The NHL’s realignment plan took the Dallas Stars out of the Pacific Division and put them in the newly configured Central Division this season, but the Stars find themselves back in the Pacific under the league’s new division-based playoff format. And they’ll be facing a familiar foe in the first round – the Anaheim Ducks.
The Stars have fared well against the Ducks over the years. They won two of the three games against Anaheim this season.
“We know them well and we’ve had some success against them,” said defenseman Alex Goligoski. “They’re fast and they’re a bigger team, and they obviously had a great season. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Stars claimed the final playoff spot in the Western Conference on the final weekend of the season, ending a streak of five straight years of no postseason play.
“It’s special, but the work continues,” Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen said. “We need to keep going. We need to not think about what happened in the past, but look to the future.”
The Ducks locked up a playoff spot early and then wrapped up the top seed in the Western Conference on the final weekend. Now, they’ll be looking to make some noise in the playoffs, something they were unable to do last year when they lost to Detroit in the first round despite being the No. 2 seed in the West.
“We’ve been waiting for the playoffs for a long time. This team is ready. We have a really good team. I think we have all the tools here,” said Ducks forward Teemu Selanne. “There’s a lot of hard work ahead, but everything is possible. It’s great to go after our dream. It’s very disappointing how last year ended. This is the time to prove that we can do this.”
Both teams played well down the stretch. The Stars put together an 8-4-0 over their final 12 games of the regular season. The Ducks were 9-2-1 over their final 12 games.
This will be the third time the Stars and Ducks have met in the playoffs. Dallas won 4-2 2008 Western Conference Quarterfinal. The Ducks won 4-2 in the second round of the 2003 Western Conference Semifinal.
The forward matchup will feature some marquee names, four of the top of ten scorers in the league and two of the NHL’s dynamic duos. The Stars have Tyler Seguin (fourth in the NHL in scoring with 84 points) and Jamie Benn (tied for eighth with 79 points). The Ducks have Ryan Getzlaf (second in scoring with 87 points) and Corey Perry (fifth with 82 points).
Both teams have received some depth scoring as well. Ryan Garbutt scored 17 goals for the Stars and Erik Cole and Cody Eakin scored 16 each. Valeri Nichushkin (14), Antoine Roussel (13) and Alex Chiasson (13) also hit double figures for the Stars, who ranked 10th in the league in scoring at 2.82 per game.
The Ducks have two 20-goal scorers in Nick Bonino (22) and Andrew Cogliano (21). Mathieu Perreault tallied 18. There are four other forwards who reached double figures in goals as well for the Ducks, who led the NHL in goal scoring at 3.21 per game.
“They have a pair that’s had a dynamic year. We’ve had a pair that’s had a dynamic year,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “The depth and speed of the forwards are kind of the same. We are kind of built the same. We play fairly similar styles. … We have to make sure against their two big boys, we don’t give them a lot of room and a lot of time because they are great hockey players.”
“They have a lot of speed,” Ducks defenseman Stephane Robidas said of the Stars. “They have a lot of good, young players and a lot of skill. They’re whole game is based around speed, so we have to limit their speed, don’t let them generate too much speed and I think we’ve got to play in their zone, down low in their zone. That’s the key I think.”
The Stars should get a boost with the return of veteran forward Ray Whitney, who missed the final five games due to a lower body injury.
The Ducks will be without physical forward Tim Jackman, who is sidelined with a broken hand.
The Stars defense, considered the weak link coming into 2013-14, has taken some big strides over the course of the season. Leading the way are Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, who are the team’s top pair and were impressive down the stretch.
“To see the progression in Daley and Goligoski the last few years, they’ve been knocked a little bit that they can’t win, so it’s nice to see them become winners,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “They’ve taken the team on their back.”
The Stars also got a big year out of Jordie Benn, who went from battling for a regular spot at the beginning of the season to being in the team’s top four along with Brenden Dillon by the end of the season. Dillon is questionable for Game 1 with a lower body injury.
Veteran Sergei Gonchar and late season call up Patrik Nemeth, a 2010 draft pick, made up the third pair down the stretch. Veteran Aaron Rome and slick skating Kevin Connauton provided the depth and one of those two could be in if Dillon isn’t ready to start the series.
Cam Fowler and Francois Beauchemin are the big minute guys for the Ducks. Fowler just returned to the lineup after missing three weeks with a knee issue. Stephane Robidas, acquired from the Stars prior to the trade deadline, has logged more than 20 minutes per game since joining the Ducks.
Hampus Lindholm ranked second among all rookies with a plus-29 rating. Ben Lovejoy had a solid season for the Ducks. Bryan Allen, Luca Sbisa and Sami Vatanen round out the rest of Anaheim’s defense group.
Former Star Mark Fistric, who battled injuries down the stretch, has been sent to the AHL on a conditioning assignment.
Kari Lehtonen is the man in goal for the Stars and he came up big down the stretch, posting an 8-3-0 record, 1.90 goals against average, .937 save percentage and two shutouts as the Stars secured the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.
Despite missing eight games with injury, Lehtonen still led NHL goaltenders in games played (65) and posted a 33-20-10 record, 2.41 goals against average, .919 save percentage and a career-high five shutouts.
“His play has been tremendous,” said Ruff. “I put a pretty big workload on him from the start of the season, saying you are going to be the guy. We are going to play you back-to-back and we are going to expect you to play some long stretches. I think he has answered every call.”
This will be Lehtonen’s second trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He played two games with Atlanta in 2007, going 0-2-0 with a 5.59 goals against average and .839 save percentage.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It was a different animal,” Lehtonen said of his 2007 experience. “Now I’ve grown up and it was such a long time ago. I think I am going to be better prepared this time and hopefully I can do very well.”
The Stars brought in veteran Tim Thomas at the trade deadline. In Thomas, who won a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011, the Stars have a proven playoff performer as a backup.
The Ducks’ goaltending situation is up in the air with Boudreau undecided if he’ll go with veteran Jonas Hiller or one of the two rookies on his roster – Frederik Andersen or John Gibson.
Hiller, who has struggled, lost his last three starts, giving up 11 goals on 57 shots. Andersen had a solid rookie campaign, posting a 20-5-0 record, 2.29 goals against average and .923 save percentage. The highly touted Gibson was impressive in three starts since joining the Ducks late in the season, posting a 2-0-1 record, 1.33 goals against average and .954 save percentage.
“We’re in position with three good goalies,” said Boudreau. “I don’t think I can screw it up too bad whoever I choose.”
Neither the Stars nor Ducks had particularly strong special teams. The Stars ranked 23rd on the power play at 15.9 percent, although they did show improvement over the course of the season and ranked 15th after the Olympic break at 17.6 percent.
The Ducks were just ahead of them, ranking 22nd at 16.0 percent for the season, but dropped off after the Olympic break, ranking 30th in the league at 9.9 percent.
The Stars ranked 21st on the penalty kill at 81.4 percent, while Anaheim was 13th at 82.2 percent. The numbers were similar after the break with the Stars at 82.7 percent and the Ducks at 82.6 percent, ranking 15th and 16th in league, respectively.
Lindy Ruff is in his first season as head coach of the Stars and helped guide them to their first playoff berth since 2008.
Ruff has a good track record in the playoffs, posting a 57-44 mark in his time with the Buffalo Sabres and making it to the Stanley Cup Final once and to the Eastern Conference Finals three other times.
Bruce Boudreau is in his third season with the Ducks, taking over in the middle of the 2011-12 campaign. Boudreau he helped lead the Ducks to a record-setting campaign in which they set franchise marks for wins (54), points (116) and points percentage (.707).
He’s had some good regular season teams, but he’s never made it past the second round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has a 20-24 record in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Stars will come into the series as the underdogs. That’s no surprise. They are the eighth seed and Anaheim finished with the most points in the Western Conference and second most in the league behind Boston.
But the Stars played well against the Ducks this season and had some good showings against top teams throughout the campaign.
“The good thing for us is we’ve played against the best teams in the league and we’ve beaten them this year. So we know we can play, it’s just a matter of executing our game,” said Stars forward Shawn Horcoff. “There is going to be pressure and it’s going to be interesting to see how we handle the pressure, but I think we’ve done a good job of that coming down the stretch because we’ve had to play some big time pressure games. There have been some games where we haven’t handle it well, and that’s a good thing because we’ve had to face some adversity.”
There will be pressure on the Ducks as well, especially as the top seed and as a team that didn’t live up to expectations last season, falling in the first round despite an excellent regular season.
“The way we felt last year after losing in the first round, that was not fun. I hope everybody is going to remember that. That’s going to help us,” said Selanne. “Taking the next step in the playoffs it’s a mission for us. We’ll go from there.”
There will be a different kind of pressure for many of the players in the series since it will be their first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs. There are 13 Stars who have not played in the NHL’s postseason tournament and eight Ducks.
There’s also plenty of experience. Dallas has seven Stanley Cup winners on the roster and the Ducks have four.
Like any playoff series, what happened in the past goes out the window. Both teams go into Wednesday with 0-0 records. Usually there is a fine line between winning and losing and it will come down to execution in all three zones, special teams and goaltending.
Those big name players could be the difference, or they could cancel each other out and it will be others who step up and will be the difference makers. But the goal for both teams simply is to stick to the plan and play their games.
“The thing for us is to go out there and play like we can, play our type of hockey,” said Robidas. “Since the Vancouver game [April 7], we’ve played like the Ducks are used to playing. That’s why we’ve been successful the last four or five games.”
“For us to be successful we’re going to have to skate, we’re going to have to buy into our system and working our hardest,” said Seguin.” We’re a good team when everybody’s working hard and competing and that’s when we’ll be successful.”
Game 1: Wed, April 16, Dallas at Anaheim, 9 p.m., Fox Sports Southwest/NBC Sports Network/TSN
Game 2: Fri, April 18, Dallas at Anaheim, 9 p.m., Fox Sports Southwest/NBC Sports Network/TSN
Game 3: Mon, April 21, Anaheim at Dallas, 8:30 p.m., TXA 21/NBC Sports Network/TSN
Game 4: Wed, April 23, Anaheim at Dallas, 7 p.m., Fox Sports Southwest/CNBC/TSN
*Game 5: Fri, April 25, Dallas at Anaheim, 9:30 p.m., Fox Sports Southwest/NBC Sports Network/TSN
*Game 6: Sun, April 27, Anaheim at Dallas, TBD, Fox Sports Southwest/TSN
*Game7: Tue, April 29, Dallas at Anaheim, TBA, Fox Sports Southwest/TSN