When Anton Khudobin thwarted Ryan O’Reilly to secure the Dallas Stars’ 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, you could almost feel the collective sense of relief from fans and team alike. The Stars were able to secure their first win since February 25, improve their playoff seeding, and finally find out whom their first-round opponent will be this week. That opponent is the Calgary Flames as the games ratchet up in importance, and there are no other options for the Stars other than advance or disperse for the offseason.
This will be the first playoff series that the Stars and Flames will drawn in against one another since the Stars relocated to Dallas in 1993. The only other previous playoff meeting between the two franchises occurred in 1981 when the Minnesota North Stars defeated the Flames in the Campbell Conference semifinal.
That was a long time ago.
The 2019-20 Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames played three times during the regular reason with the Stars recording one win, one loss, and one overtime loss, taking three of a possible six points. The games represented a microcosm of the Stars’ overall season — some very good, some very bad, and some very frustrating. The Stars in their first meeting of the season way back in October 2019, had a 2-0 lead going into the third period, only to see the Flames fire back to win the game 3-2 in a shootout. The Stars responded with a dominating 3-1 win in the Scotiabank Saddledome a little over a month later. However, the Flames went on to have the last laugh after they dominated the Stars at the AAC by a final score of 5-1 in the last meeting of the regular season.
As a result, this series sets up to be a very interesting matchup for the Stars and the Flames. It will also be very hard to predict given that the series could hinge on which Dallas team shows up. Is it the Stars team that ran the best record in the league between their two losing streaks in the regular season? Or is it the the Stars team that just recently lost nine games in a row? Most of the world will go with the recent Stars team when grading out this series.
The Stars do stack up well with the Flames in some respects, and there is always reason to believe that the Stars might just come out and do something shocking (in a positive sense).
The forward depth for the Calgary forward group is pretty evenly spread out from a production standpoint. The Flames are led by leading point producer and irritant Matthew Tkachuk, who scored 61 points in 69 games, 23 of those points via goals. Then there is the Flames’ top assist man and playmaker, Johnny Gaudreau, who had 40 assists, with 18 goals, for 58 points. Gaudreau is arguably their best player even with Tkachuk on the roster, but both players are honestly just great all-around young hockey players. The Flames are going to be led in the goal-scoring department by their 25-year-old center iceman Elias Lindholm, who has undergone an offensive awakening in Calgary. In two years with the Flames, Lindholm has almost matched his goalscoring totals from his five years with the Carolina Hurricanes. Couple Lindholm with fellow center Sean Monahan and the Flames boast a trio of twenty goal-scorers.
For an offense that ranks 20th in the NHL in goals for, these four players for the Flames are undoubtedly the keys to the offensive engine for the remaining Alberta team in the playoffs.
Note: The Flames also have three 15+ goal-scorers in Mikael Backlund (16), Andrew Mangiapane (17), and Gaudreau (18).
The Stars, on the other hand, are a bit of a mess when it comes to the offensive side of the puck. The Stars rank 28th in goal-scoring, the lowest of any team still playing hockey, and only Tyler Seguin has scored above 40 points with his even 50 on the year. To put it mildly, the Stars are offensively challenged.
Dallas, from a goal-scoring standpoint, is paced by the 22-year-old rookie Denis Gurianov with 20 goals on the season. Gurianov was the Stars’ only 20-goal man, with Roope Hintz and Jamie Benn recording 19 goals respectively. The Stars’ other offensive weapons of Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Joe Pavelski all rang in disappointing seasons in the goals department, with the three players combining for a mere 46 goals.
The Stars’ X-factor in this series has pivoted away from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, to Hintz and Gurianov. The Stars desperately need those two young players to step up and drive the offense with their speed and gamebreaking ability. Then there is Seguin, who, if he can round back into form, can truly turn this series by his own skill. The only question is, can Seguin turn it back on, and is he healthy enough at the moment?
Dallas is a team that has struggled so much on offense that they have been shut out in 10 of 12 periods in Edmonton. The Stars in terms of name brand players should have the edge on offense on paper. Key phrase: on paper. The big “if” in the room is if the Stars can generate results from Seguin, Pavelski, Radulov, and Benn, the offense should be enough to beat the Flames.
Until those players prove us all wrong, the edge on offense has to go to the Flames.
Defense and Goaltending
Expect the Stars to do all they can to make this series a grinding, ugly, defensive war with the Flames. The Stars have the horses on the blue line and in goal to accomplish this if they can replicate their performance against the Blues. The Stars want to make goals extremely difficult to come by for a speedy Flames team. When the defensive structure for the Stars does break down, the team will rely on the best goaltending duo in the league to mop up the mess.
The Flames’ blue line is led by reigning Norris Trophy winner and captain Mark Giordano, who has found the fountain of youth at 36 years young. The rest of the blue line is comprised of serviceable, experienced players like T.J. Brodie, Rasmus Andersson, and the young Noah Hanifin. The Calgary defense is steady, and they’ve steered the team to the 15th spot in goals against in the NHL. The defense probably will not factor much from a goals-scoring perspective, as they only found one goal from the blue line in their series with the Winnipeg Jets. They’ll do what a defense corps is tasked to do: play good defense, help out the goaltender, and don’t lose the game.
In the pipes for the Flames is where most would think there would be the biggest problem for this team. In the regular season, David Rittich carried the starting role with 48 games started, recording 24 wins, 17 losses, and six losses in overtime. Over that time, Rittich recorded a disappointing 2.97 GAA, and .907 save percentage. However, in the playoffs, the Flames have gone with goaltender Cam Talbot, who turned in a sparkling .945 save percentage and 1.51 GAA in four games against the Jets. Talbot looked good in net, thwarted the majority of the Jets’ most dangerous chances, and helped the Flames advance.
On the Dallas side, the Stars have a very deep and very talented roster of defensemen. Led by John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, the Stars have a mobile defense that is positionally very sound. The Stars also have physical forces in Esa Lindell, Jamie Oleksiak, and Stephen Johns. They play very well within their structure and once again, helped the Stars to the second stingiest goals against stat in the league. The Stars can also bank on their defense jumping into play, with the green light from the coaches to provide offensive help.
In goal, the Stars have arguably the best duo in the entire league. With Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin combining as a real 1A/1B duo, the Stars’ goaltenders can steal games for a team that struggles to score. In the regular season, Khudobin led the league in save percentage at .930, coupled with a 2.22 GAA. Bishop, for his efforts, turned in a .920 save percentage with a 2.50 GAA.
There is a sense that if Bishop is injured (he has been ruled unfit to play for the past two games), the Stars could ride Khudobin. However, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Bishop is the starter come Game 1 if he is healthy. Given that the duo is just that good, the Flames will have their hands full no matter who is in net for the Stars. Bishop also seems to relish the playoffs, as he backstopped the Stars to a shot within the Western Conference final a year ago.
Overall, the Stars have the edge on defense and goaltending. Their team relies on strong defensive play, and that requires an elite defense and goaltending battery. The Stars have that and they do it masterfully when they are on their game.
The Stars and the Flames are going to be an interesting pair on the ice and on the bench. Both teams went through coaching changes with former head coaches Bill Peters and Jim Montgomery being relieved of their duties in the regular season. Interim head coaches Rick Bowness and Geoff Ward have since guided their teams into the postseason, even if the postseason looks drastically different from what fans and the league alike all envisioned back in the thick of February.
For Geoff Ward, the series with the Jets is exactly the way the Flames want to play — on the edge, with pace, and minimizing mistakes as much as possible. The series was not without controversy as Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine were both injured in Game 1. Is the series different with those two guys?
The Flames don’t care.
For Rick Bowness, how is he going to handle the need to really ignite the Dallas offense? The Stars are not going to win a playoff series scoring two goals per game. It is just not going to happen. Bowness needs to find a way to light a fire under Seguin and his other top skill players or the Stars are in serious trouble.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, which Stars team is going to show up? If the Stars are able to channel the their former selves that ran through the league in the middle part of the year, this series will go well for Dallas. If the Stars team that lost nine of 10 games shows up, then the Stars’ stay in the bubble will end much sooner than they’d like.