Western Conference Title Sets Up Wild First Round for Dallas Stars
The Stars' reward for regular-season excellence is a first round tangle with the Minnesota Wild. The eight seed. The, supposed, whipping boy of the Western Conference. Supposed, I say. There are never any guarantees come playoff time, and the Wild possess ample tools to be frisky.
Holy smokes, that Jason Spezza hat-trick, am I right? A part of me almost wishes the St. Louis Blues hadn't been busy collapsing against Washington. Think of the narrative: veteran shakes off illness to power Dallas Stars to Division Title. Goosebumps. Still, a win is a win, and by virtue of that win, the Stars will square off against their creepy half-brothers, the Minnesota Wild, in the first round.
Not that the Wild are exactly unfamiliar, but in anticipation of the series, let's take a quick look at their season, their roster, and whatever else we can learn.
Minnesota snagged the Western Conference's eight-seed by virtue of a 38-33-11 record (aka 87 points). That put them nine full points back from the seven-seed Nashville Predators, and five ahead of the golf-bound Colorado Avalanche. Not to twist the knife or anything, but Patty Roy's bunch is a big part of why the Wild made it at all. Were it not for the Avs going 2-8 down the stretch, Minnesota's 5-5 mark (including a five-game skid) could very well have been fatal.
The Wild possess a middling offense (18th Goals for, 15th Power Play), but have had success keeping the puck out of their own net (9th Goals Against). The exception is their penalty kill, which managed to finish 27th in the league at 77.9%. Their plus-10 goal differential is the worst of all Western Conference playoff teams, and betters only Detroit (minus-13) and Philadelphia (minus-4).
Mikko Koivo (56 points), Zach Parise (25 goals), and Ryan Suter (43 assists) led their respective offensive categories for the Wild. Suter (51) and Parise (53) both topped the 50-point plateau, while Charlie Coyle (21) and Nino Niederreiter (20) join Parise in the 20-goal Club.
Defensively, it's Ryan Suter and three other guys. Seriously. Suter averaged 28:35 TOI this season and may well be on the ice already for Game 1. Behind him are Jared Spurgeon (22:40), Marco Scandella (20:42), and Jonas Brodin (20:25). That's not a bad crew, and it's supported by the continued resurgence of Devan Dubnyk (2.33 GAA / .918 SV% / 5 SO).
If I told you the Dallas Stars were 4-1 against the Wild this season, would you be interested? Now, what if I clarified that three of those wins came in overtime, and that the teams have not played since February 9th? It's tricky, right?
Charlie Coyle (6 points) and, bizarrely, Thomas Vanek (5 points) did most of the damage in those meetings. They had to, because the Stars were largely able to stifle the big guns. Of the trio I mentioned above, only Koivu (1 goal) hit the back of the net.
Not stifled were the Dallas Stars. With the exception of a 2-1 Minnesota victory in January, the Stars topped three goals in each decision (3-2, 4-3, 6-3, 4-3). You already know the Stars' three top scorers: Jamie Benn (3 G / 6 A / 9 points), Tyler Seguin (2 G / 5 A / 7 points), and John Klingberg (3 G / 3 A / 6 points).
But what does it all mean?
It means the Stars have a serious opportunity to advance, but should take nothing for granted. Minnesota is likely to lean heavily on Suter and a generally defensive style of play. They'll expect Dubnyk to win the duel between the pipes and hope to frustrate the Stars' offense.
Health is going to be a factor. For Minnesota, Zach Parise is dealing with something. His 25 goals are critical for the light-scoring Wild, as is his willingness to get to the front of the net. If he is limited in any capacity, it could gut an uninspiring group. Vanek and Jason Pominville have scored before, but there's a lot more hope than tangible production these days.
Ryan Suter will also have to hold up under an intense workload. He averaged 31:18 in five regular season meetings, a figure that is more likely to increase than decrease. Minutes like that are a testament to Suter's quality, but also a major risk. A four-line, up-tempo Dallas attack is going to make him feel each and every one of those minutes.
Think of this series as a Miayi-like test. To win, Dallas will need to demonstrate maturity and commitment. If they do that, superior talent should carry the day.