Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg know what's coming for them in Round 2.
Their upcoming opponents, the St. Louis Blues, made no secret about their desire for physical play during their seven-game opening round series victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite already putting up a whopping 41 hits as a team after Game 1, head coach Ken Hitchcock, not satiated in his thirst for bone-rattling, called for an absurd 70 hits in Game 2.
They only ended up with another 41 yet again that game, but have remained consistent in their resolve to punish their opposition, averaging 40.4 hits per game up to this point.
And knowing that the Stars' top defensive pairing of Goligoski and Klingberg averages somewhere in the neighborhood of just 183 pounds soaking wet, and that the group behind them isn't that much bigger than that, the heavy Blues squad is likely salivating at another chance to try to get closer to that 70-hit mark.
If this entire notion makes you nervous, that's completely normal. After all, longstanding common convention in the NHL dictates that it's the big, physical, defensive teams that excel the most in the postseason, not the smaller, faster, more offensively-inclined teams like Dallas. By this point, you've probably read all about just how stylistically and philosophically different the Stars are from the Blues.
So, Dallas should probably just pack it all in now, right? Cancel the second round and book some early tee times out on the golf course?
Well, of course that's not going to happen. The Stars are still going to stick to their guns and face the Blues, not for some vain Don Quixote-esque sense of chivalry and valor, but because they can genuinely win the series if they play their cards right.
Now, at first glance it's easy to see why the Stars might be concerned about the challenge that lies ahead. The team allowed 16 goals in their six-game series victory over the Minnesota Wild, a pretty big number considering that the Wild are not a particularly potent offensive team to begin with, and that they were also hindered by the absence of two of their top scorers in Zach Parise in Thomas Vanek.
Dallas also blew a 2-0 lead in Game 2, a late 4-3 lead in Game 5, and came within inches of blowing a 4-0 lead in Game 6.
However, many of these defensive lapses that the Stars suffered had more to do with their own mental jitters than because of anything that the Wild did, especially hitting.
Let's take a look at one of the more egregious goals that the Stars allowed in the series, the opening tally in Game 5:
That's a pretty nightmarish turnover by Goligoski, and yet, that's a puck that he would have successfully moved out of trouble and up the ice 99 times out of 100 during the regular season. Sure, Mikael Granlund was applying some pressure on the forecheck, but that was Goligoski simply not executing on what should have been a fairly routine play.
That exact sort of routine play, using the team's fast-skating and fast-thinking defensemen to quickly move the puck out of trouble, is a staple of Dallas' system. While the loose, high-flying style of hockey that the Stars play is inherently high-risk, high-reward, they're objectively very good at it, which is precisely how they finished 3rd in the NHL in terms of puck possession (52.6% even-strength, 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage) and 2nd overall in the standings this past regular season.
And as I wrote about recently in a separate article over at The Hockey Writers, puck possession, not just an unrelenting preference towards defensive hockey, is likely the most important key to success in the NHL playoffs.
What does all of this mean in terms of X's and O's? Simply, that the Stars defensive group needs to continue to use their speed and sublime skating to keep the puck (and themselves) away from the Blues' aggressive forecheck.
Joel Quenneville, the esteemed head coach of the Blackhawks, said something interesting when asked about Hitchcock's comments on the Blues seeking 70 hits: "I hope he tries to go to 70, it means we got the puck the whole (game)."
Pretty much. While it didn't quite work out for the Hawks, who lost the series, that primarily has to fall on the fact that the team was relying on just two defensive pairs for pretty much the entire series, with three of those players (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson) likely fatigued to some extent after having played an obscene amount of hockey over the past few years.
If the Stars can consistently and confidently roll all three defensive pairs this upcoming round, using their skating ability to move around the St. Louis attackers, it's entirely possible that their small defensemen could be an advantage, not a detriment, against their slower opponents. As I joked recently with Wes in his Matching Minors post, the Blues can't hit what they can't catch.
Let's take a look at another example. You can't see it fully from this clip, but Jason Spezza's goal in Game 1 came as a direct result of Johnny Oduya mostly avoiding a Wild check and getting the puck up to his forwards:
It certainly won't be an easy task, however. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
The Blues are very, very good at the style of hockey that they play, and are sure to catch the Stars defense and force them into trouble a number of times in this series. Similarly, the Dallas blueliners aren't going to make the right decision with the puck all of the time, as some frequency of mistakes is inevitable, especially considering the pressure always ramps up in the postseason. And, last but certainly not least, the defense will also need a lot of help from the forward group, who will need to consistently come back into the defensive end to open up passing outlet options.
Easy, no, but still possible nevertheless. The Stars have been successful doing things their way all season, and now their biggest challenge lies ahead.