It's hard to imagine a series that shapes up more evenly than this matchup of two of the NHL's top defensive teams.
Though the Canucks got the higher seed in the West after winning the Northwest Division title, Dallas actually finished with more points (107 to 105). The teams split their four regular-season meetings, with all four games ending 2-1. Both teams won twice at home, once in regulation and once in overtime (Dallas) or a shootout (Vancouver), so the fact that the Northwest Division champion Canucks get the extra home game (even though the Stars had more points) could make a difference.
Aside from their home dominance of each other, there's little to choose between the two: The Stars had 58 points at home to Vancouver's 56, and both ended up with 49 on the road. Both teams also closed the season playing well: Vancouver was 7-3-1 in its last 11 games, including a meaningless loss at Phoenix on Sunday; Dallas finished 8-1-2.
The tight, low-scoring games between the teams were no accident; both rely on their defense and goaltending to compensate for a lack of goal-scoring. Roberto Luongo
, in his first season in Vancouver, brought back memories of the heroics of Richard Brodeur and Kirk McLean, the netminders who led the Canucks to their two trips to the Stanley Cup Final.
Marty Turco had another fine regular season for Dallas, though rookie Mike Smith got more playing time than many expected. Turco's playoff performances have rarely matched his regular-season brilliance, so coach Dave Tippett might be more willing than most coaches to give his rookie goaltender some playing time.
The Stars are again among the NHL's best teams at keeping opponents away from the net. They give up just over 25 shots a game, second to the Detroit Red Wings. Luongo was used to seeing 35 to 40 shots a night in Florida, so facing an average of only about 29 a game was a welcome reprieve. If there's one advantage for the Canucks, aside from getting to open at home, it's killing penalties: Vancouver was tops in the League; Dallas didn't make the top 10.
Canucks Game Breaker
Roberto Luongo: The Canucks acquired Luongo from Florida last summer to plug a hole in the net, but not even GM Dave Nonis could have imagined the kind of performance Luongo would give his new team. With 47 wins, a 2.29 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage, Luongo turned a weakness into a strength. He rarely has a bad game and doesn't let a bad goal bother him. One potential question is experience: Luongo has never played in a playoff game.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin: Daniel has turned into the sniper of the Sedin twins, while Henrik has emerged as one of the NHL's best passers. Daniel's 36 goals led the Canucks and were 14 more than his previous career high, set in 2005-06. His 84 points were 13 better than his previous career best, also set last season. Henrik had only 10 goals but finished fourth in the league with 71 assists, many of them on goals scored by his brother. The twins have matured into a dynamic offensive duo that can dominate in the opposition's zone shift after shift. Few forward combinations control the puck as well.
Kevin Bieksa: Bieksa came to the Canucks during 2005-06 as a defenseman who provided muscle, but contributed little offensively. But the former fifth-rounder has blossomed into an excellent two-way blueliner who can play in any situation. He's the most physical of Vancouver's defensemen, but stunned everyone with 12 goals and 42 points, while playing more than 24 minutes a game and not forgetting that his first job is keeping Luongo's crease clear.
Dallas Game Breaker
Mike Modano: The NHL's most prolific U.S.-born scorer isn't the player he was when he led Dallas to the Stanley Cup in 1999, but he's still a force to be reckoned with. Despite missing nearly a third of the season with hip and groin injuries, Modano was second on the Stars with 22 goals and tops with seven game-winners. On a team that stresses defense first, Modano is one of the few players who's a threat every time he touches the puck. At 36, he's still the Stars' best offensive player.
Sergei Zubov: Also 36, Zubov is one of the best puck-movers among NHL defensemen. He still averages more than 27 minutes a game, runs the power play, plays on the penalty kill and is among the best offensive defensemen in the League. One oddity is that Zubov was a much more effective offensive player at home, putting up 34 of his 54 points at the American Airlines Center. But no matter where he plays, Zubov is the engine that makes the Stars' offense run.
Brenden Morrow: The Stars missed their captain for more than half of the regular season with a wrist injury that required surgery. He still finished with 16 goals in 40 games, half of them on the power play. Morrow is a physical, two-way forward who provides both muscle and scoring up front. On a team that doesn't generate a lot of offense, it's going to be important for Morrow to produce.
Markus Naslund: The Canucks' captain finished second on the team with 24 goals and third with 60 points, though both numbers are down significantly from a couple years ago when he was one of the NHL's best left wings. The Canucks need Naslund to play more like the player who had five 30-goal seasons before this one. Naslund's line doesn't figure to see Dallas' top checkers, so he and his linemates may have a little more room to operate.
Marty Turco: From October to early April, Turco has been one of the NHL's best goaltenders for the last four seasons. But elite players are defined by what they do in the postseason, and thus far, what Turco has done is struggle. He's lost his last three playoff series, including five-game blowouts in each of the last two seasons. Turco was among the NHL's best goaltenders again this season with 37 wins, a 2.24 goals-against average and six shutouts; the Stars need him to play as well in the playoffs as he does during the regular season.
Vancouver will win if: Luongo carries his regular-season performance into the playoffs. With every goal likely to be a precious commodity, the Canucks will be even more dependent on Luongo, who had the best season of any goaltender not named Martin Brodeur. Luongo has never played in the postseason, but the Canucks can't afford for him to show any kind of playoff jitters. These teams are so evenly matched that any little gaffe or misplay can cost one team the series.
Dallas will win if: Turco finally gets over his playoff struggles and plays the way he has in the regular season. In each of the last two seasons, the former University of Michigan star was unable to carry over his regular-season level of play to the post-season - and each time, the Stars were knocked out in five games. The Stars, like the Canucks, don't score a lot, so Turco will have little wiggle room. Unlike the past two seasons, Tippett has shown a willingness to sit Turco when he struggles; if those struggles return for another spring, it will be interesting to see how long Tippett will go with him.