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On the Radar: More to prove

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars
It was an impressive season for the Dallas Stars. The team won their first division since 2006, and head into the playoffs as the #1 seed in the West for the first time since 2003. Their 109 points were the fourth-most by any Dallas team, and second most in the NHL this year. There were also a host of individual and team records set by the club. While they forced the league to notice and respect them this season, one question among skeptics remains.

Can a team who plays like Dallas win in the playoffs?

The doubts surrounding the Stars come from their offensive-minded approach. The playoffs aren't suited for that, we're told. It's built for defense-first teams. There are a few arguments behind that belief. A couple are that the opposition is better and the games tighten up as the stakes rise.

With that in mind, the Stars went 28-12-5 this season against teams that made the playoffs. That's a .678 points-percentage. They led the league, and it wasn't even close. Second place were the LA Kings, who went 24-14-3 (.622). In fact, strangely enough, the Stars had a better record against playoff teams than they did against clubs that missed the postseason. The Stars have had no problem rising to the occasion when facing the best the league has to offer.

As for tightening up, the Stars had to fight off two of the best teams in the NHL in St. Louis and Chicago to win the Central Division. In a three-team race down the stretch, Dallas emerged thanks to a terrific finish. At a time when the games are most important, typically get tighter, and often need more than 60 minutes to decide a winner, the Stars went 12-3-2 after March 1. Furthermore, their dozen wins all came in regulation.

But there were still the goals allowed. On display for all to see.

The Stars finished tied for 19th in the league in goals-against with 2.78/game. That number is higher than any other playoff team. That can be a sobering statistic, and it's the central thesis of those doubting Dallas. Teams in the bottom-half of goals-against just are not supposed to contend.

However, while the Stars unapologetically play a higher-risk brand of hockey than most, the severity of that number might be a bit misleading. Their season-long GAA ballooned thanks to a very rough two months in January and February. From New Year's Day through March 1, Dallas gave up 91 goals in 26 games, an average of 3.5/game. If they do that in the playoffs, they will not live to tell about it. During those months, they barely did, going 10-12-4, playing their worst hockey of the season.

Aside from those months though, Dallas allowed just 2.44 goals/game over 56 contests. Specifically, late in the season, the Stars cleaned up drastically. Over the final ten games, the Stars gave up just 19 goals. That's less than two a game. Meanwhile, their production did not drop as a result. The Stars scored 3.4 goals per game, ahead of their league-leading season average. Other key stats followed suit. The Stars power play over that span was 20%. The penalty kill was 93.9%.

Along those lines, goaltending - specifically save percentage - is another question mark often brought up in a debate against the Stars. For the second straight year Dallas finished near the bottom in this category. Again however, if you remove the first two months of 2016, you find a different story. The overall team save percentage was .904 this season. Yet in those 56 games mentioned before, the combined save percentage for Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi rose to .915. In case you're wondering, that's a number that ranks top-10 in the NHL. Down the stretch, the duo posted a .934 save percentage in their final ten games. It was the second-best mark in the NHL over that span.

The Stars can't be completely exonerated for their January and February performance. A team that plays like they did in those two months won't last very long over the next two. But the point of these numbers is to show that January and February look more like the exception than the norm when viewing the entirety of the season.

Stars personnel has also shifted since March. Defensive upgrades like Kris Russell, Stephen Johns, and Radek Faksa became staples of the lineup. To get an idea of how dialed in to a 200-foot game this team is now, a club that made headlines with acquisitions of centers Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza in recent summers, will likely go into Game 1 with either one or both not playing down the middle. Instead players like Faksa, Cody Eakin, and Vern Fiddler will round out the list.

Maybe the question isn't whether or not an all-offense team can win in the playoffs. Maybe it's, "Are the Stars really the one-dimensional team some make them out to be?"

There is no debating the Stars strongest asset. They are led by their offense, and their potent attack can give them a larger margin for error than other teams. None of this is meant to suggest otherwise. However, being strong offensively does not have to go hand in hand with disregarding defense. The Stars have shown the ability to handle both ends of the ice this season much more often than they have not.

Regardless of what numbers they post in goals-for, goals-against, save percentage, or any other statistical category, the Stars really just need to be one better than their opponent on the scoreboard. That's something they did with great consistency throughout the season. The offense stole the story, but Dallas proved this year that they can win games in different fashions.

The Stars did not fluke their way to the top of the conference. They were a season-long powerhouse. Dallas spent 135 of 186 days this year in first place of the toughest division in hockey. They are also among the hottest teams in the NHL heading into the postseason. The Stars took one of the toughest schedules in the league and plowed through it, leaving the rest of the Western Conference in their wake. In doing so, they answered a lot of doubters.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs now bring a new slate of questions. With a banner season behind them, the Stars are eager to start answering all over again.

On Thursday night, the Stars and Minnesota Wild begin their first ever playoff series. Dallas is making just their second trip to the playoffs in the last eight years, and Minnesota is in for the fourth consecutive season. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin:

The Stars are guaranteed home ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. That has been rarity for Dallas, who has not hosted a Game 1 since the first round of the 2006 playoffs. In fact, Thursday night will be just the fourth time ever that the Stars are opening a series at American Airlines Center. They had home ice advantage in Rounds 1 and 2 in 2003, in addition to 2006. The Stars are looking to change history after losing Game 1 in all three of those series. A victory on Thursday would be the team's first in a series-opening home game since they left Reunion Arena in 2001.

The Stars head into the playoffs with some very experienced guys on their roster. Offseason acquisitions of Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya were made with April in mind. All told, the Stars have nine combined Stanley Cup titles on their roster. However, at the other end of the spectrum, the Stars have a number of inexperienced players in the NHL postseason. Half of the 26 players on the postseason roster have six or fewer career NHL playoff games. That list includes captain, Jamie Benn. Benn, along with his brother Jordie join Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel, Val Nichushkin, Colton Sceviour, and Patrik Nemeth all made their NHL postseason debut two years ago in the opening round against Anaheim. Additionally, John Klingberg, Mattias Janmark, Radek Faksa, Stephen Johns, Jamie Oleksiak, and Brett Ritchie have never played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

On paper the Stars power play versus the Wild penalty kill is a mismatch. The Stars finished 4th this season with a 22.1% power play conversion. Meanwhile, Minnesota had the fourth-worst penalty kill at 77.9%. However, the Wild surrendered the tenth-fewest power play goals this season. That's because Minnesota was the least penalized team in the NHL this season. Their opponents averaged fewer than two-and-a-half power play chances per game. Staying out of the box will be paramount for the Wild. Dallas might be lethal once up a man against Minnesota's PK unit, but if the Wild don't take penalties, Stars chances will be limited.

Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.

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