy between Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. There may be better lines in the league, but this is the NHL's most exciting, and most dangerous, duo. The strengths of their game are speed, an ability to find holes in coverage and their frighteningly quick releases. Seguin is the one who makes the thing go, and while his dismal 2013 postseason (one goal in 22 games) is likely to be brought up repeatedly, he was playing a different role with the Bruins. He'll make a loud noise this time around. Still, the Stars will need secondary scoring to advance. Ryan Garbutt was the team's third-leading goal scorer, with (not a typo) 17. He's a streaky finisher, but he's gotten a lot of sniffs lately. He could be on the verge of another tear. Rookie Valeri Nichushkin can be an imposing physical presence, but he has to keep his feet moving to be effective. If he gets caught standing around, as he often does, he'll be a non-factor. Dallas could really use something out of Cody Eakin. The Ginger Ninja got off to a terrific start, but has just four goals in his last 30 games and doesn't play with the same net-front courage he had early on. The defense takes its share of heat -- understandable considering how often the Stars' blueliners cough up the puck (they rank fifth in the league in giveaways) -- but it has rounded into shape nicely over the past month. Both Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley have cut down on mental errors and are using their speed and creativity more often. That's led to a more effective transition game -- something that will be key to their chances in this series.
Stars in 6: Yes, the Ducks seem destined for playoff success. They are deep, they are physical, and this isn't the first rodeo for most of 'em. They should win this series handily ... but I don't think they will. Sometimes a team just has your number, and Dallas seems well positioned to take advantage of Anaheim's late-season decline in puck possession. If the Stars can win that battle over the course of the series, the can pull off the upset.
Game 1: Apr. 16, @ Anaheim; 10pm (NBCSN, TSN)
Game 2: Apr. 18 @ Anaheim, 10pm (NBCSN, TSN)
Game 3: Apr. 21 @ Dallas, 9:30pm (NBCSN, TSN)
Game 4: Apr. 23 @ Dallas, 8pm (CNBC, TSN)
*Game 5: Apr. 25 @ Dallas, 10:30pm (NBCSN, TSN)
*Game 6: Apr. 27 @ Dallas, time TBD, (TSN)
*Game 7: Apr. 29 @ Anaheim, time TBD (TSN)