How they got here
The Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues were the lower seeds in their respective first-round playoff series, but it should be no surprise that they advanced to the second round. Among the eight Western Conference playoff teams, the Stars and Blues were the two best after the All-Star break. St. Louis had the top record in the West after the break at 23-6-4 (50 points), while the Stars were 19-11-3 (41 points).
Both teams overcame adversity before taking off on those post-break runs.
The Stars were hit hard by injuries early in the season, especially on defense, but were able to keep their heads above water thanks to players such as Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, and Roman Polak stepping up and AHL call-ups filling holes. The Stars, who were called out for a "culture of mediocrity" in the middle of January by coach Jim Montgomery, hit their stride after the break by getting together and committing to a strong defensive identity that was backed by superb goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.
"I think we've [changed that culture]," Montgomery said. "If you are in that locker room, you see that culture now. You see how much more professional we are. We work efficiently, we work effectively, and we work together. That's what you need to have. We're going to be eight of 31 teams left, so we're doing something right.
"We hope not to be done, but we know we are facing a really good team next."
The Blues got off to a slow start this season, fired head coach Mike Yeo in November and replaced him with Craig Berube. They continued to struggle and were in last place in the league in early January, but started to turn things around just before the break and finished third in the Central Division.
Video: Blues set to face Stars in Second Round of playoffs
Rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, who took over the net in early January, was superb, the team in front of him was tight, and there was a lot of balance in the offensive attack.
"I guess within this locker room we had a lot of tough conversations and honest conversations about what we needed to do to get better," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "We still had belief in this room, as hard as it was for some people to believe. We felt like we still had a chance and we just kept pushing."
The Stars, the first wild card in the West, defeated Nashville, the Central Division champions, in six games in Round 1. The Stars overcame a 2-1 series deficit, winning the final three games of the series, including a 2-1 overtime win in Game 6. The Stars rode some great goaltending by Bishop, a strong penalty kill that went 15-for-15 in the series, a big performance by the top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov in the series, and by shutting down Nashville's top line.
The Blues, the third seed in the Central Division, knocked off second-seeded Winnipeg in six games, winning all three games on the road in the series. They shut down Winnipeg's top line in the final two games of the series and prevailed in third periods during the series, including overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the final 20 minutes to win Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.
The Stars and Blues have met 14 times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the last time coming in 2016 when St. Louis defeated Dallas in seven games in the second round.
Both teams come into the matchup relatively healthy. The only injury for Dallas is defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who is day-to-day with a lower-body injury and is out for Game 1. St. Louis has no reported injuries.
The series will feature two of the top goaltenders during the regular season.
Dallas' Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist, led the league in save percentage (.934), ranked second in goals against average (1.98) and finished third in shutouts (seven). He has been superb in the playoffs as well. Among postseason goaltenders Bishop ranks third in GAA (1.90) and second in save percentage (.945). He allowed two goals or fewer in four of the six games in the first round against Nashville and stopped 47 of 48 shots in Dallas' 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 that clinched the series.
Backup Anton Khudobin had an excellent regular season, posting a 2.57 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. He has one game of NHL playoff experience, and that was 27 minutes of relief work last season with Boston.
Video: Stars ready to prove themselves once again in Round 2
St. Louis goaltender Jordan Binnington, a 25-year-old rookie, led the NHL in goals-against average (1.89), was fourth in save percentage (.927) and tied for seventh in shutouts (5) and was a key reason for the Blues' second-half turnaround after grabbing the net in early January.
His numbers weren't as spectacular in the first round against Winnipeg (2.63/.908), but take away a 6-3 loss in Game 3 of the series, and he was very good and allowed two goals or fewer in four of the other five games.
Backup Jake Allen had an up-and-down season with a 2.83 goals against average and .905 save percentage. He has 23 games of NHL playoff experience including, 19 starts.
After the All-Star break, the Stars and Blues tied for the NHL lead in goals against with both teams allowing 2.18 goals per game. Overall, the Stars finished the season second in goals against (2.44/game) and the Blues were fifth (2.68). According to naturalstattrick.com, the Blues allowed the third-fewest high-danger chances 5-on-5 in the regular season and the Stars the ninth-fewest. Both teams were tough nuts to crack.
The Stars allowed just 12 goals in six games (2.0 per game) in the first-round series to Nashville. A big part of that was the Stars ability to shut down Nashville's top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson, who tallied just four points (two goals, two assists) in the series.
The Stars' third line of Andrew Cogliano, Radek Faksa, and Blake Comeau played a big role as did the team's big three on defense: Esa Lindell, John Klingberg, and Miro Heiskanen, who all saw a lot of ice time against Nashville's top line.
Video: NSH@DAL, Gm6: Klingberg scores in OT for series win
Outside of one game, the Blues did a good job of keeping Winnipeg's high-octane offense in check in the first round and allowed 2.67 goals per game. Winnipeg's top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler was productive in the first four games, but the Blues kept that trio quiet in winning Games 5 and 6 to take the series.
In the final two games, the Jets' top trio saw a lot of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Oskar Sundqvist up front, and Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester on the backend. The Blues also got a strong effort from the line of Pat Maroon, Tyler Bozak and Robert Thomas, which did a nice job on Winnipeg's second line late in the series.
Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues captain, is the big-minute man on defense for St. Louis. Center Ryan O'Reilly, one of the game's top two-way players, is a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward.
The Stars struggled to score during the regular season, ranking 29th in the league at 2.55 goals per game, and a lot of the load was pulled by the big three of Tyler Seguin (33), Alexander Radulov (29) and Jamie Benn (27), who accounted for 42.6 percent of the team's 209 goals.
In the first round, the Stars found some more offense, scoring 18 goals in the six games (3.0 per game). The big three's share of the goals was down to 38.9 percent (7 of 18) as more players chipped in offensively. Mats Zuccarello, the team's key trade deadline acquisition, scored three goals and his return from a long-term injury helped the Stars finally be able to put together two scoring lines.
As the series moved along, Zuccarello was playing on a line with Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz, who both scored two goals in the series. The Stars received goals from their third line with Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau scoring once each.
Video: Stars finish off Predators in six games to advance
The Stars, who ranked 30th during the regular season in goals scored by forwards, got 16 from the forward group in the first round, tied for fourth in the playoffs with three other teams including St. Louis.
The Blues were middle of the pack in offense during the regular season, scoring 2.98 per game but were ninth in the league after the All-Star break at 3.18 per game. Vladimir Taraskeno (33), Ryan O'Reilly (28), and David Perron (23) led the way.
Jaden Schwartz, who scored just 11 in 69 during the regular season, was tops in the first round with four goals - all of them in the final two games of the series, including a hat trick in the series clincher. Tarasenko, O'Reilly, Perron, and Oskar Sundqvist all chipped in two each.
The Stars' special teams were strong during the regular season with the penalty kill ranking fifth in the league and the power play ranking 11th. And they were better than Nashville's in the first round. The penalty kill went 15-for-15 against a Nashville power play that was the worst in the league during the regular season.
The Dallas power play was up and down and went 4-for-22 in the series, but came up big in Game 1 and 4 of the series.
Video: NSH@DAL, Gm4: Radulov doubles the lead with PPG
The Blues were good on special teams during the regular season, ranking ninth on the penalty kill and 10th on the power play, and they were even better after the All-Star break, ranking third on both the power play and the penalty kill.
The St. Louis power play was good in the first round, going 5-for-19 (26.3 percent) -- all the goals coming in the last four games. The penalty kill was 11-for-14 against Winnipeg, but it did not allow a goal in the last three games.
This has the look of a great series.
The Stars and Blues both have been playing well for a long stretch and have been top teams in the West since the All-Star break. And both are in the second round after solid first-round series wins over very good teams. Both are strong in net, both play strong defensively, both have had balanced offensive attacks in the playoffs, and both are strong on special teams.
The Stars won three of four in the season series, but that goes out the window during the playoffs. The Stars had lost three of five against Nashville during the regular season and still advanced in the first round, The Blues had lost three of four to the Jets during the regular season and still moved on to Round 2.
There will be plenty of areas to watch in the series. The goaltending battle between the veteran Ben Bishop and rookie Jordan Binnington will be one. Will experience be an edge for Bishop? Binnington lost just five times in regulation during the regular season, two of them at the hands of the Stars.
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Dallas advances to Second Round
Special teams, where both teams are strong, will be key. The Stars' penalty kill was perfect against a weak Nashville power play in the first round, but it will see a much better one with St. Louis.
Both teams found a way to shut down the opposition's top players in winning their first-round series, so that could be key. And if a team's key players are quiet, can others step up? Both teams were able to get scoring down the lineup in Round 1.
Like any series, bounces, breaks, injuries, or calls could be factors. You just had to watch the third period of Game 7 between San Jose and Vegas to see how a major penalty call on Cody Eakin changed the complexion of that game and the series.
But chances are execution in key areas and at key times in games will be the difference in the series between the Stars and Blues because it doesn't appear there is much separating the two teams. So, grab onto something and hang on because it should be a good one.
For complete postseason coverage, visit Stars Playoff Central.
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.