Playoff Preview: Dallas Stars vs. St. Louis Blues

For the second time in four seasons, the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues will tangle in the second round of the playoffs. The Stars lost last time, but it took seven games. This year’s model is different, however, with Dallas taking the season series and outscoring the Blues 13-7 in four games. After the All-Star weekend, the Stars went 19-11-3.

St. Louis, meanwhile, was 24-6-4 to end the season. They went on an 11-game winning streak starting January 23 and have been gaining momentum, something they built on against the Winnipeg Jets in the first round. The Blues dug in and allowed 16 goals against in six games, but there’s room for improvement and they’d like to tighten up.

Defence is the theme of this series and a lot of that has to do with goaltending. The Blues got quality netminding from Jordan Binnington, whose quiet confidence and resolve was beyond his years. Vezina finalist Ben Bishop was likewise stellar and his play helped make the Stars the second-best defensive club in the league during the regular season.

Discipline was a thing for the Stars, too. They were 15-for-15 on the PK against Nashville in the first round and they managed to stay out of the box, with the exception of four penalties in Game Six. St. Louis was running at 78.57 percent on the penalty kill, conversely, but they can adapt to adversity. They were 3-0 on the road against the Jets.

Scoring

The Stars averaged three goals a game against the Predators and had four players with at least six points in the series. Alexander Radulov led the way with four goals and two assists, including a power play goal. He finished a plus-seven, with 30 shots on goal, and he’s always a formidable piece of the offence in Dallas.

Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and defenceman John Klingberg also had six points each. Seguin was the shots-on-goal leader against Nashville and he’ll hope to generate offence against the Blues, but his shooting percentage could be better. St. Louis might be able to bump him off the puck and Seguin’s play at centre can leave them open to defensive lapses, but he’ll get the job done most nights.

Benn, another underachieving callout according to team ownership in the regular season, has come alive in the post-season. He has a goal and five assists and he stayed out of the box against the Predators. His union with Radulov and Seguin gives the Stars one of the most potent top lines in hockey, plus he’s a dangerous presence in front of the net.

The Blues averaged 2.67 goals against Winnipeg in the first round and are less prone to break things open, but that doesn’t mean they can’t score. Jaden Schwartz is a testament to that, scoring four goals in a row for St. Louis against the Jets, including a Game Six hat trick that handed his team the series.

Problematically, the Blues didn’t get much out of Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly in the first round. They had just six points between them, including four goals, and will have to find some jump against the Stars if St. Louis wants secondary scoring. And yes, it’s tough to think of Tarasenko and O’Reilly as secondary scoring but it is the playoffs after all.

David Perron had four points, including two goals. Ditto Oskar Sundqvist, while Tyler Bozak and Brayden Schenn had three apiece. That swings the discussion right back to Tarasenko, who had just two goals and was a minus-four against the Jets – putting him position as one of St. Louis’ most disappointing skaters in the whole first round.

Defence

The Stars allowed just two goals against per game against the Predators and managed to stifle their attack from every angle. Their defence gets some credit for offence, too, with Klingberg forming a critical part of the goal-scoring drive for his squad. The 26-year-old averaged 23:48 of ice time in the first round and had six points, including the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game Six.

Big Esa Lindell was an ice time beast for the Stars against Nashville. The 24-year-old averaged 26:17 a game and posted two assists. He’s a large dude with a big shot. Rookie Miro Heiskanen, another Finnish defenceman, averaged 26:32 of ice time a game against the Predators and has been having one impressive learning experience in the post-season.

Dallas will be without Jamie Oleksiak for the season opener at least, which puts Taylor Fedun in the lineup. A veteran from Edmonton, Fedun may not see much ice time – he averaged just over eight minutes – but he plays responsibly and won’t give up much against the Blues.

Funnily enough, the Blues allowed as many goals as they scored in the aggregate. They allowed 2.67 goals against and relied heavily on the play of goalie Binnington, who was prone to lapses but never let them get to him. St. Louis’ defence left the door open for a heavy shelling in Game Three, for example, but they gave themselves a chance to win the rest of the way.

Alex Pietrangelo averaged nearly 25 minutes of ice time a game against the Jets and was every bit the top guy. He had six points, all assists, and 17 shots on target. He plays a clear-eyed two-way game and skates well, plus he gives the Blues a boost on the power play. Pietrangelo knows the game as well as anyone, plus he’s got loads of experience against the Stars.

25-year-old Colton Parayko averaged 22:10 in the first round and put up two assists, plus he generated 13 shots on goal. The Albertan has plenty of offensive savvy and can propel the attack from his own end, plus he’s got a classy point shot. Veteran Jay Bouwmeester has seen his ice time taper off over the last few years, but he’s still reliable in a shutdown capacity.

Goaltending

Bishop was 4-2 against the Predators, posting a 1.90 goals against average and a .945 save percentage. He had an incredible performance in Game Six, making 47 saves in the series-deciding win. Drafted by the Blues, Bishop has all the tools to carry his team to the promised land. He led the NHL in save percentage during the regular season, too.

Bishop is a big goalie and he takes up a lot of the net, which means the Blues will play a pressure game against him. Look for lots of traffic in the crease, but Bishop has an active stick and likes to jab at the puck. If St. Louis can force the attack around him – and get him off his posts – they can solve the problem.

Binnington is a quality goalie making a name for himself. He posted a 2.63 goals against average and a .908 save percentage. He’s brimming with confidence and is remarkably cool under pressure, some would even say arrogant. That shouldn’t be a problem for the Blues, who’ve been buoyed by his attitude thus far.

Binnington, drafted by the Blues in 2011, waited nearly eight years after his third round selection to get started in the bigs. But he posted a shutout in his debut and that set the tone. He plays a style reflective of his attitude, which doesn’t leave him open to a lot of conspicuous errors. He’s an impartial cat in the net and he squares to the puck in most situations, even on breakaways.

Prediction

This could be a tough series. It will be a defensive one, that’s for sure, and that puts the onus back on goaltending. In that case, Binnington’s battle with Bishop will be one for the books. The upstart’s cool demeanour could see some rigorous testing against the Stars’ top line, but the Blues’ approach to defence should contain most risk-taking. Dallas’ defence is also daunting and Bishop’s numbers are better.

This one could go the distance, with Dallas edging out St. Louis at last in a Game Seven stare-down.

(Photo credit: NHL)

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