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Five Keys: Wild vs. Stars Game 1

Minnesota's ability to neutralize Dallas' speed something to watch

by Steve Hunt / Correspondent

DALLAS -- The Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars begin their Western Conference First Round series at American Airlines Center on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports 3, FS-N, FS-WI, FS-SW). Here are five keys for Game 1:

1. Pick up the pace: The Stars, whose 267 goals led the NHL, like to play a possession game, go end to end and use their speed to wear down opponents. The Wild allowed 204 goals, fourth-fewest in the Western Conference.

Minnesota doesn't want to try to match Dallas' pace and will try to slow the game down. If the Wild are successful with that strategy, Stars coach Lindy Ruff has a formula in place to help counteract the impact of playing a slower game.

"We have to score goals different ways," Ruff said. "We have to score goals by being hard around the front of the net, scoring second opportunities, trying to get pucks to the net from different places."

2. All about the start: Dallas has had some issues with slow starts this season, especially at home, but allowing the first goal isn't exactly a bad thing for the Stars, who were 19-16-6 when the opposition scored first.

The Wild scored first in 33 of their 38 wins, so jumping on the Stars early might help set the tone and take the home crowd out of the game.

"Obviously, [we] want to come out and play our game, and establish our game early," Wild forward Jason Zucker said. "If we can establish the way we want to play in the first 10 minutes, the first period, that's a huge key for us.

Video: SJS@MIN: Dubnyk stands tall against Sharks' attack

3. Goaltenders: Goaltending can often make or break a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and this one will be no different. Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk is 4-7-2 with a 3.12 goals-against average and .897 save percentage in 13 games (12 starts) against Dallas.

Dallas' Kari Lehtonen is 10-7-2 with a 2.83 GAA and .898 save percentage in 22 games against Minnesota.

Dubnyk has the slight edge in playoff experience, with 10 postseason games, compared to Lehtonen's eight. Dubnyk was 4-6 with a 2.53 GAA and a .908 save percentage for the Wild last season.

Lehtonen is 2-6 with a 3.88 GAA and .874 save percentage in his eight career playoff games, six of which came for Dallas in 2014. If Lehtonen is shaky, Ruff likely won't hesitate to pull him for Antti Niemi, who won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010.

Video: SAP Round 1 Infographics Series Preview MIN DAL

4. Special teams: Minnesota spent the least amount of time shorthanded (338:54, or about 4:08 per game) in the NHL. The Wild will need to follow that formula to keep a potent Stars power play, which was fourth at 22.1 percent and second at home (22.4 percent), from being a factor in Game 1.

The Stars would like to exploit a Wild penalty kill that ranked 27th in the League at 77.9 percent and 30th on the road at 74.1 percent. 

Minnesota's power play was 15th at 18.5 percent but on the road it was 19.2 percent, tied for 12th in the League.

Dallas was strong on the penalty kill all season at 82.3 percent, 10th in the League. But the Stars were a bit more vulnerable at home at 81.3 percent on their kill, 20th in the NHL.

Video: First Round Preview: Stars vs Wild

5. Pressure: This series marks the fourth straight season the Wild have qualified for the postseason and the fourth straight time they will face the Central Division champion in the first round. The Wild defeated the No. 2 seed St. Louis Blues in 2015 and the top-seeded Colorado Avalanche as a wild card in 2014.

But don't call the Wild underdogs. It's a label Minnesota coach John Torchetti doesn't care about.

"I don't like it," Torchetti said. "That's just saying that people don't think we can win. We're a pretty good hockey team. We're in the same building that everyone else is in. Sixteen teams made it. We've got a chance to prove it to ourselves. That's all I really care about is how much we want to play for each other."

Though the Wild have nothing to lose as a second wild card, Dallas, the top seed in the Western Conference, has a sizeable target on its back. The Stars added plenty of playoff experience last offseason, signing defenseman Johnny Oduya as a free agent and acquiring forward Patrick Sharp in a trade after each won the Stanley Cup with Chicago last season.

That added experience from two players who won the Stanley Cup a combined five times in Chicago could pay big dividends for Dallas.

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