Two weeks from now, the NHL regular season will be over. Sixteen teams across the league will be getting ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs, while the rest will be cleaning out their lockers and watching the playoffs from home. And barring another late-season collapse, the Dallas Stars will finally be a part of the first group again.
Dallas currently sits in the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with 82 points, and are up four points on the Colorado Avalanche, who are currently in ninth place. That may not seem like much of a cushion, but with only eight games remaining, the Stars realistically only need to be about .500 down the stretch to make the postseason.
Of course, making the playoffs is one thing. Making a deep run — or simply winning a round for that matter — is completely different. With stellar goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, and a boost to secondary scoring on the horizon in the form of Mats Zuccarello returning, the Stars have the potential to make some noise in the playoffs. On the other hand, they’re a bubble team for a reason, and will be considered an underdog no matter who they face in the first round.
So today — at the risk of jinxing the Stars into another March free fall — let’s take a look at potential first round opponents. Given the standings, that group consists of four teams: the Winnipeg Jets, the Nashville Predators, the Calgary Flames, and the San Jose Sharks. The St. Louis Blues are technically a possibility as well, but it’s highly unlikely and thus not worth discussing at this time.
Record: 44-26-4 (92 Points)
Season Series: 2-1 Dallas
Remaining Games: Monday, March 25 @ Winnipeg
Playoff History: None
Overview: As the current favorite to win the Central Division, the Jets are the most likely first round opponent for Dallas. The Jets have been one of the top teams in the NHL these past two seasons, but have been rather inconsistent this year. While top forwards Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele have been firing on all cylinders, Patrik Laine is having the worst season of his career with only 48 points in 74 games. However, the Jets have been able to keep winning due to a deep lineup that can stack up against the best.
Player to Watch: Patrik Laine. Although he’s having a rough year (for his standards), he’s a notorious Stars killer. In his first two seasons, he had 14 goals and four assists against Dallas in just nine games. He has only a single assist in his three games against the Stars this season, but if he breaks out of his slump, he could single-handedly beat Dallas.
Advantages for Dallas: Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has just been okay this year — his .912 save percentage in 56 games ranks 25th among netminders with at least 20 games played this year. Backup Laurent Brossoit has a much better .926% across 21 games — good for sixth — but is a long shot to start any games. If the Stars’ goaltenders keep up the good work and Laine doesn’t bounce back, they can steal some close games.
Disadvantages: Remember what I said about Winnipeg having a deep team? The Jets have 10 players with 30-plus points this season. Dallas has five. Even when Mats Zuccarello — who would have had 30-plus points had he not been injured — returns, Dallas will have to lean heavily on their top trio of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov to score goals. Meanwhile, the Jets have several lines that can put the puck in the net, which spells trouble for the Stars’ defense.
Verdict: Personally, I think Dallas doesn’t play well against Winnipeg, even if they’re currently winning the season series. That being said, they haven’t looked that bad against the Jets this season, largely due to Laine’s struggles. I wouldn’t pick the Stars to win the series, but I’d bet on seeing a Game 6 or 7.
San Jose Sharks
Record: 43-23-8 (94 Points)
Season Series: 2-1 Dallas
Remaining Games: None
Playoff History: 3-0 Dallas
Overview: After winning the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes this summer, the Sharks became a popular preseason pick to win the Western Conference Final. Their core is a bit old, but with it comes lots of playoff experience, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015-16. They’re also getting fantastic results from 22-year-old Timo Meier, who is having a breakout season with 60 points in 71 games.
Player to Watch: Joe Pavelski. The Sharks captain is 34 years old, but he’s on pace to score 42 goals, which would be a career high. Pavelski has been a 60-70 point player for the past decade, and has 91 points in 121 career playoff games. He may be past his prime, but the difference isn’t by much.
Advantages for Dallas: Unlike the Jets, the Sharks’ goaltending isn’t okay; it’s awful. Martin Jones has a.898 save percentage across 57 games this year, which ranks 48th in the NHL and is easily a career low for the netminder. Backup Aaron Dell is even worse with a .890%, which means even a low-offense team like Dallas should fare well in the scoring department.
Disadvantages: If you’re wondering why San Jose can be so good despite bad goaltending, look no further than their defense. With Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Édouard Vlasic, the Sharks have a blue line that most NHL teams would kill for. Plus, Jones has historically been a much better goaltender in the playoffs than he is during the regular season — he has a .925% across three postseasons, compared to a .914% in the regular season across the same span.
Verdict: Although the matchup looks pretty decent for the Stars, San Jose is four points back on Calgary for “Best in the West” with an extra game played, while Dallas is three points up on the Minnesota Wild for second Wild Card with a game in hand. That means mathematically speaking, this matchup is actually less likely than one against St. Louis. So why did I preview the Sharks when I passed on the Blues? Honestly, the above scenario actually sounds plausible, compared to St. Louis winning the Central or Dallas bumping Nashville/Winnipeg down to a Wild Card spot. Plus I’m still bitter about the 2015-16 series against St. Louis. Bite me.
Record: 46-21-7 (99 Points)
Season Series: 2-0 Dallas
Remaining Games: Wednesday, March 27 @ Calgary
Playoff History: None
Overview: The Flames have been hot — pun intended — since the beginning of the season, and have a very good chance of landing the best record in the Western Conference. That’s incredible for a team that has only two playoff appearances and one series win in the last nine years (where have I heard that before?), but a lack of playoff experience shouldn’t slow this Calgary team down. They have four players with 76-plus points — four! — and have arguably the Norris favorite leading their blue line in captain Mark Giordano.
Player to Watch: Johnny Gaudreau. The 25-year-old has 92 points in 74 games, which is already a career high and good for sixth in the league. He’s also been an incredible possession player, and will be a pain to deal with whenever he’s on the ice.
Advantages for Dallas: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Calgary doesn’t have great goaltending. David Rittich sports a decent .911% across 42 games, good for 26th in the NHL right behind Hellebuyck, but Mike Smith is only .867% in 37 games. Rittich is also a bit inexperienced, with only 22 games played before this year and no playoff experience. When or if the Flames get knocked out, it will likely be their goaltending that fell short.
Disadvantages: The Flames are one of the best possession teams in the NHL, whereas Dallas is one of the worst. Part of that is coaching. Under Bill Peters, the Carolina Hurricanes were always near the top of the league in CF%, Part of that is the roster makeup, as Calgary was a top possession team last year too. The point is, unless you’re a big believer that “physical” and “heavy” hockey wins in the playoffs, the Stars are in trouble.
Verdict: While I’m still scared of facing Winnipeg from a historical standpoint, I think Calgary might be the team I’d want the Stars to face the least right now. I simply don’t trust the Stars’ offense to take advantage of the Flames’ sub-par goaltending while simultaneously holding off Calgary’s elite scorers. Then again, if Dallas is destined to lose in the first round, I’d like it to come against the Flames. Maybe that would show the powers-that-be how to construct and coach a fun, successful roster.
Record: 42-27-6 (90 Points)
Season Series: 3-2 Nashville
Remaining Games: None
Playoff History: None
Overview: We’ll wrap up with the Predators, who have been near the top of the Central since pretty much the start of the season. They’re having a “down” year compared to last seasons’ President Trophy squad, but they’re still considered by many as a favorite to make the Stanley Cup Final. Like the Sharks, they’ve recently made it, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016-17, and they were one win away from the Western Conference Final last year.
Player to Watch: Pekka Rinne. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner is 18th in the league with a .916% in 51 games, which is about what his stats were in the regular season two years ago before the Predators went on their Stanley Cup run. He’s no Ben Bishop right now, but he’ll be solid come playoff time.
Advantages for Dallas: Unlike the other teams profiled, Nashville is lacking in the offensive firepower department. Leading scorer Ryan Johansen has just 60 points in 73 games, which is similar to what their next leading forwards — Filip Forsberg (46) and Viktor Arvidsson (43) — would have had they not been injured. For comparison, the Stars’ second leading scorer is Alexander Radulov (60), who has as many points as Johansen in 11 fewer games and 14 more than Forsberg in just five more games.
Disadvantages: Remember when we talked about the Sharks’ blue line and said most teams would kill for it? The Predators are one of the few that would probably pass, thanks to the likes of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. With a stellar defense playing behind either Rinne or Juuse Saros, who has been just as good (.915% and 18th), Nashville is more than capable of making up for their lack of top-tier scoring.
Verdict: Out of the three likely matchups — sorry, San Jose — Nashville is probably the one that Dallas has the best chance of winning. But there’s another reason that I want to see this matchup happen: the Winter Classic. This series has a good chance of going to Game 7, which means a lot of bad blood might form and get carried over to next year. That’ll make the buildup and hype towards the Winter Classic even greater, and could help start a true rivalry with the Predators, something the Stars haven’t had in a long time.
So there you have it. In terms of personal rankings of who I’d want them to face, I’d probably go Nashville, San Jose, Winnipeg, then Calgary. But who cares about what I think? Let’s hear what y’all have to say:
Who would you want the Stars to play in the first round?
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