Battle of Contrasting Styles as Stars Take on Maple Leafs

Dallas persists in a defense-first identity. Toronto is all goals all the time.

A little rust is to be expected after an extended break from the game. For the Dallas Stars, that meant some early game miscues and passes that didn’t find tape. Generally, what we were used to before the All-Star festivities.

The national broadcast seemed a bit surprised at the Stars’ resilience, bouncing back after giving up a first goal in what had been, to that point, a dominant second period. In the meantime, Twitter — and by that I mean our own Robert Tiffin — was up in arms about the amount of ice time given to the young Stars speedsters.

It is a point well taken. However, Perry’s time has been decent all year. The upticks under interim head coach Rick Bowness have been for Jason Dickinson and Mattias Janmark. My read is that forward ice time allocation is a direct result of the team’s struggles to develop a second line that can drive possession.

Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov can both score, but that scoring seems to only come off of the rush. Separating the two makes sense if what you want is two lines that can generate speed offense. Dickinson and Janmark offer similar offensive threats, admittedly without the finish, but they also offer a superior defensive responsibility that is highly valued by this team.

With the trade deadline a month off, signs all point to a team that is more likely to try to squeeze a bit more offense out of what is already available. Blue sky all you want, but this appears to be the team that the front office and coaching staff are running with. Winning cures a number of ills, and barring an unforeseen collapse, this defense-first team looks primed to make the playoffs.

While the Stars were finishing off a season sweep of the re-emergent Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs were busy dropping the slumping Nashville Predators who are now last place in the Central Division.

Like Dallas, Toronto has already gone through a coaching change this year, with Sheldon Keefe taking over for Mike Babcock in late November. The team responded well, posting a 17-7-3 record since the change. A recent minor losing streak has the Leafs slightly out of a playoff spot for the moment, but Toronto remains a dangerous team that can score its way out of defensive holes.

Over the season, the Maple Leafs have scored three goals for every two scored by the Stars. Two players on each of the top lines have more points than Dallas leader, Tyler Seguin, and six players have more than 20 assists. Jason Spezza’s 19 points would put him tied for fifth in scoring amongst Stars forwards.

Up front, Toronto is young and skilled. Spezza is the only regular over 30. Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, and John Tavares are all signed for eight-figure salaries for the long-term, so the franchise has gone all in on this core group. The downside of that many large contracts is that the team needs to make up for the cap hit in other areas, so depth is an issue, as is their defense.

Jake Muzzin is the Maple Leafs’ top defender, and he is good. Tyson Barrie was brought in from the Colorado Avalanche for offense, while Cody Ceci came in as part of a bad contract swap with the Ottawa Senators. Recently, young first-round pick Rasmus Sandin has been getting ice time. In all, the blue line is a mishmash of parts, built to survive well enough to allow the offense to win games.

In net, Frederik Andersen has been earning his $5 million contract, playing in 40 of the team’s 50 games and facing the third most shots in the league. Michael Hutchinson has been inadequate, going 3-8 with bad save numbers in limited action.

Dallas Stars Lineup

Roope Hintz has been ruled out of today’s game with an upper body injury (he’s considered “day-to-day” as everyone injured has been labeled under interim head coach Rick Bowness). Andrew Cogliano (lower body, day-to-day) skated this morning and is considered a game-time decision, so lines will be known during warmups tonight. If Cogliano can’t go, the team is likely to go with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen tonight, as the team doesn’t have a roster spot open for a forward recall without putting someone on IR retroactively (and then not being able to be activated again for at least a week). Justin Dowling is for sure drawing into tonight’s contest. Ben Bishop has the net.

Toronto Maple Leafs Lineup

Zach Hyman (11) - Auston Matthews (34) - Mitchell Marner (16)
Alexander Kerfoot (15) - John Tavares (91) - William Nylander (88)
Andreas Johnsson (18) - Pierre Engvall (47) - Kasperi Kapanen (24)
Trevor Moore (42) - Frederik Gauthier (33) - Jason Spezza (19)

Jake Muzzin (8) - Justin Holl (3)
Travis Dermott (23) - Tyson Barrie (94)
Rasmus Sandin (38) - Cody Ceci (83)

Frederik Andersen (31)

Keys to the Game

Special Teams. The Stars struggled on the power play against the Lightning. Zone entries have been the primary problem, and having Jason Spezza in town is a good way to remind them to not take that particular skill for granted.

Controlling Speed. Given the opportunity, Toronto will punish Dallas in transition. Dallas has speed as well, and the Leafs’ defense gives up chances on the rush. If either team can’t control the transition game, it’s going to be a long night for their netminder.

Offensive Zone Pressure. The Stars showed flashes of commitment to a second forward on the forecheck and supported defensive pinching at the point against Tampa Bay. This limited the offensive zone time for the Lightning’s potent offense. A similar effort and commitment will be required against a high-scoring Leafs team.