The Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild were heading in two different directions as the regular season came to a conclusion. The Stars were on a roll, winning nine of their last 11 games to capture the Central Division title and top seed in the Western Conference playoffs with 109 points (50-23-9). It was their first division title since 2005-06 and the first time they finished atop the conference since 2002-03.
“We're in a good position,” said Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen. “We're playing well, and I think the big thing is we're comfortable playing anybody and know we have a good chance of beating anybody any night, so that's a good feeling to have."
The Wild dropped their final five games of the season but still was able to hold off Colorado for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Their 87 points (38-33-11) is the lowest total for a playoff team since the shootout era began (excluding the lockout shortened 2012-13 season).
“Our team should feel good, we made it to the playoffs,” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. “Yeah, the last few games weren’t pretty, but we’re here.”
The Stars were banged up down the stretch, but appear to be getting healthy. Defensemen Kris Russell and Jason Demers returned before the regular season ended. Forwards Tyler Seguin and Mattias Janmark are close to returning to the lineup. The Wild are heading down a different path on the injury front. Forwards Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek don’t appear close to returning and forward Erik Haula is not expected to play for game one.
The Stars won four of the five games in the season series, but three of those wins came in 3-on-3 overtime, which isn’t a factor in the playoffs. And to be honest, no one puts a lot of stock in what happened in the regular season.
“It’s a whole new season,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “I wipe the slate clean.”
The last time the two teams met was Feb. 9, and both the Stars and Wild have changed since then. The Stars brought in veteran defenseman Kris Russell and they added some size and physicality through young players. Center Radek Faksa has become a regular player as the third line center, and Stephen Johns has become a regular on defense.
“They’ve brought a physicality; they’ve brought a hardness to our lineup that I think was needed,” said Ruff. “We were getting away with high-end speed and skill, and I think they’ve brought a hardness to adjustments that the league has played against us in the way we play. And we’ve been able to physically come in and win more battles and create more situations that have helped us win games.”
The Wild went through a coaching change when Mike Yeo was fired in mid-February, and John Torchetti took over as the bench boss in Minnesota. The Wild were out of a playoff spot at the time but went on a 15-6-1 run to move into that final playoff spot in the West.
There are injury issues on both sides, but the Stars appear to be in better shape. Stars forwards Tyler Seguin (Achilles) and Mattias Janmark (upper body) are both close to returning and could be ready for the series opener.
Wild forwards Zach Parise (upper body) and Thomas Vanek (upper body) – two of the Wild’s top four goal scorers – didn’t travel to Dallas for the first two games of the series. Parise is out indefinitely, and Vanek is week to week. Erik Haula did travel and is listed as day to day but is not expected to play in game one.
“We all know how great players they are, and what they can do on the ice, but this is where we're at right now,” said Wild forward Mikael Granlund. “It's all about getting ready for tomorrow, and making sure we're ready, and we're not giving up anything easy.”
The Stars are deep at forward. And potent. With Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza, Dallas has three forwards who topped the 30-goal mark. Eleven Dallas forwards scored at least ten goals including Patrick Sharp, who scored 20.
“The scoring balance has been real important to get where we are,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “It’s something we’ve worked hard on as a team. We worked hard on the habits as a team, even in practice. Guys are getting rewarded for going to the right places. We’ve had a lot of guys score some big goals for us, which has allowed us to win the number of games we have.”
The Stars forwards have played a key role in keeping pucks out of the Dallas net, especially two of the team’s better defending forwards. Since Ruff moved Cody Eakin to the top line center spot and Radek Faksa settled in as the Stars third line center, the team’s defensive game has improved.
Even with Parise and Vanek out, the Wild still have some forwards who can score. Charlie Coyle tallied a career-high 21 goals, and Nino Niederreiter hit the 20-goal mark for a second straight season. Mikko Koivu, who scored 17 goals, led Minnesota with 56 points.
Haula is an important piece as well. When healthy, he is a part of Minnesota’s shutdown line that includes Niederreiter and Jason Pominville. Granlund could end up filling Haula’s spot on that line.
“We know they have a lot of skill on their team,” Granlund said. “But I've been playing with Nino and Pommer before, and whatever the matchups are, let's just go out there and enjoy it, and play hard.”
The Wild are a strong faceoff team, ranking third in the league. Jarret Stoll and Koivu are two of the top faceoff men in the NHL.
The Stars carried eight defensemen most of the season, and now they have nine, and a different look. The acquisition of Kris Russell at the trade deadline added some veteran presence, puck moving ability and shot blocking expertise. Stephen Johns, called up from the AHL last month due to injuries, has stuck and for good reason. He’s brought size and physical presence to the back end.
Based on this week’s practices, it appears Ruff will go with a top pairing of Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg. Those two spent most of the season together. Klingberg was a plus-22 and Goligoski was a plus-21. Their possession numbers were good as well. Klingberg’s Corsi rating was a team-best 55.62. Goligoski ranked third among Dallas defensemen at 53.69.
Veteran Johnny Oduya, who has won two Stanley Cups, has been paired with Johns. That duo was perhaps the Stars’ best defensive pair down the stretch.
Russell and Jason Demers, who returned for the final game of the regular season after missing a month with a shoulder injury, have been skating as the third pair.
Those three pairs give the Stars a left-shot and right-shot on each pair.
“I believe that the lefty/righties have made a difference for us,” Ruff said. “When we end up with a couple pairs that are lefty/lefty, our transition game hurts a little bit, and our puck movement is slowed down.”
The Stars also have Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak on the blue line.
Ryan Suter is the big minute guy on defense for the Wild, averaging 28:35 per game during the regular season. Only Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson (28:58) averaged more. Suter, who registered a career-high 51 points, and Jared Spurgeon are the Wild’s top defensive pair. Spurgeon set career highs in goals (11) and points (29) and is an effective puck mover.
Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin both logged more than 20 minutes per game, and Matt Dumba popped in ten goals and 26 points from the blue line. The Wild also have Christian Folin and Nate Prosser on defense.
The Wild defensemen know they’ll have their hands full with the high-scoring Stars.
“They have a very high-octane offense. We’re aware of that,” Dumba told the Wild’s official site. “We’re going to have to take time and space away from them, so they don’t make plays. Have to play extra tight. We’re going to defend with a lot of detail, good sticks, boxing out hard and take away time and space, so they don’t have their push."
Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi split the net this season for the Stars, and they split the wins, picking up 25 apiece as the Stars won 50 games for the first time since 2006-07. Neither goaltender put up spectacular numbers. Lehtonen had a 2.76 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. Niemi put up a 2.67 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
But when one seemed to struggle the other stepped up and they got the job done together and helped push the Stars to the second-best record in the league. And they were both solid down the stretch, combining to stop 267 of 285 shots over the final ten games for a .937 save percentage.
As to which one gets the start in game one, Ruff isn’t saying. But he likes where both goalies are right now with their play.
“I like the way both our goalies have played,” Ruff said. “Right now I don’t have a bad decision. There’s not a wrong decision, but these guys have both played well and they’ve both played well down the stretch. There’s probably a chance both guys will play.”
As for Lehtonen and Niemi, this has been par for the course all season.
“Of course, I would like to get to play right away, but if I don’t, I’ll be there and I’ll be supporting Antti, and we’ll be ready,” Lehtonen said. “I’ll be ready when my chance comes. I think it’s the same thing as the start of the season. Sure, I would have loved to have played the first game, but after that’s done it’s a long season and you just have to do your best when you get a chance, and I think that hasn’t changed.”
Added Niemi: “I think I just got to be ready, and I think I am and stay ready whatever happens. I think no matter who plays, I’m happy if we go a long way and have a good run. Whoever’s playing in net, I hope’s going to play well.”
Devan Dubnyk has been a workhorse for the Wild, playing in 67 games. Only Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick (68) played more. Dubnyk posted a 32-26-6 record with a 2.33 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
“He’s really big, that’s one,” Wild coach John Torchetti said of the 6-6 netminder. “He loves the game. He competes hard, he’s really under control. He’s very well-reserved. Not too high, not too low. But he’s the type of guy who thrives off the competition he’s playing against. It’s something I enjoyed watching. And he’s a big part of why we’re here.”
Darcy Kuemper is Minnesota’s backup. He posted a 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 21 games played.
The Stars received some strong performances from their special teams this season. The power play ranked fourth in the league at 22.1 percent. The penalty kill had its ups and downs but finished strong, stopping 49 of 52 (94.2 percent) of opposition power plays over the final 17 games. The Stars tied for third in shorthanded goals at ten. One sore point on special teams was shorthanded goals against. The Stars allowed a league-worst 15.
The Wild’s special teams were a mixed bag. The power play ranked 15th in the league at 18.5 percent. It hit at 20.7 percent (19-92) in the 27 games after Torchetti took over as head coach. The penalty kill struggled this season, ranking 27th in the league at 77.9 percent and 30th in the league on the road at 74.1 percent. The Wild were, however, shorthanded a league-low 204 times.
Lindy Ruff is in his third year as head coach of the Stars and should get consideration for the Jack Adams Award, which goes to the league’s top coach, after leading the Stars to the second-best record in the NHL after missing the playoffs last season. Ruff, who spent 15 seasons as the bench boss in Buffalo, has coached in 107 NHL playoff games, posting a 59-48 record. He’s made it to the Stanley Cup Final once and the Conference Finals three times.
John Torchetti was named interim coach of the Wild after Mike Yeo was fired in mid-February. Torchetti, who had been coaching Minnesota’s AHL club in Iowa, posted a 15-11-1 record with the Wild. This is Torchetti’s third interim coaching job in the NHL. He had the same post with Florida (2003-04) and Los Angeles (2005-06). Torchetti was an assistant coach with Chicago when it won the Stanley Cup in 2010. Torchetti is making his first trip to the NHL playoffs as a head coach.
No surprise, but the Stars come in as heavy favorites in the series. The Stars had the second best record in the league and the Wild were 17th. The Stars might be even bigger favorites considering the latest news about Minnesota’s injury situation.
But the Stars aren’t taking anything for granted. They know the Wild won’t roll over just because a few guys are out of the lineup.
“You’re going to expect them to work even harder when they’re missing guys like that, their key players,” said Stars center Tyler Seguin. “Again, we’re looking forward to playing a very competitive team, a team that’s going to work their tail off and track hard and play good defense, so we’re up for the challenge.”
The Wild aren’t focused on being underdogs.
“I just like winning, that’s the bottom line,” Minnesota coach John Torchetti said. “I don’t see underdog or nothin’. We made it to the playoffs. We don’t have the lineup that we usually have, but we’ve done quite well with guys in and out of the lineup.”
This is only the second time the Stars have been in the playoffs in the past eight seasons, but it’s not like they are inexperienced. They have more than 700 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience on the roster and leading the way are forward Patrick Sharp (129 games) and defenseman Johnny Oduya (89 games), two of the team’s key offseason additions. Sharp won three Stanley Cups with Chicago, and Oduya won two.
“I think in the case of the couple guys we brought in [Oduya and Sharp], it’s sitting in the room to balance out what goes on inside a game, the highs and the lows,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “For this group at this time, we have a pretty good balance in that room with the number of games some of these guys have played and how big some of those games have been.”
The Wild have plenty of playoff experience as well. And they’ve pulled off first-round upsets in each of the past two playoffs.
“We have to draw on those experiences and have that same mindset going into this year’s playoff series,” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. “It’s going to be hard; these guys are good. They can score goals; they’re physical. It’s going to be a tough challenge, but we just have to ... it’s whatever team can get playing the fastest.”
Like any playoff series, it will come down to execution, special teams, goaltending, getting some good bounces along the way and making the most of your opportunities.
“You do have to enjoy it and remember that this opportunity doesn’t come every year,” Ruff said. “There are no guarantees and let’s take advantage of this one opportunity. Let’s not look any further than that, let’s take advantage of that and move forward.”
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.