For The First Time Since 2008, The Stars Are In The Playoffs. But For How Long?
Just as we predicted before the start of this year's NHL season, this season turned out to be a good one for following the Stars indeed — regardless of whether you were fresh to the bandwagon or you'd been a contented rider since the team's 1993 migration from Minnesota.
After a roller coaster of a season, this year's young team — led by new coach Lindy Ruff — managed to just squeak into the playoffs, clinching its bid with a win in the penultimate game of the regular season. It's the team's first appearance in the postseason since 2008. That's no small feat, folks.
And, despite having the lowest point total of any playoff-bound squad, this Stars squad certainly features enough talent — forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Sequin are, rather indisputably, among two of the game's tops — that an extended playoff run is at least conceivable, if a little unlikely.
With that in mind, here's a primer for the team's first round series against the Anaheim Ducks, which kicks off tomorrow night at the Ducks' Honda Center, or, as its more affectionately known, The Pond.
• Game One: Wednesday, April 16. Stars at Ducks. 9 p.m.
• Game Two: Friday, April 18. Stars at Ducks. 9 p.m.
• Game Three: Monday, April 21. Ducks at Stars. 8:30 p.m
• Game Four: Wednesday, April 23 Ducks at Stars. 7 p.m.
• Game Five (if necessary): Friday, April 25. Stars at Ducks. 9:30 p.m.
• Game Six (if necessary): Sunday, April 27. Ducks at Stars. TBA.
• Game Seven (if necessary): Tuesday, April 29. Stars at Ducks. TBA.
With the NHL switching to a divisional playoff structure for this season, you might be curious about why the Stars are beginning their playoff run against the Pacific Division-winning Ducks, rather than a fellow member of the Central Division. Well, under the new system, only the top three finishers in each division are slotted into that division's playoff bracket. The final two spots in each conference are given to the two non-top-three teams with the highest point totals, regardless of division. The wild card with the fewest points plays the conference's regular season champion. The Stars' 91 points were the fewest of any Western Conference qualifier, so they became the de facto fourth seed in the Pacific. It's more than a little confusing, but it doesn't really matter. All you need to know is that, if the Stars slip by the Ducks, they'll play the winner of the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings' first round series, regardless of any other results.
Key for the Stars.
Kari Lehtonen. Trite as it may be to say, the Stars are only going as far as its Finnish goalie takes them. There's no doubt that the team's potent attack — spearheaded by summer acquisition and leading scorer Seguin and Canadian Olympic hero Benn — will be productive. The Stars ranked 10th in the league in scoring and have, when playing its best, looked downright fluent offensively. The defense, on the other hand, has never looked pretty. Sometimes, actually, it's been far worse than that, with the team giving the puck away in dangerous positions far too frequently. Fortunately for his teammates, the mercurial Lehtonen is capable of covering for their mistakes. When he's on, he's capable of stealing games away — and maybe, just maybe, a series or two. When he's good — and he has been quite often this season, posting a career high five shutouts — Lehtonen is fantastic. Of course, when he's not, he's also capable of melting down and getting himself yanked in the second period.
Key for the Ducks.
For the Ducks, winning this series is as simple as maintaining focus. Anaheim finished with the most points in the Western Conference and led the league in scoring thanks to outstanding forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The team has a bit of a controversy in net, though, as they don’t feature a clear No. 1 goaltender. Veteran Jonas Hiller and rookies Frederik Andersen and John Gibson have chopped up playing time all season. Thing is, they've all been pretty good. So the Ducks can expect a consistent performance from whomever they decide to start. What the Ducks have to watch out for is taking for granted a Stars team that all season long has proven itself capable of playing over its head against good competition. Here's guessing that the Ducks won't — largely because the Stars took two of three from them during the regular season, including the final two games the teams played.
Much as we'd like to see it turn our another way, our guess is that the Ducks take it in seven. More predictions? OK: Seguin will make up for his disappearing act during last year's playoffs with a strong showing and Lehtonen will be the MVP of the series in a losing effort. He'll steal a game in Orange County that the Stars have no business winning, but the team's lack of a defensive focus will end up being too tall a hurdle to overcome. Let's face it: Given these teams' 25-point regular season separation, the Stars have to perfect if they want to win. But, truth is, even with all the promise in this team's future, perfection's not yet in this team's vocabulary. Eventually, the Ducks will prove, just barely, to be too much to handle.
Hey, we'll get 'em next year.
Cover photos via the Dallas Stars' Twitter feed.