Stars Face Sneaky Hot Wild

Dallas and Minnesota started the season dead in the water. Don’t look now, but the Wild are winning games, and they haven’t lost in regulation at home since their opener.

Head coach Jim Montgomery has lost seven of 13 games against the St. Louis Blues, including the last four in a row. Watching these games can be a bit painful, especially when the Blues pull off the same things that took the Dallas Stars out of last year’s playoffs.

Dallas pulled off their outstanding November record by playing as a five-man unit. They pressured the puck in the offensive zone, cut the ice in half, and then picked off passes as other teams kicked their problems down the ice. If the turnovers weren’t there in the offensive zone, the Stars were lying in wait in the neutral zone, again looking to counterattack on any mistake or fumble of the puck.

The Blues confounded this. They used the width of the rink to relieve pressure, forcing the Stars forecheck to chase. That left Dallas with a large gap between their forwards and defenders, which the Blues exploited to gain the offensive zone with relative ease. Once there, they cycled the puck, forcing the Stars to either switch coverage or chase the puck until something somewhat dangerous emerges.

It can be frustrating to watch, but Dallas actually held their own in creating scoring opportunities, with two major exceptions. The Stars’ fourth line and third pairs were obliterated when it came to possession and creating chances.

Some of this may be specific to the Blues. Having a defensive pair that doesn’t have anyone who can repeatably exit the zone against an aggressive forechecking team with a strong cycle game is predictably problematic. On the other hand, the Stars’ fourth line, as configured, may be overdue for review.

Minnesota comes into Sunday’s game having put up seven goals against the Ottawa Senators in their last game. The Wild went 7-2-4 in November, and although their upward trajectory isn’t as dramatic as the Stars’, they have slowly and surely worked their way back into a position that is three points out of a playoff spot. Unlike last year, they have also stayed mostly healthy.

The Wild have been scoring by committee this year. They roll four lines, almost to the same level as the Stars. Even their fourth line has been putting up points recently.

Minnesota tends to drive a good amount of their offense through their defenders, especially the top two pairs. Carson Soucy is the newcomer to the group, and he bring a heavy shot and a physical presence. Ex-Star Greg Pateryn has been out since the beginning of the season, but has been skating with the team and should be back shortly.

Devan Dubnyk is out, attending to his wife during an unexpected medical emergency. In his place, Alex Stalock has been handling the majority of the netminding duties. Kaapo Kahkonen won his only start since being called up from the Iowa Wild. Dubnyk’s numbers (4-10, 3.35 GAA, .893 SV%) to date have been less than spectacular, so facing a backup may not be an advantage for the Stars.

Dallas Stars Lineup

With the early start, and nothing specific out of the morning skate in Dallas on Saturday morning, this lineup is subject to significant change.

Jamie Benn (14) - Justin Dowling (37) - Tyler Seguin (91)
Alexander Radulov (47) - Roope Hintz (24) - Joe Pavelski (16)
Andrew Cogliano (11) - Radek Faksa (12) - Blake Comeau (15)
Denis Gurianov (34) - Jason Dickinson (18) - Corey Perry (10)

Esa Lindell (23) - John Klingberg (3)
Jamie Oleksiak (2) - Miro Heiskanen (4)
Andrej Sekera (5) - Roman Polak (45)

Ben Bishop (30)

Minnesota Wild Lineup

Jason Zucker (16) - Eric Staal (12) - Mats Zuccarello (32)
Zach Parise (11) - Mikko Koivu (9) - Kevin Fiala (22)
Jordan Greenway (18) - Joel Eriksson Ek (14) - Luke Kunin (19)
Ryan Donato (6) - Victor Rask (49) - Ryan Hartman (38)

Ryan Suter (20) - Jared Spurgeon (46)
Jonas Brodin (25) - Matt Dumba (24)
Carson Soucy (21) - Brad Hunt (77)

Alex Stalock (32)

Keys to the Game

Play like the underdogs — with urgency. Minnesota has a great home record and the team has been as hot as the Stars over the last several weeks. The Wild have a veteran core that has slowly been gelling. A slow start took them off of everybody’s radar, but if they get good goaltending, they have a skilled forward group with above average defense.

Start the game strong. The Stars lost the last two games by giving up the first goal and then chasing the game. It’s an early start, and they need to open up strong, preferably scoring first.

Speed. Dallas has it, and Minnesota doesn’t.

Did you know?

Valeri Nichushkin has more goals in his last two games than the entire Stars roster.