NHL playoffs: Stars-Blues Game 6 keys to watch for
It's simple for the St. Louis Blues. With a win over the Stars on Monday, they'll advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2001.
A loss? That means a return to Dallas for Game 7, and facing the specter of their inability to close out so many past series.
The Blues need a faster start than the one they delivered in Saturday's 4–1 Game 5 win at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. They could also use a bit more of the puck luck they enjoyed in that one. Their first goal was the result of a Robby Fabbri pass bouncing off the skate of Stars forward Brett Ritchie and past netminder Kari Lehtonen. The Blues caught a few breaks at the other end of the ice as well when pucks either bounced over the poised blades of Dallas shooters, or slid just out of their reach.
They also need another strong effort from Brian Elliott to close this series out. The veteran keeper has been a rock in this series, allowing just five goals over the past three games for a solid .939 save percentage.
Here are four other topics of conversation heading into Game 6 (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS):
(Not so) special teams
The Stars have scored just four regulation goals during their past three games. Only one has come on the power play. In fact, that was their only goal with the extra man during the course of the series.
That right there sums up Dallas's primary concern heading into Game 6. The Stars may have been the league's most productive team at five-on-five during the regular season, but the power play was their game breaker. And if they're going to scratch out a win in St. Louis, they have to figure out a way to make something out of the man advantage.
Coming into this one, Dallas ranks 11th in playoff power-play success at 14.3%. Clearly they miss Tyler Seguin, who chipped in 24 points with the man advantage during the regular season. But Seguin, who sources say is dealing with a right calf issue that occurred while compensating for his earlier left Achilles injury, won't be there tonight.
But Patrick Eaves will. Eaves, who hasn't skated since the series opener, can bring the net-front presence that's been missing from the Dallas attack. He's not the biggest player (6', 200 pounds), but he's tough to move once he plants himself down low, and he has a decent set of mitts. Eaves scored five times on the power play during the regular season and twice more in these playoffs, thanks to excellent hand-eye coordination and a knack for finding pucks in a scrum. He might just provide the spark they need.
Dallas needs to be sharper on the penalty kill as well. The Stars rank 13th in penalty-kill success at 73.5%. The ability of the Blues to find the time and the lanes to get pucks to the net, where they're met by redwoods such David Backes and Troy Brouwer, has given them an edge the Stars haven't matched.
Another fresh face
DThe Blues are making a lineup change as well. Defenseman Joel Edmundsson, who delivered a fresh pizza to the face of Stars forward Radek Faksa in Game 4 on Friday, is out. He'll be replaced by veteran Robert Bortuzzo.
"One [Edmundson] is a defending player and one [Bortuzzo] is an attacking player," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock explained. "Our feeling is we need more attacking right now. 'Borts' is a guy that jumps up in the play, really attacks, plays on his toes and he's good at joining the rush, making plays from the red-line in. 'Eddie' is more of a defending player, stay-at-home kind of guy."
Hitchcock might be selling some snake oil here. Bortuzzo's no cure-all—in fact, he's probably better known for delivering hits than passes. Still, the coach is on the mark about his team's needs. Despite the score, the Stars controlled possession for much of Game 5, out-attempting the Blues by a wide margin, 65-46. Maybe, just maybe, Bortuzzo might help close the gap in ways that Edmundsson couldn't.
With Bortuzzo sliding in on the right of the second pair, Kevin Shattenkirk will have to move over to the left. He wasn't particularly comfortable on that side during the Chicago series, so keep an eye on how he handles pucks along the walls, and how he challenges attackers.
The key to reviving Dallas's dormant offense at five-on-five? Second-chance opportunities. The Stars managed to create just one shot off a rebound in all of Game 5. One. That's also the number they managed in Game 4.
That's a testament to the excellent work being done by the St. Louis defense. Elliott's done a nice job swallowing up his rebounds, or directing them into low-risk areas. When he falters, his D has been there, either winning the battles for loose pucks or tying up the sticks of attackers.
That's the advantage of matching heavier blueliners against sleeker forwards. And it's a big part of why the Blues have the 3-2 series lead going into Game 6. They're preventing the high-danger chances that can vex a goalkeeper, even one as sharp as Elliott.
Dallas has to find a way to win those battles tonight. If not, it will lose the war as well.
Backes vs. Benn
Despite their enviable depth, both the Blues and Stars draw heavily on their captains to set the pace. And through five games, one's clearly doing a better job of that than the other.
There's no questioning Jamie Benn's effort. The Hart and Lindsay finalist has used his size and speed to great effect in all three zones. But he has just one goal through the first five games, and with Seguin out, the pressure's on the leading scorer of the playoffs to light the lamp.
That hasn't been a problem for Backes, who has three goals, and two game-winners, so far in this series. He's been dominant down low, hammering away at the Dallas defenders and daring them to move him once he plants himself in front of Lehtonen.
The two have had a few minor skirmishes already. Don't be surprised if their long-running animosity breaks out into full-scale war tonight.