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Wild vs. Stars First Round series preview

Minnesota's former, current teams meet for first time in playoffs

by Steve Hunt and Dan Myers / NHL.com Correspondents

The pride of the North Stars will be on the line in the Western Conference First Round series between the Dallas Stars and the Minnesota Wild.

The Stars, who won the Central Division and Western Conference by outlasting the St. Louis Blues down the stretch, are direct descendants of the now-defunct Minnesota North Stars, the state's first NHL team. The North Stars relocated to Dallas in 1993 and become the Stars.

Video: Wild take on the Stars in Round 1 of the playoffs

The Wild, the second wild card from the Western Conference, filled the void left by the North Stars when they joined the League for the 2000-01 season.

The franchises are meeting for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Stars (50-23-9, 109 points) finished 22 points ahead of the Wild (38-33-11, 87 points), but the season series was far closer. Each team won a game in regulation: Minnesota 2-1 on Jan. 9 and Dallas 6-3 on Dec. 21. The other three went to overtime, with the Stars winning all three.

But even those results have to be examined through a different prism. John Torchetti took over from Mike Yeo as Wild coach on Feb. 13, four days after the final game of the season series was played. The Wild are 15-11-1 since Torchetti took charge. Five of the 11 regulation losses were by one goal.

The Stars made the postseason once in the past seven years. Some of their key players, including top scorer Jamie Benn and No. 1 defenseman John Klingberg, have little to no playoff experience.

The core of the Wild has made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and advanced to the second round in each of the past two before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks each time.

Video: TBL@DAL: Ja. Benn nets two goals, lifts Stars to win

FORWARDS

Stars: Dallas led the NHL with 265 non-shootout goals. One big reason has been the dynamic offensive duo of Benn and Tyler Seguin.

Benn, the 2014-15 Art Ross Trophy winner, led the Stars in goals (41), assists (48) and points (89). He won the Art Ross last season with 87 points, but Dallas failed to qualify for the playoffs.

There will be no Art Ross Trophy for Benn this year, but returning to the playoffs is all that matters to the captain.

"I think that's the type of player he is," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said of Benn. "It's more about the team than it is himself."

Benn has remained healthy all year following offseason hip surgery and has delivered consistent production. The same can't be said for Seguin, who has missed the past eight games with an Achilles injury sustained on March 14 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Seguin recently resumed skating and plans to practice Monday. His availability for Game 1 is unclear.

Dallas has also gotten solid production from veteran center Jason Spezza, who spent much of the season centering the second line. Newcomer Patrick Sharp, a member of the Chicago Blackhawks' 2015 Stanley Cup-winning team, came over in an offseason trade. Sharp, who has won the Stanley Cup three times, has provided offense and veteran leadership in the dressing room. Defenseman Johnny Oduya, a member of Chicago's Cup-winning team last year, also joined the Stars during the summer.

"For those guys to come in and help out in little ways in tough games [has been big]," center Cody Eakin said. "Last year I think we were dropping a lot of third-period leads. Them coming in here, coming from a winning team, they bring their experiences in the locker room and leadership. It's obviously nice to have when we're in those tight games and those guys can say, 'let's settle down, let's play the same way regardless of the score and just go out there and do what we do.'"

Eakin is part of a talented group of bottom-six forwards who can contribute secondary scoring at key times.

Video: CGY@MIN: Niederreiter extends the lead to three

Wild: There are a number of parts that, individually, have the potential to be very good. It will be up to Torchetti to find the right mix to make those individuals fit together.

The pairing of Erik Haula, who may miss Game 1 because of injury, and Nino Niederreiter has been about the only constant since Torchetti was named coach. Injuries and ineffectiveness have forced him to shuffle other players around, although several have had success in spurts.

Zach Parise, who missed practice Sunday and is questionable for Game 1, and Mikko Koivu have been staples of Minnesota's top power-play unit regardless of their line assignments during 5-on-5 play. Mikael Granlund, a natural center, has been playing right wing with Parise and Koivu recently, giving the line a different look.

Charlie Coyle, one of Minnesota's best players in February and March, has shifted between wing and center on a game-by-game -- and even period-by-period -- basis.

When healthy, Jason Pominville has found himself mostly with Haula and Niederreiter, forming a trio that's best at shutting down an opponent's top line.

Jarret Stoll has found his role as the steady fourth-line center since being claimed off waivers from the New York Rangers on Dec. 15.

David Jones, acquired from the Calgary Flames before the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline, has been a valuable right wing.

Jason Zucker and Thomas Vanek are wild cards. Vanek has been dealing with an upper-body injury and his status for the start of the postseason is a question mark. Vanek was also scratched late in the season for ineffectiveness. Zucker has the ability to be a game-breaker, but struggled at the end of the regular season.

 

DEFENSEMEN

Stars: Dallas has earned accolades for its goal-scoring ability, but the biggest difference has been the improvement on defense. The Stars reduced their non-shootout goals allowed to 228 from 257; their goal differential improved from plus-1 to plus-37.

Defensively, the Stars have been pretty stable for much of the season. Alex Goligoski, the longest-tenured defenseman on the roster, and Klingberg, who was fifth among NHL defensemen with 58 points, are the top pair.

"We play with the puck a lot, just like last year, our possession game's good. I think we definitely gained a lot of confidence in holding leads and playing with leads [this season]," Goligoski said. "That definitely has something to do with it. It's a combination of things though."

Oduya has anchored the second pair, spending much of the season with Jason Demers. When Demers was out with a shoulder injury in March, rookie Stephen Johns, acquired in the trade with Sharp, stepped in and did a stellar job.

Demers appears close to returning, so Ruff could be forced to shuffle his pairings before the start of the postseason.

Jordie Benn has anchored the third pair, playing with a variety of partners, including Kris Russell, who the Stars acquired in a trade with the Calgary Flames before the NHL Trade Deadline.

Wild: When Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon are healthy, there are few defensive pairings in the NHL more effective.

Suter established career highs in assists and points. He was a plus player for the seventh consecutive season and 10th time in his 11 NHL seasons. His minutes played total is higher than it should be, but is less than it has been in each of the past two seasons. The hope is that could make him more effective in the playoffs.

Spurgeon also had his best season offensively and has developed into the Wild's best transition passer.

Marco Scandella has had an inconsistent season, at times showing all the tools that make him part of the Wild's core at one point, but turning pucks over and playing timidly at other points.

Like Scandella, Matt Dumba has flashed glimpses of brilliance, but holes have been revealed in his defensive game. Still, Dumba has the ability to be a game-changer on the back end when his game is right.

Jonas Brodin sustained a broken foot in early February and missed a month, but is a vital cog on the penalty kill.

 

Video: DAL@ARI: Lehtonen turns away two consecutive shots

GOALTENDERS

Stars: Ruff effectively divided the workload between Kari Lehtonen and newcomer Antti Niemi, a member of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks in 2010 who signed as a free agent during the offseason.

Lehtonen started 39 games and is 25-10-2 with a 2.76 goals-against-average and two shutouts; Niemi started 43 games and is 24-13-7 with a 2.67 GAA and three shutouts.

Ruff has yet to settle on a consistent starter for the postseason and could even stick with his rotation.

This is Lehtonen's third trip to the playoffs in his 12-year career.

"We know that it's not easy to make the playoffs. We've known that in the past," Lehtonen said. "Now we're in a good position. We're playing well and I think the big thing is we're comfortable playing anybody and know we have a good chance of beating anybody any night, so that's a good feeling to have."

Video: SJS@MIN: Dubnyk robs Ward on the doorstep

Wild: Devan Dubnyk has been used a lot this season and is ranked among the top-10 in most categories, including games played, minutes, wins, saves and shutouts. He was very good early, struggled through nearly a month without a victory in the middle portion of the season but has come on again after the coaching change.

Last season, Dubnyk made the postseason for the first time and feels that experience should pay off.

"There's less distraction, just having that experience and knowing what to expect a little more," Dubnyk said. "It was tough to watch the third round and the Finals, just feeling like with the team that we had, we certainly could have been there if we'd continued to play the way we had the previous months.

"You quickly learn that making the playoffs isn't enough. You don't know how many opportunities you're going to get to be in the playoffs and to get a chance to win the Stanley Cup. You have to want it and I certainly want it more after going through the disappointment of last year."

Darcy Kuemper has been an effective backup despite not playing much.

 

COACHES

Stars: Ruff has plenty of experience coaching in the playoffs (107 games). All but six of those games came during his tenure with Buffalo, but he did get Dallas to the postseason two years ago. In 2014, the Stars lost in six games to the Anaheim Ducks in the First Round, Dallas' first playoff appearance in six seasons.

"We've been able to maintain a real level attitude throughout the year," Ruff said. "We got off to a great start, then we went through a tough stretch in January and came out of that, again have played good hockey."

Wild: Torchetti was a part of a Stanley Cup-winning team when he was an assistant to Joel Quenneville with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, so the pressure associated with the postseason is not foreign to him.

He's done a remarkable job turning around the Wild, who were 1-11-2 in the 14 games before Torchetti replaced Yeo in mid-February. Whether he can translate that into postseason success remains to be seen.

 

Video: DAL@SJS: Sharp buries one-timer on power play

SPECIAL TEAMS

Stars: Dallas made improvements on each of its special teams. Last season, Dallas converted on 19.3 percent of its power plays, eighth in the NHL. They finished this season at 22.1 percent, fifth in the League.

Since Dallas acquired Russell on Feb. 29, Ruff feels his power play has become even more potent.

"I think he's made the simple, efficient play for us. He gets the puck to the flanks, he gets the puck to the net, not necessarily with a big shot or with a lot of flair, but has made the right play when it presents itself," Ruff said.

The Stars also improved on the penalty kill, going from 80.7 percent last season to 82.3 percent.

Video: MIN@MTL: Grandlund puts rebound in for PPG

Wild: The power play improved dramatically under Torchetti and finished at No. 15, converting 18.5 percent.

Parise, Koivu and Suter have been staples on the top power-play unit for the past few seasons. More than half of Koivu's goals have come with the man-advantage. The Wild are especially effective on the power play when they get bodies in front and collect rebounds. When that unit is hot, it has the ability to win a series. When it's not, it can give away momentum.

Minnesota's penalty kill declined sharply from last season, when it was the top-ranked unit in the NHL. Minnesota finished this season ranked No. 27 (77.9 percent) on the penalty kill.

 

 

SERIES CHANGERS

Stars: John Klingberg, defenseman -- Depending on how healthy Seguin is heading into the playoffs, the Stars will likely need secondary scoring, either from players down their lineup or from their defensemen, to help alleviate some of the pressure on Benn, Seguin, Sharp and Spezza.

Who better to do that than Klingberg? Although he will be making his playoff debut and there might be some jitters, he has delivered solid offensive play at key times during the season. So why can't he do the same in the postseason?

Wild: Mikko Koivu, forward -- Koivu has disappeared in each of the Wild's last three trips to the postseason, scoring two goals in 28 playoff games since 2013.

Torchetti recently called Koivu perhaps the best defensive forward he's ever coached; that's high praise from someone who was instrumental in the development of a young Jonathan Toews while with the Blackhawks.

Koivu is also among the best faceoff men in the NHL and is a valuable penalty-killer.

The Wild don't need Koivu to morph into a goal-per-game player in the playoffs, but they do need their captain to pick up the pace offensively, especially from his production in recent playoff runs.

 

Video: DAL@MIN: Benn sets up Seguin for OT beauty

WILL WIN IF ...

Stars: They stick to the formula that has worked all season: playing with pace, getting strong special-teams play, good team defense and good goaltending.

The Stars' offensive numbers were virtually the same last season as this season, but they were more prone to gambling defensively. Ruff has instilled the importance of being more disciplined at each end of the ice; the result is a team that is much more balanced.

Wild: They take advantage of their forward depth, their biggest advantage.

Although the mix of players can seem a bit jumbled at times, Minnesota possesses an intriguing combination of size and speed, experience and youth, and skill and grit among the forwards. The Wild likely won't win a series if they're forced to play run-and-gun with other high-end lines; it's not who they are.

The Wild are at their best when they use their aggressive forecheck to force turnovers and overwhelm opponents into critical mistakes. It's a style that works best when they're rolling four lines and getting contributions from throughout the lineup.

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