Dallas Stars Post Season Projections: St. Louis
With the post-season knocking on our doors, it's time to look at Dallas' potential opponents. Any path out of the Western Conference is bound to be fraught with peril. This edition takes a look at a familiar Central Division foe: the St. Louis Blues.
The Low Down
Despite an epidemic of injuries, the Blues find themselves locked in mortal combat for the Western Conference's top seed. They've got a top 10 goal-scorer (Vladimir Tarasenko - 33G), the league's leader in save percentage (Brian Elliott - .929 - minimum 15 GP), and a loaded defensive group. In other words, exactly the sort of team you'd give to Ken Hitchcock and expect big things. If ever there was a season for the Blues to put past playoff flame-outs behind them, it's this one.
Vs. the Stars this season
DAL 1 @ STL 2 (OT)
DAL 2 @ STL 3 (SO)
DAL 0 @ STL 3
STL 5 @ DAL 4 (OT)
STL 0 @ DAL 3
On the one hand, the Stars have managed a single win against the Blues this season. Seeing as how they'd need to win four to claim a playoff series, that's a gruesome statistic to consider. The Stars have also been held under three goals in all but one of the meetings. No fun and gun here.
On the other hand, the Stars have only lost one regulation contest. Lack of 3v3 hockey and the shootout changes things significantly come playoff time. It's an optics thing. If you saw the Stars were 1-1-3, that would present as a much more even matchup. Wouldn't it?
The Stars win because
They have too many weapons, even for a Ken Hitchcock team. You'll note that only one of the sub three goal games happened in 2016. Most recently, the Stars rung up four goals despite playing the second half of a brutal Chicago/St. Louis back-to-back. The Stars are currently second in the league with 32.3 shots per game, and first with 3.2 goals per game. Yes, one could argue that a playoff series would give St. Louis the opportunity to make adjustments, but that pendulum swings both ways. The Blues will have to deal with a lot of rubber, and that can wear down even the stingiest of defenses.
Injuries have also obscured the fact that the Blues have questions at goaltending. Granted, they're good questions because both Brian Elliott and Jake Allen have played well this season, but only one of the pair can start. What if the Stars chase one of the pair? Allen, for all of his promise, did not exactly cover himself in glory last post-season. This is a Stars team that could very quickly create a goaltending controversy.
Which brings us to intangibles. While the majority of this Blues team has been to the dance before, they've not found success. Hitchcock was very much on the hot seat after last season's flame out, and will be under the microscope again this year. If this version of the Blues doesn't win soon, it's going to be deconstructed, that's just how the cap-era NHL works. If the Stars can throw a haymaker early, the damage could be fatal.
One final stat. The Blues' +6 goal differential beats only Colorado among Western Conference playoff hopefuls.
The Blues win because
Either Brian Elliott or Jake Allen are good enough to steal games, and the defensive unit in front of them is superb. Boasting the likes of Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, The Blues won't be nearly as concerned by matchups as the Stars, and will not be forced to overplay critical pieces.
Players to watch
Vladimir Tarasenko - One weakness the Blues actually have is dominant scoring at forward. Tarasenko has nearly twice as many goals as Alex Steen in second place (17), and is one of only five Blues' forwards to reach double-digit goals (Steen, David Backes, Troy Brouwer, and Robby Fabbri are the other four). Contrast that with the Stars who have nine (and could have 11 if Colton Sceviour and Valeri Nichushkin find one more goal) and you see at least some level of dependence emerge. Ten goals in 13 career playoff games suggests Tarasenko is up to the task, but if he isn't, the Blues could struggle to match Dallas' firepower.
Brian Elliott / Jake Allen - Prior to the season, Allen seemed to have secured the starting gig. Then he got hurt and Elliott provided all-world relief for 32 games. Now Elliott is the one injured. Right now, he's expected to return before the end of the regular season. Will the Blues put him back in net? How will Allen's .904 sv% from last year's playoffs factor into the decision?
St. Louis is not a good matchup for the Stars, but not the world-ending threat the season series might suggest. Any playoff series will be a referendum on Offense vs. Defense, the value of special teams, and goaltending. In what promises to be a close, tense series, the team that is able to apply pressure first should secure a major advantage.