It’s become clear regular-season standings mean very little these playoffs. The wild-card Dallas Stars need only look to their first-round upset over the Central Division-winning Nashville Predators as proof. The Stars can use that as motivation as they prepare to face the favored St. Louis Blues in Round 2, as well. The problem is so can the Blues. Plus, in many ways, they make for a tougher opponent than the Predators.
Singing the Blues’ Praises
Fresh off an emotional first-round victory, the Stars are of course riding high. They deserve to be applauded for coming out on top, but the Blues aren’t exactly a great prize for their efforts. After all, even though the Predators finished above the Blues in the standings, it was by a single point. Secondly, there’s a case to be made the Blues were the better team down the stretch. And that’s not just relative to the Stars or Preds, but everyone else in the league.
On Jan. 2, the Blues had a league-worst 34 points with a 15-18-4 record, much of which they played under Mike Yeo, who was eventually replaced with Craig Berube. That means they went 30-10-5 in 2019 during the regular season, which borders on an insane 118-point pace over a full 82 games. It of course only borders on insane, because the Tampa Bay Lightning finished with 128 points in one of the best seasons in league history.
Granted, everyone knows what just happened to the Lightning and the Stars can most definitely use that as a rallying cry come Round 2. However, it may not be as effective as Stars fans may think for the simple reason that the Columbus Blues Jackets effectively presented the Lighting with their first taste of adversity all season long. It’s a poor excuse no doubt, but the fact of the matter is the Lightning simply handled it poorly. The Blues have meanwhile been playing elimination game after elimination game for over a half-season.
Blues vs. Stars
To put the Blues’ turnaround in perspective, much has been made about how the Stars turned their season around after CEO Jim Lites ripped Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Seguin specifically was able to rebound following a poor start and post his second-career 80-point season, with 48 points in his last 44 games after Lites’ outburst.
As great of a season Seguin had, it would be wrong to dismiss the Blues’ top scorers, with Ryan O’Reilly leading the charge with his 77 points. Overall, the Blues actually had a deeper offense with 247 goals for compared to 210 for the Stars.
In any case, the Stars had been 19-16-3 at the time Lites voiced his concerns to the media. They rallied to go 24-16-4. Breaking it down, they finished with 93 points after playing at a 97-point pace since late December. That’s impressive. It pales in comparison to what the Blues accomplished though, making more of a case they’ll be tougher to beat than the Preds.
Bishop or Binnington?
Against the Predators, the Stars had a few distinct advantages, each of which are no longer as clear-cut against their second-round opponents. For example, goalie Ben Bishop was just named a Vezina Trophy finalist after what was arguably the best season in his career, during which he posted a 27-15-2 record with a .934 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. Those numbers were far and away better than Nashville Predator Pekka Rinne’s.
However, rookie St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington went 24-5-1 with a .927 save percentage and 1.89 GAA en route to a potential Calder Memorial Trophy nomination. So, the Stars are counting on Bishop’s experience to shine through to a greater extent than Binnington’s supposed ignorance with regard to the significance of all he’s accomplishing.
It would be a valid argument were it not for the fact that, looking at all the Blues who have suited up this spring, they have a combined 689 games of playoff experience. The Stars as a whole have 639. Plus it’s far from a foregone conclusion that their leader in that category, Jason Spezza (73), even ends up playing. After all, Spezza’s been a frequent healthy scratch!
Underdog Stars Have Tall Task Ahead
Finally, against the Predators, the Stars had a definite special-team advantage. They held the Preds scoreless on the man advantage throughout their series, while scoring four power-play goals of their own in 22 opportunities. The Blues aren’t suffering from the same power outage as the Preds though, with five goals in 19 power-play opportunities in Round 1.
Truth be told, whereas the Predators actually had the worst man advantage in the league during the regular season, the Blues had a slightly better power play than the Stars (21.1% vs. 21.0%). While the Stars’ had a top-five penalty-kill unit (82.8%), the Blues’ 81.5% was far from bad, hardly representing an advantage on which the Stars can hang their hat.
In fact, much like against the Predators, the Stars can ill afford to take anything for granted against the Blues. Even focusing on the positives, like how the Stars went 3-1 against them during the regular season, with each of the victories coming in 2019 following the Blues’ resurgence, would be difficult. The head-to-head record is nice and good and it’s obviously better that the Stars won the season series than had they lost it. It’s in the past, though.
Beyond briefly celebrating their well-earned first-round victory, the Stars must really only focus in front of them and take one game at a time. Just like the regular season, it means very little at this stage. If the Stars are going to pull this one out, that’s the only way to look at it, because, otherwise, they’d be facing an opponent that is much more challenging than the one they just needed a hard-fought six games to eliminate.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.