The Stanley Cup playoffs in a lot of ways are like the 1978 Journey song, “Wheel in the Sky.”
When you listen to the lyrics it’s almost prophetic in which the chorus bellows out to the listener, “Ooh the wheel in the sky keeps on turning. I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow. Wheel in the sky keeps on turning.”
You might be asking, what does this have to do with hockey?
The Stanley Cup playoffs are a grind, a long dusty road that leaves teams fighting, clawing, to survive until tomorrow. When a round ends, another begins, thus, the wheel of playoff hockey keeps on turning.
The Dallas Stars find themselves still turning in the playoffs after a dominant six game first round series against the Calgary Flames. The Stars on Sunday were 12 seconds away from a 3-1 deficit, before they suddenly asserted themselves as the superior club with a three-game winning streak to win the series.
The Stars did a bit of everything from scoring goals, displaying good goaltending at key moments, defending, and clutch playoff performances. All of these things culminated in a series victory that feels deserved, even if the result was in doubt less than a week ago.
For their efforts, the Stars have earned a date with Central Division rival and the 2nd seeded Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are a totally different animal than the Calgary Flames for a multitude of reasons. Colorado is fast, skilled, sound, and has the depth to roll over lines to add waves to their attack.
Colorado is loaded and their style is anathema to the Stars defensive system.
In many ways, the Avalanche will test the Stars in ways that no team before or after (if there is an after) will test them. Instead of focusing on stats or trends, let’s dive into three over-arching areas that the Stars need to improve upon to upset Colorado.
Miro Heiskanen vs. Nathan MacKinnon
The Colorado Avalanche have not only the best forward remaining in the NHL playoffs, but arguably the best overall forward in the world. Nathan MacKinnon is indescribable, unbelievable, and dominating. He is a true game breaker in every sense, and somehow that doesn’t quite seem to do him enough justice.
So far in eight post season games (three round robin and five first round) MacKinnon has scored four goals and nine assists for 13 points. In Colorado’s five game series victory over the Arizona Coyotes, MacKinnon recorded at least a point in each game, finishing the series in Game 5 with a four-point evening of two goals and two assists.
However, it really isn’t all about what MacKinnon does with the puck as much as what he does all over the ice.
Let this personal highlight reel explain it.
The Nathan MacKinnon highlight reel since the return to play is just an unbelievable combination of speed, power, and skill and I can't get enough of it pic.twitter.com/FVTcWJGdkO— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) August 20, 2020
MacKinnon is a five tool hockey player, if that was a tag that could be borrowed from baseball. His speed is top notch, his hands are in concert with his pace at all times, his vision is world class, his shot is a missile, and his strength and physicality is unmatched.
Which is why having Miro Heiskanen in this series could prove to be the Dallas Stars’ best chance at slowing him down and limiting the damage he can do. For everything that was just written to describe Nathan MacKinnon, please allow those sentiments to be transferred over to Heiskanen.
And then some.
The Dallas Stars arguably have the best player in this series in their 21-year-old Finnish defenseman. In nine post season games (three round robin and six first round) Heiskanen has three goals and nine assists for 12 points. In the Stars’ Game 6 series-clinching win, he notched one goal and three assists. In the six game series he finished with seven points. Heiskanen is also logging nearly 27 minutes a game so far, drawing the marquee match-ups for the Stars.
Heiskanen, it can be said, is the number one reason the Stars defeated Calgary in the first round, and why the Stars have a realistic shot at advancing.
This is his highlight reel... from game 6.
Fans should talk much more about Miro Heiskanen. He has been playing great in this playoffs. And not only due to points. He had dominant performances in every game against Flames. He deserves that credit what fans gave wrong to Seth Jones. pic.twitter.com/1N48L5r4pA— Andy & Rono (@HockeyStatsCZ) August 21, 2020
This is all to say that Miro Heiskanen and Nathan MacKinnon are going to see a lot of each other, especially when the Stars have the ability to control the match-ups. This is the key for the Stars overall in this series: allow anyone else but Nathan MacKinnon’s line to beat you. The role of Heiskanen will be to carry out that directive every single night, even if it means he plays 30 minutes a night.
Dallas Stars fans know that Miro Heiskanen is probably the best all around young defenseman in the world, and yes that does mean he is better than Cale Makar. However, Heiskanen will be tasked with the toughest assignment in the series in slowing down the game’s best player.
It’s going to be a titanic battle between two franchise corner stones. If the Stars advance it will be on the back of Heiskanen, and the world will finally take full notice of his greatness.
Special Teams, Special Teams, Special Teams
In their six-game series with the Flames, the Stars had more than a couple of glaring issues with special teams.
The Flames’ power play would convert five times on eighteen attempts for a series total of 27% on the advantage. In the four games the Flames lost, they would still record a power play goal in three of those contests. The Stars only recorded a perfect penalty kill in two games, going a combined 6-for-6 in those contests.
The Stars’ penalty kill wasn’t great and it allowed the Flames to stay in games that they otherwise shouldn’t have been in. Couple a struggling penalty kill with the three short-handed goals the Flames scored, and it becomes clear why this series ultimately took six games to conclude.
Dallas’ poor special teams kept the Flames in the series. Against the Colorado Avalanche, it would likely lose them the series.
The Colorado power play is downright lethal coming into this series. In the Avalanche wins in Games 4 and 5, the Coyotes were outscored 14-2. Six of those 14 goals were on the power play, with three coming in each game. Over the series the Avalanche scored seven total on the man advantage.
It is fair to point out that the Coyotes are not as great of a defensive team as the Dallas Stars. Only two teams in the playoffs could realistically claim this — the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders. Remember, too, the Colorado power play had no issues with the Stars’ penalty kill in their round robin tilt, going 2-for-5.
With a lackluster penalty kill, the Stars won’t only lose this series, they will be run out of the bubble before they have a chance to pack. Dallas must do two things well for the duration of the series: stay out of the box and kill penalties when they happen.
This means the Stars need to stay tight in their penalty killing box, rotating with the movement of the power play. They also need to avoid chasing the Avalanche into corners, causing 4-on-3 situations in the open ice. Then it comes down to will power, blocking shots, and superb goaltending. The Stars have done this before and have a track record of success.
If the Stars can take the air out of the Avalanche attack by killing their penalties, the Stars have the team that can skate with Avs at even strength.
Defense, Goaltending, The System
The Colorado Avalanche are built to play one way, and that is with speed. Clean ice and speed are the jet fuel for the Avalanche attack. When the puck is regained by Colorado defensemen, it is turned up to the forward as quickly as possible.
The transition game is the crutch of the Avalanche system and they need it to back teams off and ultimately establish in-zone pressure. Oh, and the Avalanche can cycle teams to death with the best of them.
The Avalanche have the horses to accomplish all of their offensive goals in Nate MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar. This collection of talent for the Avalanche is undoubtedly the engine that the rest of the team feeds off of.
And boy do they feed off of the energy. As those players go, so do the rest of the team. When they start going downhill, it is almost surely a positive result at the end of the night for the opposition.
The Stars must do as much as they can to limit their style of game, and they can accomplish this in three ways.
The defending for the Stars needs to be as textbook Stars defending as it possibly can be. The five-man unit must track back all night in transition and meet the Avalanche at the point of attack. The Stars also must use their neutral zone trap style of game to force the Avalanche to one side of the ice as much as possible.
Once the Avalanche do take the offensive zone and establish their cycle, they need to rely on their defensemen to lean on the two forwards who will battle in the corners to set up the cycle. The center for the Stars needs to carry out his responsibility by mirroring the center, while the wingers hold tight to the points and mark the defensemen.
In-zone responsibility is a requirement in this series, and when the Stars’ coverage does eventually breakdown, there needs to be sparkling goaltending.
The Stars have two great goaltenders in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, but Bishop appears to be on the shelf until further notice. With it being Khudobin’s net unless something changes before 7 PM tonight, the Stars have a solid choice between the pipes. In his seven starts, Khudobin has recorded a 2.49 goals against average with a .919 save percentage. Overall, the Stars have won four of his starts while dropping three, including his start against the Avalanche.
Khudobin looked very solid against the Flames in his playoff series debut, with the exception of his shaky first period in Game 6. (Though, to be fair, the team didn’t really help him out with their play all that much either.) Overall, Khudobin made the saves he needed to make, some saves he shouldn’t have, and did enough each night to keep the Stars in the game. Khudobin gives the Stars the backbone they need in net to cover mistakes that will always happen in hockey and that are fatal for teams without stout goaltending.
The series fires up at 7 PM tonight on NBC, which is a short amount of time for the Stars to prepare for this series. However, the Stars know the Avalanche fairly well from their rivalry in the Central Division, and have had some success against them. They’ve done their due diligence on Colorado as they were one they had to play in the round robin.
The Avalanche are firing on all cylinders, and the Stars team that showed against the Flames needs to show up better against the Avalanche. How the Stars play in this series will determine if this series is remembered like 1999 and 2000 or like 2004 and 2006.
As Journey sang, “The wheel in the sky keeps on turning.”