Line by Line: Stars vs. Wild

By most measurements, the Dallas Stars – Minnesota Wild series seems to be the most lopsided match-up of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. Several notable statistics bear this out: Over the course of the regular season, Dallas scored an average of 3.23 goals per game (tops in the league) to Minnesota’s 2.60 (tied for 18th). Dallas finished first in the Western Conference with 109 points, while Minnesota squeaked into the postseason with just 87. The Stars’ fourth-best power play will face the Wild’s fourth-worst penalty kill. And so on.

As THW‘s own Derek Neumeier mentioned in his recent post, puck possession, or Corsi For percentage (CF%), is a key indicator of postseason success. Dallas’ even-strength CF% of 52.6 ranks third in the National Hockey League, while Minnesota comes in a distant 23rd at 47.9 percent.

Corsi For can be a bit misleading, though. After all, the number is an aggregate of the performance of every player on the team, over the course of the entire season. Since both clubs are impacted by injuries to key players (Tyler Seguin and Mattias Janmark for Dallas, Zach Parise and Erik Haula for Minnesota) and no more than five skaters a side are on the ice at the same time, a more accurate picture of the Stars-Wild match-up requires a look at the numbers for each teams’ current forward lines.

The following lines were employed in practice Monday morning. Each trio’s combined even-strength Corsi For (their CF% when playing as a unit) comes from

First Line

Dallas: Jamie Benn-Cody Eakin-Patrick Sharp  CF% 44.1

Minnesota: Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle  CF% 46.3

Tyler Seguin’s absence impacts the entire Stars team, but is particularly noticeable on the top line. Sub in Seguin for Eakin, and the line’s Corsi jumps to 57.4 percent. On the other side of center ice, the Wild’s top trio gets a less dramatic boost from replacing Zucker with Parise, going from 46.3 to 49.0.

Second Line

Dallas: Valeri Nichushkin-Jason Spezza-Patrick Eaves  CF% 41.8

Minnesota: Nino Niederreiter-Zac Dalpe-Jason Pominville  CF% n/a

Minnesota’s second line normally features Erik Haula in the middle. With Dalpe filling in for the injured center, this line is in uncharted territory: Per, they spent a grand total of four seconds on the ice together this season. With Haula, this trio boasts a very respectable Corsi For of 52.1 percent. Coach John Torchetti intends to use this combo to shut down Dallas’ top line, and a healthy Haula & Co. could give Benn, Eakin and Sharp fits.

The Stars should hope Mattias Janmark is ready to go Thursday: The Swedish rookie works well with Spezza and Nichushkin, as their 53.8 CF% attests. With Eaves, this line’s struggle to control the puck is mitigated somewhat by the red-hot Spezza, who has 10 points in his last 10 games.

Third Line

Dallas: Antoine Roussel-Radek Faksa-Ales Hemsky  CF% 55.3

Minnesota: Chris Porter-Mikael Granlund-David Jones  CF% n/a

The Roussel-Faksa-Hemsky line was Dallas’ best for the last three or four weeks of the regular season, employing a combination of speed, grit and skill to pin opponents in below their own blue line. Though the Stars’ bench boss has a penchant for “Ruffling” his lines, this trio is far too effective to be broken up any time soon.

Minnesota’s third line is a new creation, another by-product of the injuries to Parise and Haula. During the regular season, Porter, Granlund and Jones shared the ice for just seven minutes. Granlund has played with both wingers, however, posting a CF% of 48.5 with Porter and 43.4 with Jones. In limited time together (25:07, to be exact), the two wings combined for the low, low CF% of 38.1. This trio will need to be sheltered as much as possible, a near-impossible task in Dallas, where the Stars benefit from the last line change.

Fourth Line

Dallas: Travis Moen-Vernon Fiddler-Colton Sceviour  CF% 52.7

Minnesota: Ryan Carter-Jarret Stoll-Justin Fontaine  CF% 35.7

To call the Wild fourth line a liability is an understatement. Here, the whole is actually less than the sum of its parts, as all three forwards have higher individual Corsi numbers than their combined score. During games in Dallas, this line shouldn’t see more than six or seven minutes on the ice each night.

The Stars’ fourth line, on the other hand, is a significant possession driver. Sceviour has been on a bit of a hot streak lately, putting up 2g – 3a – 5pts over the last nine games. In limited ice time (under 13 minutes a night), this line can be quite impactful on the forecheck, either setting up one of the top lines for an offensive zone draw or potting the odd goal themselves.

Looking at puck possession stats on a line-by-line basis shines a bright light on the importance of match-ups for both the Stars and Wild: Dallas coach Lindy Ruff wants to get Benn’s line up against Minnesota’s third or fourth lines, while Wild coach Torchetti will make every effort to get his shut-down line on the ice with Benn. This is where hockey meets chess, as each coach tries to outmaneuver the other for an on-ice advantage. In a league as closely competitive as the NHL, those little advantages are often the difference between victory and defeat.