Lineup Changes Ahead for Stars?

Could lineup changes lie ahead for the Dallas Stars? After dispatching the Minnesota Wild in an uncomfortably close six-game Stanley Cup playoff series, the Stars now face a much tougher second round opponent in the St. Louis Blues.

The challenge now faced by the Stars is twofold: Not only are the Blues more skilled than the Wild, but they’re also a big, heavy, physically imposing team. Among their forward corps, St. Louis boasts five lineup regulars 6 feet 2 inches or taller, with the smallest of the group being 6-foot-2, 210-pound pivot Jori Lehtera. On the blue line, five of the six defensemen who played in the final game of the Blues-Blackhawks series stand 6 feet 2 inches or taller, and only Carl Gunnarsson (6 feet 2 inches, 196 pounds) weighs less than 200 pounds.

By contrast, Dallas’ Game 6 lineup against Minnesota featured just four forwards and two defensemen at or above 6 feet 2 inches. Of even greater significance, half the Stars’ top-six defensemen — Johnny Oduya, Alex Goligoski and Kris Russell — are 6 feet, 195 pounds or smaller.

How will the smaller, lighter Stars fare against the bigger, heavier Blues? If the regular season is any indication, this could be a very tough playoff series for the boys in Victory Green. With a few lineup changes, however, head coach Lindy Ruff could literally tip the scales in Dallas’ favor. Here are three potential moves which shouldn’t surprise anyone:

I’d Like to Buy a Val

Winger Valeri Nichushkin was a healthy scratch in the final game against Minnesota. For that game, Ruff inserted Travis Moen into the lineup, giving the fourth line a more physical, veteran presence.

Though Nichushkin doesn’t play a hard-hitting style of hockey (like teammate Antoine Roussel, for example), the young Russian has begun to take advantage of his considerable size (6 feet 4 inches, 205 pounds) and reach to shield the puck from opponents, buying time and space to set up teammates for scoring chances.

In Game 4 against Minnesota, the trio of Mattias Janmark, Jason Spezza and Nichushkin was perhaps Dallas’ best line in the brief time they were together. Against St. Louis, that line should be reunited.

Ritchie’s Return

Right wing Brett Ritchie ended the regular season on the injury reserve. On April 17, Dallas sent the forward down to Cedar Park, reassigning him to their AHL affiliate. He’s played in one playoff game since, tallying six shots on goal and one assist. In his brief regular season stint with Dallas, the big forward (6 feet 3 inches, 220 pounds) showed a strong net-front presence. Ritchie made an immediate physical impression as well, dishing out 30 hits in just 8 games. Before his injury, the 22-year old was already on his way to becoming a fan favorite, due largely to hits like this:

Having played just one game since his lower-body injury, Ritchie needs more time to get up to speed. Should the Stars get out-muscled by the Blues early in the series, however, the big right wing would be wise to keep his cell phone close.

Blue Line Breakup

All season long, Ruff has resisted calls to split up his top defense pair of John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski. The possession stats have supported his stance, as the duo ranked first and third, respectively, among Dallas defensemen in the regular season.

The knock against the pairing has been their lack of physicality, which creates problems (and scoring chances for the opposition) when they get pinned in the defensive zone. Complicating matters, Goligoski struggled through the first round of the playoffs, as many of his turnovers led directly to scoring chances (and goals) for the Wild. As a result, the veteran defenseman was benched for a time in Game 5, playing just 1:31 in the first period, largely due to this play:

In the Stars’ five regular season games against the Blues, Goligoski had five assists and was a plus-3, while Klingberg had no points and was a plus-2 in four contests.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Goligoski’s best game against St. Louis came when Klingberg was out. Though the Stars fell to the Blues in a 5-4 overtime decision, Goligoski  had two assists, two shots, one hit, four blocks and was a plus-1, while paired with Kris Russell.

Russell and Jason Demers have quickly become an effective pair, so keeping them together would seem wise. However, pairing Klingberg with fellow Swede Johnny Oduya and Goligoski with big Stephen Johns could be a gamble worth taking, should the Stars struggle against the Blues’ forecheck in Game 1.