2016 NHL playoffs: Blues vs. Stars series preview
Regular season recap
Dec. 12: Blues 3, Stars 0
Dec. 26: Blues 3, Stars 2 (SO)
Dec. 27: Stars 3, Blues 0
Feb. 16: Blues 2, Stars 1 (OT)
March 12: Blues 5, Stars 4 (OT)
Stars: F Tyler Seguin (Achilles tendon, day-to-day)
Blues: D Carl Gunnarsson (upper body, day-to-day)
Keys to a Stars victory
No secret to Dallas's plan. The Stars want to control the puck, enter the zone with speed and attack in waves. The league's top offense during the regular season (3.23 goals per game) was even more effective in the first round (3.50) because it dominated possession against the Wild (56%, 1st). That the Stars managed that trick against a defensively sound team, and without Tyler Seguin in five of the six games, speaks to the depth of their options and how much of a challenge they'll pose to the Blues.
Jamie Benn continued his MVP-caliber season with a brilliant first round. He got on the score sheet in every game (the only player to do that) and was a physical force in all three zones. He's the one player on either team who is capable of bending a game to his will. Jason Spezza gives Dallas a dangerous second option. He had four points in the Game 6 clincher against the Wild, and nine overall, because he's more willing to shoot the puck and is going harder to the net than at any point in his career. Dallas has terrific depth, but the wild card is Seguin. If he's able to go effectively at any point, the league's fourth-leading scorer changes everything with his speed and finishing ability.
One way or another, Dallas will score, but if the Stars hope to win this series, they better score in bunches. They're more likely to win 6–5 than 2–1. Their already suspect defense was exposed in the first round as careless with the puck and easily rattled. You can accept that on occasion from second-year man John Klingberg, but veterans like Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Johnny Oduya have to cut down on their mistakes. That won't be easy against a St. Louis team that dressed four of the top-13 hitters in the first round. The Stars' ability to maintain their composure under assault will be critical.
When they falter, who's there to stop the pucks? Coach Lindy Ruff (looking for a bit of revenge on Ken Hitchcock for that 1999 Stanley Cup Final) is comfortable using both his goalies, but he'd prefer if one forced his way into a string of starts. Both Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi got into the win column against the Wild, but neither generated a lot of confidence with his play. Lehtonen's 2.27 GAA and .911 save percentage ranked 10th and 11th, respectively. Niemi's numbers (3.36, .870) don't require context. Together, they got the Stars over the hump in the first round, but it was far more exciting than it had to be. One, or likely both, will have to elevate his game to give the Stars a chance here.
GALLERY: Dallas Stars Ice Girls
Keys to a Blues victory
Two names have to stand out for the Blues to advance past the league's top offense: Brian Elliott and Alex Pietrangelo. Elliott started strong against Chicago, allowing just four goals through the first three games. His wheels wobbled during his next three starts as he coughed up 12 in Games 4-6 (with a save percentage of just .893) before he delivered one of the most clutch performances in franchise history in that 3–2 Game 7 win. That's something to build on. The Stars, though, pose a completely different challenge. It won't just be how many stops he makes, it'll be when he makes them. The Stars had a trio of three-goal periods against the Wild. Preventing them from stringing together one of those outbursts will be critical.
Elliott will be counting on Pietrangelo, who delivered the top defensive performance of the first round. He played 30-plus minutes of elite hockey at both ends of the ice, tallying six points, second-most among all defensemen, and was a rock in his own end. As the top right D, he'll match up against Dallas's top left wing, Benn. The winner of that battle could swing the series. But given the variety of weapons Dallas has on hand, it'll take a six-man effort. Colton Parayko's size will be useful but his reads and positioning will be tested. And Jay Bouwmeester needs to make better puck decisions than he did against the Hawks. They have to slow the Stars down in the neutral zone to limit their chances off the rush and cut down their shots-allowed (36.6 per game, 14th in the playoffs).
Up front, the Blues have a decided edge in the physical game. Dallas's defense likes to handle the puck to key the attack, but can pressured into mistakes (see Goligoski's happy hands in Game 6). Outside of Oduya, they're not battle-tested the way Chicago's D was. They can be worn down. They also need to get as many pucks to the net as possible. The Stars allowed just 26 shots per game in the first round, but Lehtonen and Niemi gave up 17 goals to Minnesota's pop-gun offense in the process. The Blues are much more dangerous, front to back, and can generate better quality chances. Vladimir Tarasenko's line will draw most of the attention because of its quick-strike abilities, but it could be the Paul Stastny-Robby Fabbri-Troy Brouwer line that makes the difference. The unit was all over the puck in Game 7 of the Chicago series and brings a dangerous mix of speed, skill and grit.
You don't want to too quickly write off a team that can generate offense the way Dallas does, but this just feels like a lousy match-up for the Stars. Elliott is vulnerable, but still more reliable than either of Dallas's options, and the Stars' defense isn't built to withstand the kind of pounding that the Blues are going to administer. Fabbri will be the offensive star. St. Louis in six.