For the first time since 2008, the Dallas Stars are moving on to the second round of the NHL playoffs. That year, the Stars made it to the conference finals, where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings, who went on to win win the Stanley Cup.
Their opponent, the St. Louis Blues, won their first playoff series since defeating the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. They were swept by the Los Angeles Kings in the next round, as the Kings went on to win the Cup. The last time the Blues made it to the western conference finals was in 2001, when they fell to the Colorado Avalanche, who also won the Cup that season.
Game 1-Friday April 29 8:00 PM ET
Game 2- Sunday May 1 3:00 PM ET
Game 3- Tuesday May 3 9:30 PM ET
Game 4- Thursday May 5 8:00 PM ET
Game 5*-Saturday May 7 TBA
Game 6*-Monday May 9 TBA
Game 7*-Wednesday May 11 TBA
The Blues won the regular season series 4-1, with three of those wins coming in overtime or shootout. The Blues won all three meetings in St. Louis while the Stars won in regulation and lost in overtime in Dallas.
The Stars won their first round series against a team in the Minnesota Wild that limped into the playoffs. They had just 87 points, 17th in the NHL. They were missing Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek, their top two scorers. There was no reason Stars shouldn't have finished this series quickly, even without Tyler Seguin in the lineup. Seguin did come back in game two of that series but did not play well and looked like he had been rushed back. His status is largely unknown for this series, other than he will be out the first two games.
After losing game three 5-3, the Stars pulled Kari Lehtonen out of the starting role in net and put in backup Antti Niemi. He won game four but then allowed five goals in an overtime loss in game five. Lehtonen came back in for game six and nearly gave up a 4-0 lead in the third period of that game, before the Stars ultimately won 5-4.
The offense is still explosive without Seguin, led by captain Jamie Benn, winger Patrick Sharp, center Jason Spezza and a whole group of talented forwards. To complement their forwards defenseman John Klingberg is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. But they struggled in their own end against the Wild, not doing their unstable situation in net any favors.
The Blues are coming off a grueling seven game series against the Chicago Blackhawks. For the last three years people said the Blues couldn't finish after blowing leads in each of the three first round series they lost. They were up 2-0 on the Kings in 2013, 2-0 on the Blackhawks in 2014 and were tied 2-2 with the Wild last year before losing in six each time. But they knocked out the defending champions, although they had a 3-1 lead and a chance to finish it in overtime of game five before the Blackhawks pulled through then won game six before St. Louis won game seven.
Keys to Victory
To win this series, the Stars need to settle on a goalie. At the moment, no one knows which goalie it is going to be, though it will most likely be Lehtonen. How long of a leash he (or Niemi) has in this series will be important. The defense also must play better. Vladimir Tarasenko is better than any scorer than Minnesota had, and the depth at forward with Alex Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Robby Fabbri, Jori Lehtera and more to go along with centers Paul Stastny and David Backes is much more than what Dallas faced in the last round.
For St. Louis to win, Brian Elliott must continue to play like he did in the last series. As I mentioned, this is the top offense in the league they are playing against and they can put up goals in a hurry. No lead is safe against the Stars. Dallas has more speed and will try to use it and tire out the defensemen of the Blues, and after a long series fatigue could be a concern.
While many folks like this divisional setup that keeps series within divisions and can foster rivalries, this is the second round and the teams with the second and third most points in the NHL are playing one another. Meanwhile the Nashville Predators have the fewest points of the remaining playoff teams while the Sharks have the third fewest of the eight remaining clubs, only one more than the Tampa Bay Lightning. This should be a very good series, but also one that could be mentioned in the future for a possible change in the playoff format.
This series also features coaches Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff, who went against one another in the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals. Hitchcock was the coach of the Stars, and he bested Ruff's Buffalo Sabres in that series. Two veteran coaches and two very talented and deep rosters make this series a must watch.