The Stars are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015-16 when they advanced to the second round before falling to St. Louis in seven games. Dallas was in a playoff position most of this season and solidified their spot as the first wild card in the West with a strong 19-11-3 run after the All-Star break.
The Stars were hit hard by injuries and were without defensemen Stephen Johns and Marc Methot and center Martin Hanzal for all or most of the season. Defenseman John Klingberg missed 18 games and forward Alexander Radulov missed 12 due to injury. But the Stars battled through with others stepping up and players from the AHL helping fill the void at times.
"It's a long season, and there's going to be ups and downs all the time," said Radulov. "It was a tough season for us, we had some guys hurting, and guys got called up and played well. If you look at the whole season, we grinded it out, we found a way, and I think we deserve to be in the playoffs."
Nashville is making its fifth straight playoff appearance, the best run in franchise history. The Predators, who made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016-17 and were the top team in the regular season in 2017-18 had some ups and downs this season as well. But they finished strong, going 8-2-1 over their final 11 games to win the Central Division.
Nashville had its share of injuries, losing forwards Viktor Arvidsson (21 games) and Filip Forsberg (17 games) and defenseman P.K. Subban (19 games) for extended periods of time.
Video: Previewing the Stars vs. Predators First Round series
"It's been a tough year because we were dealt a lot of stuff," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said after his team clinched the Central Division on the final day of the regular season. "We used that slogan 'Rise Up' at the beginning, and we talked about it from the beginning -- rise up from injury and from whatever comes our way, fight for something and rise up."
Both teams added players after the midpoint of the season. The Stars acquired forward Andrew Cogliano and defenseman Jamie Oleksiak in January. Then picked up defenseman Ben Lovejoy and offensively talented forward Mats Zuccarello two days before the trade deadline.
Nashville added forwards Brian Boyle and Cody McLeod in early February, then picked up forwards Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund just before the trade deadline.
A sign of how deep both teams are coming into the playoffs is that a couple of those acquisitions -- Oleksiak for the Stars and McCleod for the Predators -- will likely start the series as healthy scratches.
Both Stars coach Jim Montgomery and Laviolette have indicated that their teams are healthy and that all players on the active rosters should be available when the series opens Wednesday.
As far as team numbers, the Stars and Predators finished among the top five in the league in several goaltending categories during the regular season.
Among them, the Stars ranked second in 5-on-5 save percentage (.936), and the Predators were fifth (.928). Nashville ranked first in high-danger save percentage 5-on-5 (.867), and Dallas was second (.865). The Stars were third in overall team save percentage (.923), and the Predators were fourth (.914).
Stars goaltender Ben Bishop is coming off a career year, posting a 27-15-2 record, 1.98 goals-against average, .934 save percentage, which set a Stars franchise record, and seven shutouts. He's in the mix for the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the top goaltender in the league.
After the All-Star break, Bishop was spectacular with an 11-3-0 record, a 1.16 goals-against average, .962 save percentage and five shutouts.
Video: Stars excited for Game 1 against Predators
Bishop, who has 36 career playoff games and helped backstop the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, was slowed by injuries at times this season, sitting out 17 games, 11 with lower-body issues and six games with an upper-body injury.
When Bishop didn't play, either with injury or just due to scheduling, Anton Khudobin was superb filling the void. Khudobin was 16-17-5 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Khudobin, who was outstanding in his starts against Nashville this season, has one game of NHL playoff experience, and that was 27 minutes of relief work last season with Boston.
Pekka Rinne, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2017-18, had a solid season for the Predators, going 30-19-4 with a 2.42 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. Rinne, who has played 83 career playoff games and backstopped Nashville to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, finished the season strong, posting a 6-1-1 record over his final eight games with a 1.73 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.
Backup Juuse Saros was 17-10-2 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. Saros, who will turn 24 later this month, is considered the goalie of the future for the Predators and has been getting more starts each of the three years he's been in the league. He's got six games of NHL playoff experience, all in relief.
The Stars and Predators are among the stingiest teams in the league when it comes to goals against. Dallas ranked second in goals against (2.44/game), and Nashville ranked fourth (2.58/game). The Stars allowed the third fewest goals during 5-on-5 play (134) and the Predators the fourth fewest (148).
Scoring chance data varies, but the Stars were top 10 in fewest high-danger chances allowed 5-on-5, ninth in the NHL according to naturalstattrick.com, and sixth according to hockeyreference.com. The Predators ranked eighth in fewest shots allowed 5-on-5.
Nashville's group of top four defensemen is considered one of the best in the league, if not the best.
Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and P.K Subban carry the load on the blue line, especially at even strength. Dan Hamhuis is the fifth defenseman and Dante Fabbro, the team's first-round pick (17th overall) in the 2016 Draft, could be the sixth. Nashville signed Fabbro, who had been at Boston University, to an entry-level deal in late March, and he got in four games late in the regular season and played well. Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin round out the defense.
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Stars clinch a playoff spot
The Stars have a big three on the blue line: John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, and Miro Heiskanen.
Klingberg ranked fourth in the NHL in even-strength ice time per game during the regular season (20:48), Heiskanen was ninth (20:04), and Lindell was 11th (19:55). Veterans Roman Polak, who is usually paired with Heiskanen in the top four, and Ben Lovejoy, acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline, are the other two mainstays and along with Lindell eat up a lot of penalty kill minutes. Taylor Fedun, acquired from Buffalo early in the season, rounds out the top six.
Jamie Oleksiak is the seventh defenseman, and Julius Honka is the eighth, but he hasn't played in a game since Jan. 15.
The Stars likely will turn to center Radek Faksa and his line with Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau to try to shut down Nashville's top offensive line and play in other key defensive situations. Nashville's likely shutdown line will consist of Colton Sissons, Nick Bonino, and Austin Watson.
[BROADCAST INFO: How to watch, listen and live stream Game 1 in Nashville]
Offense has been an issue for the Stars who ranked 29th among the NHL's 31 teams in goal scoring at 2.55 per game. Nashville had some offensive issues as well due to injuries and a struggling power play and finished 19th in the league at 2.88 per game.
The Stars expected to be an offensive team at the start of the season, found out they weren't and won with defense and goaltending. Like last season, Dallas was top heavy when it came to goal scoring. Forwards Tyler Seguin (33), Radulov (29), and Jamie Benn (27) scored 42.6 percent of the team's 209 goals. Only Edmonton (52.0%) and Chicago (44.9%) had their top three pull a bigger load of the goal scoring. And the Stars' top three scored 53 percent of the goals by the team's forwards, who as a group ranked 30th in the league with 168 goals.
The return of Mats Zuccarello, acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Rangers, should be a big boost to the Dallas offense. Zuccarello, who suffered a broken arm in his Stars debut the day after the trade and missed five weeks, has played in just two games for the Stars, but he had an impact in both. With Zuccarello in the lineup, the Stars will be able to put together two scoring lines, something they've struggled to do all season.
Video: 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Don't Leave Empty-Handed
The Predators received 193 goals from their forward group, ranking 20th in the league in that category. Arvidsson led the way with a franchise-record 34 goals despite playing in only 58 games. Forsberg scored 28 despite missing 17 games, and Craig Smith scored 21. Overall, the Predators did have nine forwards score 10 or more.
Both teams got solid offensive contributions from defensemen. Dallas tied for ninth in the league with 41 goals from the blue line with Miro Heiskanen (12), Esa Lindell (11) and John Klingberg (10) hitting double figures and Klingberg missed 18 games.
The Predators ranked sixth in goals from defensemen (43) and fourth in points (197) with Roman Josi leading the way in both goals (15) and points (56).
The Stars special teams, as a whole, were top 10 in the NHL. The combined averages of the power play (21.0) and penalty kill (82.8) added up to 103.8, which ranked seventh in the NHL.
The Dallas power play ranked 11th with a 21 percent success rate, but the Stars didn't get on it a lot, ranking 28th in power-play opportunities. Tyler Seguin led the Stars in power-play goals (9) and points (27). Jamie Benn ranked second in goals (8), and Alexander Radulov was third in goals (7) and second in points (23).
The Dallas penalty kill was pretty consistent throughout the season and finished fifth in the league. Dallas goaltenders had the third-best save percentage on the penalty kill (.884) and the best high-danger save percentage (.857).
Video: DAL@CGY: Radulov goes coast to coast on power play
Nashville's combined special team percentages were 95.0, which ranked 27th in the league. The Predators power play didn't help. It ranked last in the league at 12.9 percent. Nashville was good at getting on the power play, ranking sixth in the league in opportunities, but just couldn't capitalize at a decent clip.
Forsberg led the Predators with 7 power-play goals, and Ryan Johansen was tops with 16 points, all of them assists.
Nashville's penalty kill was strong, ranking sixth in the league at 82.1 percent. Nashville was shorthanded 251 times during the regular season, eighth most in the league.
Stars-Predators has the makings of a great series. These are two teams with a growing rivalry, and they will take center stage next January when they meet in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas.
Both teams are stingy defensively and are strong in net. The Stars need to find a way to generate some offense, and the acquisition of Zuccarello should be a big boost. He played in only two games -- and left both early -- but his impact was evident. He gives the Stars the ability to roll out two legitimate scoring lines, most likely lining up with Benn and Roope Hintz, while Seguin centers Jason Dickinson and Radulov. The Stars were also encouraged by the production from the Faksa line away from home late in the season.
Forsberg, Johansen, and Arvidsson give Nashville an excellent and productive top line, but they'll need some help from the second line of Granlund, Kyle Turris, and Smith. Turris had a rough season, missing extensive time with injuries and getting scratched at one point in the season. He tallied just 23 points in 55 games.
Special teams will be key. Both teams are strong on the penalty kill. Dallas finished hot on the power play and, again, Zuccarello should be a boost. The Predators' anemic power play could be an issue for them.
Video: NSH@DAL: Lindell, Seguin score to put Stars ahead
And don't ignore the first goal of the game. The Predators were an impressive 35-4-1 when scoring first this season and 12-25-5 when they didn't. The Stars were 32-9-2 when scoring first and 11-23-5 when the opposition scored first.
Just seven points separated the two teams over the 82-game schedule, that's three wins and an overtime/shootout loss. The season series was tight. Nashville won three games, but two were in 3-on-3 overtime, which isn't played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Like any playoff series, a few breaks or bounces here and there can be big. Key injuries can turn the tide as well. But all indications are that this has the potential to be a good, tight first-round series.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mark Stepneski has covered the Stars for DallasStars.com since 2012. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.