After battling down to the final day of the regular season for the Central Division title and the top seed in the Western Conference, the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues now meet in the second-round of the playoffs.
The Stars, who won the Central Division and Western Conference race, ousted Minnesota in six games in round one, winning a playoff series for the first time since 2008.
“We’re proud of what we accomplished in the regular season, we’re proud of getting out of the first round against a tough Minnesota team,” said Stars forward Patrick Sharp. “And we’re excited about the future, and that future starts round two against the Blues.”
The Blues defeated Chicago – last season’s Stanley Cup champions – in seven games to advance to the second round for the first time since 2012.
“Whether it was Chicago or anybody else, I think we showed a lot of resilience out there in that series; there's a lot to be proud of,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “The guys played some really good hockey, and I think it brought us even closer together than we already were.”
The Blues defeated the Stars in four of the five meetings during the regular season, but overall it was a tight series. Three of St. Louis’ wins came in three-on-three overtime or the shootout, which won’t factor into the playoffs. In regulation play, the two teams both scored ten goals.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge. We had some tight games in the regular season, and it’s going to be a tight playoff series,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “It looks like they are on top of their game, so it should be a good one.”
The Stars expect a physical series from the Blues, who were credited with a league-high 283 hits in the first round of the playoffs.
“They’re obviously a physical team,” said Dallas defenseman Alex Goligoski. “They’re going to play with a lot of structure, get above pucks. I guess that’s what you would look at if you were to describe their team, they’re going to play with a lot of structure, defend hard, try to get on the forecheck and create offense that way. “
The Blues saw a fast team that played with a lot a pace in Chicago and they expect to see the same with the Stars in round two.
“I think there's going to be a lot of similarities. They're a type of team that obviously plays a fast style of game,” said Blues forward Steve Ott. “They have some tremendous high-end skill and they (have) very similar attributes to a Chicago, the way that they're built. Obviously, bringing over [former Blackhawks Johnny] Oduya and [Patrick] Sharp I'm sure add to that mix as well, so collectively it's probably going to be a very similar series, but I think they'll probably be a little bit more physical than Chicago.”
The series will feature some of the league’s top goal scorers. Dallas’ Jamie Benn ranked third in the league with 41 goals during the regular season. St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko ranked fourth with 40 goals. Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza both scored 33 goals, which tied them for tenth most in the NHL.
It appears the Stars will start the series without Seguin, and there is still no indication of when he might return. Seguin missed the final ten games of the regular season and the playoff opener against Minnesota due to a cut to his Achilles tendon. He returned for Game 2 against the Wild but suffered an injury related to the Achilles injury. He hasn’t skated since and the Stars haven’t offered a guess as to when he might start.
Even with Seguin out, the Stars still were able to generate plenty of offense in the first-round series against Minnesota. Benn and Spezza came up big in the series, both tallying four goals in the six games. Patrick Sharp chipped in three. Overall, eight different Dallas forwards scored 17 goals in the series.
“I think with the parity in the league and how close teams are I think our depth has definitely gotten us through some tough times,” Spezza said. “I think having that depth has allowed us to finish first, and that’s what’s allowed us to get through a playoff round and will continue to give us success. All year we’ve been a four-line team, using all our D and using both goalies, so it does keep everybody involved and makes sure everybody’s contributing.”
The Blues, who battled injuries all season, are healthy coming into the series, including at the forward position. The Blues got 15 goals from nine different forwards in their first-round series. Tarasenko led the way with four and Jaden Schwartz tallied three. The Blues have some big physical forwards, but they have some skill as well.
“They’ve got a little bit of a different look with Tarasenko and [Robby] Fabbri and Schwartz back now. They definitely have guys that can play offense too,” Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “I don’t think they’re as big and tough as they maybe have been in years past, they have a little bit more offense and skill in their game than they have in past years.”
The Blues ranked fifth in faceoffs during the regular season and won 50.7 percent against Chicago in the first round. The Stars won 51.2 percent against Minnesota in round one led by rookie Radek Faksa, who won 55 percent of his draws.
The Stars went with the same defensemen and defense pairs in five of the six games in the first round series with the Wild. The only time they made a change was when Kris Russell missed Game 3 due to illness and Jordie Benn was inserted into the lineup.
Other than that the defense pairs were: Alex Goligoski-John Klingberg; Johnny Oduya-Stephen Johns; Russell-Jason Demers. Each pair consisted of a left-handed and a right-handed defenseman, something Stars coach Lindy Ruff likes.
“I think our puck movement has been good,” Ruff said. “The advantage we have on those two is you can make passes off both flanks, you can make cross-ice passes, you can find a guy in the middle because you’re on your forehand.”
The Blues were focused on physical play in the first round against Chicago, and the Stars defense expects to see some ramped up physical play in round two.
“I think Minnesota has big players, but they don’t have those hard hitters who try to chase you around and hit you all the time,” said Klingberg. “It’s going to be a little bit different series here, more like probably ‘playoff hockey’ like you guys [in the media] call it. We had it against Minnesota too, but I think it’s going to be a lot more physical now.”
The Blues used seven defensemen in the first round of the playoffs, but the big four were Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and Colton Parayko. Carl Gunnarsson played in six of the seven games and Joe Edmundson (five games), and Roberto Bortuzzo (three games) also played in the first-round series.
Pietrangelo was outstanding for St. Louis, averaging more than 30 minutes of ice time per game and registering six points (one goal, five assists) in the series.
"Well, he's played necessary minutes for us because of the significant opposition. He was the one guy that could play against two lines, and so we used him in big minutes because of it,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “We would like it being shared a little bit more in the next series, so that's why we mean other guys are going to have to step up. I don't think it's going to do him any justice if we continue to have to play him double matchups. So, we’d like to have it more singular if we could.”
The Blues defense has size, mobility, and skill. Of the seven defensemen who played in the first round, Gunnarsson is the smallest at 196 pounds. The other six range from 202 to 226 pounds.
“They’ve got a backend I think is, and I’ve said this all along, I think one of the best in the league,” said Ruff. “Them and Nashville really where they’ve got size, you’ve got mobility, and they’ve got some veteran guys with a ton of experience.”
As they did during the regular season, the Stars relied on two goaltenders during the playoff series with Minnesota. Kari Lehtonen played four of the six games, posting a 3-1 record, 2.27 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. He won Games 1, 2 and 6 for the Stars. Antti Niemi played two games, posting a 1-1 record, 3.36 goals-against average and .870 save percentage. He won Game 4 of the series.
For Lehtonen, it was his first series win.
“That’s important. It’s a good experience, and it’s good that I have had it,” Lehtonen said. “I feel my game has been in a good place for the last two and a half months, so I think that gives me confidence. Then, when you have confidence, and you get that result, it tells me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
The Stars felt the two-goaltender system worked in the regular season with both goaltenders winning 25 games as the Stars finished with the best record in the Western Conference. Stars coach Lindy Ruff felt it worked in the first round as well.
“I liked our goaltending. It gave us a chance to win the series,” Ruff said. “I think the thing that you’ve got to realize with [Lehtonen], this is his first win too.”
Brian Elliott (38 starts) and Jake Allen (44 starts) split time in the St. Louis net during the regular season. Both missed time due to injury. Elliott got the call in the first round against Chicago, playing all seven games and posting a 2.40 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
“We've got two really good No. 1 goalies. We're lucky from a coaching standpoint that either way it's a no-brainer for us,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “Ells got the start in the series because he had finished the regular season well and Jake was hurt. It could have gone the other way, but Brian stepped up, and I'm sure if we decide we're going to have to play Jake at some period of time, then he's going to do the same thing because they've done it all year. Without them, we wouldn't have even been a playoff team.”
Both the Stars and Blues had strong special teams during the regular season, ranking in the top ten in both power play and penalty kill. The Stars were fourth on the power play (22.1 percent) and tenth on the penalty kill (82.3 percent). The Blues ranked third on the penalty kill (85.1 percent) and sixth on the power play (21.5 percent).
It was a mixed bag on special teams in the first-round of the playoffs for both teams. The Stars were 4-19 (21.0 percent) on the power play and 12-16 (75.0 percent) on the penalty kill, ranking 12th among 16 playoff teams. The Blues were 5-18 (27.8 percent) on the power play, and 13-19 (68.4 percent) on the penalty kill, ranking 15th among the 16 playoff teams.
Stars coach Lindy Ruff and Blues coach Ken Hitchcock will meet for the third time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Hitchcock’s Dallas Stars defeated Ruff’s Buffalo Sabres in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final. Ruff’s Buffalo Sabres defeated Hitchcock’s Philadelphia Flyers in the 2006 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
The résumés speak for themselves. Hitchcock ranks fourth on the NHL’s all-time wins list (757) and Ruff ranks fifth (702). Hitchcock is 11th in playoff wins (80), and Ruff is tied for 13th (63). The two have had their share of battles over the years, but worked together on the coaching staff for Team Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics and have become friends. But that friendship will be on hold for the next couple weeks. It’s all business.
“I’m going to try to make it as tough on him as he’s going to try to make it on me,” said Ruff. “We both understand each other’s coaching style and what I believe in and what he believes in, and we’ve shared a lot of those thoughts through a couple Olympics.
“Facing Ken is a challenge. He’s a good coach. Matchups are going to be tough, details are going to be tough. There’s a reason he’s coached so long.”
Said Hitchcock: “For me, Lindy's always been more of a risk-taker. His teams in Buffalo, they played with a high level of risk. They were really almost hybrid teams. And then obviously you learn over time to coach through balance. That's why he's had success in Dallas. He's got the team playing through significant balance.
“I think we've both learned from each other. We had a lot of dialogue and a lot of debate under a lot of very stressful pressure situations. I thought both of us leaned on each other pretty hard to help Team Canada through stuff.”
The Stars and Blues offer an intriguing matchup. They were the top two teams in the Central Division and Western Conference. The Stars rely heavily on speed and skill. The Blues lean on teams with a physical style. The Stars were the highest scoring team in the NHL during the regular season. The Blues were among the best at keeping pucks out of their net. Both will look to play to their strengths, but neither team is one dimensional. The Stars have added some physical elements to their game and their defensive play was strong down the stretch. The Blues have some speed, skill, and offensive pop as well.
“I think both teams, us and Dallas, don't get credit ... we're better at things that people think we're not, and they're better at things,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “They've got elements in their game that people think aren't their strengths, but when you coach against them, they're a lot stronger in those areas than people think, and we're the same. We're a lot quicker than people think we are. Some of it is in our puck movement, and some of it is just flat out we're quicker than people realize until you play us.”
Still, the Blues won’t be looking to trade chances with the Stars.
“We can't get into a track meet with this team; we'll be in a world of hurt,” Blues captain David Backes said. “When we play our game, our checking game and stay in their face, don't give them much free, easy ice, then we'll maybe have the advantage. But playing that game takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of commitment throughout the lineup.”
And the Stars don’t want to get into a grind it out, physical game with the Blues.
“Our system is built a little bit more on speed,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “Theirs is built more on trying to wear you out, and they’ve got some players that are heavy on the puck. I feel that with a couple of our changes to our lineup we’re heavier now too. It’s important that we get to our spots quickly so that we don’t play the grind game. They’re going to have pockets of their grind game, and it’s how we handle that and defend that. I don’t think we’re going to totally deny that part, but if we can get to our spots quickly and exit the zone, we can deny some of that grind game.”
Like any series, goaltending and special teams will be key. Teams need a few bounces and breaks to get through a series. And injuries can play a big factor as well.
Getting through the first round was big for both the Stars and Blues. Now both teams are looking to take another big step.
“I think it’s deserved that we end up playing each other because we end up finishing one-two,” said Ruff. “It should be a heck of a series.”
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.