The 2015-16 NHL regular season is coming to a close. There is still plenty on the line for the Dallas Stars. Realistically, the Stars could win the division as easily as finish third. Everything can change in just a few short games, and if the Stars want to win the Central they have plenty of winning yet to do.
There are other areas of suspense within the Western Conference playoff picture, notably, the last wildcard spot. The Colorado Avalanche and the Minnesota Wild both have 74 points, with the Wild holding a game in hand. The teams will face each other in Denver in the last week of March, and the winner will surely assume pole position.
Colorado has 32 Regulation or Overtime Wins (ROW) to Minnesota's 31. The NHL tiebreakers start with games in hand and the Wild currently hold one of those over the Avs. So basically, these teams are tied. And since the only remaining head-to-head matchup is in Denver, we are going to start our "Potential Playoff Matchups" series with the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado 2 wins - Dallas 1 win (in overtime)
Colorado 12 GF - Dallas 8 GF
Games Remaining: April 7 @ Dallas
The season series between the two teams has been interesting. The combined shot totals for the 3 games are 120-67 in favor of the Stars. However, the Avs have outscored the Stars 12-8. Some back of the napkin math shows that the Avalanche got 0.933 save percentage netminding to the Stars' 0.820. Go ahead and read that paragraph again, and see if you can pick out the biggest factor in the games between the teams so far this season. I will wait here.
Big shocker, it's goaltending.
Semyon Varlamov has bought a condo in the heads of the Dallas Forwards, and the Stars goalies seem to forget how to goalie against Colorado. To be fair (I am trying), it is hard to stay sharp when you only see one shot every 3 minutes, but the goaltending has been leaky at best and putrid at worst.
There are lots of factors at play here, but one is the fact that the Avalanche believe they can beat the Stars because they have done it over and over again the last 3 seasons. If these teams meet in the postseason, you can bet the Avs will be tickled pink.
So what would the Stars have to do in a 7-game series to beat the Avalanche? Here are my keys to the series:
Win at the Pepsi Center
The Stars were able to accomplish this in overtime last month. Dallas out shot Colorado 44-24 in that game and won in overtime 4-3. Unfortunately, that game did not feature Varlamov so there remains no precedent for beating him in Denver.
The Pepsi Center has been a house of horrors for a long time. While the Avalanche have not defended it as dutifully this season, years past indicate that most teams struggle in the thin air of Denver. Dallas has not been exempt to that torture.
In a series that is sure to be determined by a few goals and is almost certain to contain some overtime, the Stars will have to win at least one game in Denver.
This is a key for both teams. Colorado has taken a Corsi-beating at the hands of the Stars this year, but they have the equalizer in Varlamov. He has stood tall and put out most of the fires his team has created. For Colorado, they will require this sort of performance from Varlamov for 4 games. When the teams played in January, Varlamov stopped 42 of 43 shots en route to a 3-1 win in Dallas.
The other side of the goaltending matchup is the one that has the most uncertainty. Both Stars' goalies have performed poorly against the Avalanche. The one game that Dallas won, Niemi stopped 21 of 24 shots for a save percentage of 0.875. That isn't exactly asking a lot of your goalie, but the Stars will need better in a 7 game series.
The goalie matchup is clearly in favor of the Avalanche for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that Varlamov has proven he can steal games from the Stars.
While this is always a key, the games against the Avalanche seem to exaggerate the point.
The Stars have dominated the shot totals in all three games, but they have not necessarily been good shots. Dallas got frustrated by Varlamov and started to panic in the game played in January. As the game wore on, shots started to come from farther and farther away from the paint, making Varlamov's life easier.
When the pace of the game settled in, the Avalanche collapsed below the circles and allowed the Stars to shoot from distance. There is value in getting pucks to the net, and that's fine. But it will take some maturity to pass up a shot for a better shot when the opponent has parked the bus.
Having the patience to out wait a team that has retreated into it's bomb shelter isn't easy; and to some degree it goes against everything the team has been told. But shooting 50 times from above the circles against a superior goalie isn't going to get it done. The shot totals might come down, but scoring will become a more profitable venture.
If you watched every minute of the season series without being able to see the score, you would assume that the Stars were the far superior team. And you would probably be right. But the playoffs are about matchups. If the Stars draw the Avalanche in the first round, the season series tells us that it would be a dog fight.
The two teams will play one more meaningful contest before the bracket is set, and that will tell us a lot. The Avalanche aren't really good or really bad at anything. One important note is the Stars have scored a powerplay goal in all three games this year.
No fan in Victory Green would be thrilled about seeing the maroon and blue in the first round. But for one reason or another, the Avs create adversity for the Stars. Overcoming adversity is what the Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about.