Goaltending looms large among other factors as the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars meet in Game 7.
Just one win separated the Dallas Stars and the St. Louis Blues during the regular season. Just one win will separate them in the playoffs as well.
The two Central Division rivals have battled to a standstill through the first six games of their second round series. With Game 7 on tap tonight (8:00 ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS) that next victory will send one of them on to the Western Conference Finals.
Here are seven points to ponder ahead of this do-or-die contest:
Home ice advantage?
To this point, there hasn't been much of one. Both teams are 1-2 at home. Still, given a choice, both would prefer the opportunity to play in front of a friendly crowd.
“It’s why you play the 82 games [in the regular season], to give yourself home ice,” Jason Spezza told Dallasstars.com. “Home ice isn’t the end-all and be-all, but it does help. We’ve been good at home, and we like playing in front of our fans. We’ve earned the right to have the game here.”
Lindy Ruff, who is 0-3 in career Game 7s, isn't a meticulous line-matcher, but he could use the privilege of last change to his advantage at some point in the game.
The Stars posted the second-best home record (28-11-2) in the league this season, but the Blues come in with momentum having won four of six on the road during the playoffs.
“We're confident all year playing on the road,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “I think road and home's not relevant anymore. The size of the rinks are the same, buildings are the same. ... It's all the same now. I don't think it matters.”
Keeping it simple
The secret to countering whatever advantage home ice might present the Stars? Playing a simple, north-south game. That, after all, is what the Blues are best at.
“We’re a blue-collar team," Hitchcock said. "We’re really good at it. We’re going to have to bring our best blue-collar effort forward and if we do it, then we’re going to be in good shape, but it’s got to be a great blue-collar effort.”
There were times in Game 6, especially early on, when the St. Louis attack looked a little white collar and it cost them. Extra passes led to turnovers, killing their chances and sending the Stars the other way. When they simplified their approach and focused on sending the puck to the net and forcing Kari Lehtonen to make a save, that's where they found success. Their first goal was created off a throwaway shot that bounced off his pad and directly onto the stick of a hard-charging Alexander Steen. That's the sort of play they'll be looking for more of in Game 7.
No Tyler Seguin
If the Stars are going to win, they'll have to do it without the NHL's fourth-leading scorer. “He's not available to play right now,” Ruff said on Tuesday. “I'm not going to try to deceive you. He's not ready to play yet. He's just hit his next step on the way back again. He's closer than he was a couple of days ago.”
Dallas's offense hasn't looked the same without him. The Stars have been outscored 19-13 in the series, largely because the Blues have been able to slow them down in the middle of the ice. That's where Seguin's skill set kicks in. His speed forces defenders to back off, which opens up the neutral zone and greases the transition game. They're still quick without him, but lack that game-breaking presence.
His absence is even more pronounced on the power play. Seguin likes to set up in the right circle, much the same way as Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos, where he can unleash uncontested one-timers. Without that threat, it's easier for the Blues to simply clog up the middle and challenge the other Stars to beat them from the outside.
That power play
With five-on-five goals harder to come by, Dallas has to break through on the power play. The Stars did manage one goal with the extra man in their Game 6 win, but that was hardly a set play. Blues defender Jay Bouwmeester blew a tire while backing in, allowing Spezza unfettered access to the zone. The big center took advantage of all that open ice, dropped a nasty toe drag, and then whipped a shot past Brian Elliott.
As nice as that looked, it's not a play they can plan on replicating. The Stars own an advantage in team speed, so creating off the rush is probably their best bet. But when it comes to setting up in the zone, their best bet might be getting pucks to John Klingberg at the point. His ability to thread it on net could create the deflection/rebound opportunities they'll need to beat whoever the Blues start in net.
Net question 1
Having said that, there's no doubt it will be Elliott, is there? Hitchcock was coy about his choice, but switching to Jake Allen, who hasn't started a game since shutting out the Capitals on March 26, is the sort of decision that could cost the coach his job if the Blues lose the game.
Elliott struggled with his puck control in Game 6 and never quite seemed comfortable. But that was one bad game. His body of work over the past two months speaks for itself. He was their best player down the stretch as they challenged the Stars for the top record in the West and their MVP against the Blackhawks in round one.
“He’s been standing on his head all playoffs,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo told reporters on Tuesday. “I’ve said it to you guys before, we could stand here all day and talk about how great he’s been down the stretch and in the playoffs. There’s nothing else I can say ... everybody sees it. Everybody knows he’s been lights out for us.”
Net question 2
The Stars aren't in Game 7 if Lehtonen doesn't raise his level over the past three games. He was the story in Game 6, making 35 stops to slam the door on St. Louis's comeback attempt.
Still, there's an awkwardness to his style, along with a history of soft goals in big playoff games, that leaves Stars fans to wonder whether he's up to the challenge. Adding to that concern: He's lost his past two starts at home, allowing six goals on 48 shots (.875 save percentage) in the process.
The Blues got to him early in both of those games, scoring within the first six minutes. They're going to come out of the gate hard in this one as well. The Blues have outscored their opponents 14-9 in the first period through the playoffs so far. Keeping them off the board early could be the key to success.
Heroes just for one game
Game 7s are legendary for revealing unlikely heroes. So, who steps up in this one?
For Dallas, keep an eye on Val Nichushkin. The much-maligned winger has upped his commitment level since returning to the lineup. He's a big body who can match the physicality of the Blues' blueliners, and his ability to protect the puck down low makes him a bear to defend. If his feet are moving, and if he's willing to pay the price to drive the net, he can make a difference for the Stars.
For St. Louis, watch for Troy Brouwer. The big winger—who is playing in an NHL record eighth consecutive Game 7 according to Elias Sports Bureau—was acquired last summer to add a heavier presence to their attack. He's delivered on that expectation, scoring some big goals from in and around the crease in these playoffs, including the clincher that eliminated the Blackhawks in the first round. No matter which defense pair he's been up against, Brouwer's been able to stake out his ice in front of Lehtonen. That size advantage could be the key for the Blues.