Dallas Stars Will Face St. Louis Blues in Western Conference Semifinals

Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff are back at it again.

By now, you're doubtless aware that the St. Louis Blues managed to fend off the would-be dynasty from Chicago in a rather eminently watchable Game 7 in St. Louis. Yes, the Blues went up 2-0 relatively early, but the Hawks rang both posts late, and it was only when the final Gateway City buzzer sounded that Dallas knew who would be visiting their fair town in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The storylines are obvious: Ken Hitchcock vs. Lindy Ruff, round 2. The Return of the Classy Steve Ott and his armada of jet skis and power boats. The #2 team in the NHL vs. #3. Stifling defense vs. overpowering offense. Narratives will be plentiful, rest assured (although I'm partial to the Hitch/Ruff one).

That defense/offense thing will be oft-repeated. St. Louis was a top 10 team in shot suppression, and they also allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the NHL this season. Dallas, by way of contrast, scored the most goals in the NHL, and while their shot-suppression was mid-pack, their overall differential was third in the NHL, while St. Louis' CF% was seventh.

Anyway, you already know the nature of these two teams, so I won't spend time further regurgitating the obvious. The 1st- and 2nd-best teams in the West are about to face each other in the second round of the playoffs, and that's a far sight more intriguing than the 4th-6th or 6th-7th matchup the Pacific will offer. As an aside, it's pretty ludicrous that the 7th-seed in the West will potentially not have to face the top seed until the Conference Final, considering the 5th-seed Stars were forced to run the Western Conference Gauntlet back in 2008. But, water under the St. Louis Arch and all that.

Most fans seemed decided in their opinion that Chicago was the preferable matchup between the Blues and the Hawks, but frankly, I'm itching to go through the Blues. This is partially because I am flat-out sick of the Blackhawks, and it's also partially because the Blues represent the polar opposite of the sort of hockey Dallas plays.

The Stars are saving hockey from itself, as you've doubtless heard by now. St. Louis, on the other hand, has plied its trade through timely offense and a rather bogged-down neutral zone. It's no surprise to longtime Stars fans, as the Hitchock slog is as much a Dallas memory staple as terrible traffic and idiot out-of-towners crowing about non-Texas barbecue.

In any case, here's the deal with St. Louis: the Blues just won their second playoff series since the 2004 lockout, and Vladimir Tarasenko might be pretty miffed at his coach (who isn't exactly known for being a players' guy). Brian Elliott has resurrected his career as a number one goalie, and the Blues' defense corps boasts names like Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo in addition to the 6'6" Colton Parayko, who seems determined to prove that big defense prospects can actually pan out before reaching the Chara threshold.

The Stars, in other words, are basically going to face a super-sized Minnesota Wild. Both the Blues and the Wild were know for their defense-first approaches, but the Blues did it much, much better. You know that the Stars and Blues were essentially even in the regular season (1-1-3 for Dallas), but the Blues are a deep team. And, unlike Zach Parise, the Blues' top offensive threat is healthy and humming along, even if he's humming an antagonistic tune right into his coach's ear.

I hate predicting a playoff series (although we're definitely going to be doing that, so don't worry), and this might be my least favorite series for doing so. The coward will say that the Blues' defense will negate the Stars' offense, because not-goals happen about fifty billion times more than goals do. It's the safe bet, historically. But then again, we've also seen the Stars open up a can at will on St. Louis and friends. Dallas didn't finish atop the West over 82 games by virtue of a fluke, after all.

Ultimately, how confident you feel about this series depends on how much you trust what Dallas has done this season. Game 6 in Minnesota was, as we've said, not exactly a confidence-builder, but a series victory is a series victory, and for Dallas, that's something to be proud of. Kari Lehtonen and Jamie Benn needed one of those, and they got one. The "how" is quickly becoming irrelevant.

The Stars will be the underdog in Round 2 among the pundits, I suspect. Even our MSM guardian Mike Heika has said he sees St. Louis winning in six games (although he's no more a fan of these stupid predictions than I am), and that speaks to the popular opinion about who Dallas and St. Louis are this year. A leopard can't change its spots, and a well-known hockey pundit can't choose an unorthodox approach over a defensive stalwart in a seven-game series.

Personally, I'm going to go into every game of this series with optimism. Most of us just wanted Dallas to win a series when we were blue skying back in October, and they've done that. Now there are only eight teams left in the tournament, and Dallas is the popular pick to get upset (though again, two seeds lower than St. Louis are playing elsewhere in the West thanks to the "fixed" playoff seeding). That Dallas isn't favored is understandable, but it doesn't mean a Blues victory is going to happen. Tyler Seguin may or may not be back in time to save the day, but I, for one, am utterly confident in Jamie Benn, Patrick Sharp, John Klingberg and Jason Spezza's ability to lead the top six through whatever the Blues can offer them. And, come to that, Dallas also has the hottest third line in recent memory waiting in the wings. Does anyone want to bet on Hemsky, Roussel and Faksa being held off the scoresheet in Game One, whenever it is? I certainly don't.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are marvelous, and the Dallas Stars are about to reset and embark on Round 2. They're facing what may be their toughest opponent remaining in the entire tournament, but that's what the great teams usually have to do.

The 1999 Stars had to face Patrick Roy and the all-time Avalanche before going to the Final, and they ended up pasting them in a deciding Game 7 that I watched in Dallas (but merely on television because tickets were so absurdly scarce). These Stars may not be those Stars, yet; but then again, how will we ever know who they really are until they get tested? The semifinal exam is about to begin, and it's going to be a blast. And, weirdly, it feels like the number one seed in the Western Conference is playing with house money.