When the final horn sounded on Saturday night, indicating a dominating 3-0 win over the Minnesota Wild, the Dallas Stars finally had a first round opponent. The timing was, in a way, poetic considering that this Stars season has been full of drama and suspense. The drama and suspense will now magnify as the Stars go up against the newly minted Central Division (regular season) Champion Nashville Predators in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It is a dream match up for the Stars, the Predators, and the National Hockey League considering the two teams will battle at the Cotton Bowl in the 2020 Winter Classic.
The Stars even played well against the Predators during the regular season. In five games the Stars recored 2 wins, 1 loss, and 2 overtimes losses, taking six out of a possible 10 points. The wins also included goaltending excellence by Anton Khudobin, who flat out stole two games in Nashville. The Predators are also the first playoff opponent for the Stars since the Minnesota Wild in... 2016. Compared to that playoff series three years ago, the Stars are no longer the top seed in the West, instead settling for the top seed in the Western Conference Wild Card. The Stars will also be heavy underdogs against the tested and talented Predators, who are looking to finally realize their goal of bringing a Stanley Cup to Music City.
While the Stars might be the underdogs and the hockey world will be picking against them, this club actually matches up quite well against the Predators. From the crease on out, the Stars have the pieces to manufacture an upset in the first round, and it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise if it happens.
The forward depth for the Predators seems to be pretty suspect on paper at the moment. Their leading goal scorer Viktor Arvidsson potted 34, and their leading point getter Ryan Johansen put up an impressive 50 assists but did not have the goal scoring punch with only 14, putting his point total at 64 on the season. Their x-factor on offense is the talented and slippery Philip Forsberg, who is consistently dangerous and can create space like few in the NHL can. Forsberg had a bit of a down year with 28 goals and 22 assists in 64 games played, so it is safe to say those numbers would be a bit higher had he played in more games. Coupled with Craig Smith, who scored 21 goals, and Nick Bonino, who scored 17 goals, the Predators have a fair amount of depth to them. To put a bow on the Predators offense, the club ranked 19th in goal scoring during the regular season, and while they are not a hard scoring bunch, they are not likely to explode for six either (editors note: famous last words, Rob.)
The Stars, on the other hand, are a bit confusing when looking at their offensive output, given that that they rank 29th in goals scored and only boast three 20-plus goal scorers. On paper, the Stars look outgunned upfront, but paper can be crumpled and thrown away rather easily.
Dallas has the talented duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, who are constant threats to take over any game and turn a series on its head. Benn was an offensive force at times this season, but as the power play struggled, so did the Stars captain. Benn would finish with 27 goals, 26 assists, for 53 points. Seguin was the catalyst for the Stars on offense, taking the lead in all offensive categories with 33 goals, 47 assists, for 80 points. Seguin is a game breaker and likely, the only game breaker in this series as the Predators have no one who can match his output alone.
The Stars’ x-factor on offense is two-fold. First, there’s Alexander Radulov, who has been the top goal scorer in the NHL since his benching in March after showing up late to a mandatory team activity on the day of a game. Radulov ended the season with 29 goals and 43 assists for 72 points, and the Stars simply do not make the playoffs without him. His compete level and ability to carry the load with Seguin is a matchup nightmare for the Predators.
Second, the Stars added Mats Zuccarello, who scored one goal and recorded one electric assist in his two games in a Stars uniform so far, and gave themselves a real second line threat. His stats for the season are 12 goals, 28 assists, for 40 points in 48 games played with the Rangers and Stars. Zuccarello has already made an instant impact in the Stars line up in two games, and should make for an unwelcome problem for the Predators come Wednesday.
Overall, the Stars at forward match up well against Nashville. The Stars can generate chances throughout this series, the challenge will be converting those against a stingy Nashville club.
Defense and Goaltending
Expect this series to be a grinding, exhaustive, defensive war between two of the three best defensive teams in the NHL. The goaltending should be magnificent, the defending will be structured and tight by each five man unit. Scoring goals will not be an easy task for either club, but the Stars have the advantage in this category because they sport the best duo in the West in the crease.
Much has been made of the Predators’ sturdy and dangerous defense that sports the likes of Ryan Ellis, PK Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. The Predators’ second pair of defenseman is more of a 1B than a second option. They are very good, very physical, and very consistent. Oh, and their defense scores goals and puts up points at a high rate. Their second leading point man is Roman Josi with 56 points. The Predators also have a tested veteran in the pipes by the name of Pekka Rinne, and he is capable of carrying a club through multiple rounds in the playoffs. In his 55 starts in the regular season, Rinne collected 30 wins, 19 losses, a .918 save percentage and 2.42 goals against average. Not bad numbers by the Predators leading man, but his aged-36 season saw his numbers take a dive in every major category from his very solid aged-35 season in 2017-18.
The Stars have their own stable of defensemen — not as famous as the Predators, but almost equally as good. The Stars trot out a unit of John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell, Roman Polak, Ben Lovejoy, and Taylor Fedun. The Stars experienced a litany of injuries on their backend through the season and have patched it together quite nicely by committee. It also helps having a generational defensive talent in Heiskanen, who is logging huge minutes in his first NHL season. The Stars defense helped the club to a 2nd place finish in the Jennings trophy race, allowing 202 goals on the season. The unit is also not to be overlooked in the offensive category, as the Stars had three defenseman record over 10 goals on the year (Klingberg, Heiskanen, Lindell). The defensive unit for the Stars is young, hungry, and very structured. They play well within their system and opt for the simple play the majority of the time. Methodical often comes to mind when watching this group.
While both clubs sport very nice defensive units, the Stars have the ultimate equalizer in this series: goaltending, and lots of it.
The Stars arguably have the best goaltending duo in the West this season with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. In the regular season, Bishop and Khudobin both finished in the top ten in save percentage, with Bishop finishing first with an astounding, franchise-record-setting .934 mark and Khudobin coming in with a very respectable .923 save percentage. To expand on the greatness of the Stars goaltending, the Stars recorded 11 shutouts during the regular season, with Bishop recording 7 of those. Bishop recorded five of these shutouts in his last 14 starts. Bishop also turned in a 1.98 goals against average for the season, completing a Vezina-worthy campaign.
There is also a real sense that the Stars could ride Khudobin in this series if he is needed, being that the Stars backup dominated the Predators in Nashville twice already this season. However, given Bishop’s history-making performances in the second half of the season, the Stars will likely ride him in the playoffs. Make no mistake, though, the drop off in the crease is less impactful for Dallas if the Stars need to deploy their backup when compared to Nashville. Simply put, the Stars get the edge in the crease.
The Stars are matched up against a very worthy opponent in the Nashville Predators. The Predators are deep, talented, and they have deep-round experience. Stars fans shouldn’t be all doom and gloom, though. Dallas has the horses in their line up to match up with, and take games away from, the Predators.
This is setting up to be a long, grueling series, and the Stars have the pieces to advance if they can continue to play their game.